On Wednesday, September 7, over 200 people gathered in North Kingstown’s Wilson Park, enduring the day’s drizzle to welcome the Tea Party Express to Rhode Island for the first time. For two hours, the crowd huddled under colorful umbrellas listening to speakers, musicians, and a comedian—Jim Labriola, known for his portrayal of “Benny” on the television show Home Improvement—who all took to a temporary stage transplanted in the parking lot next to Wilson Park’s playground and asphalt basketball court. A merchandise tent was set up nearby, and a JumboTron advertising the Tea Party Express website was installed near the stage. The two Tea Party Express buses—one deep blue and the other wine red, each with a white map of America painted on its side—were parked at the edge of the lot.
The Tea Party Express was founded in 2009 by the California political action committee Our Country Deserves Better PAC. The idea was to travel around the country rallying together Tea Party activists and endorsing and promoting both local and national conservative candidates. The North Kingstown rally was a stop on the Express’s fifth bus tour, “Reclaiming America.” Howard Kaloogian, chairman of Our Country Deserves Better PAC, and Amy Kremer, chairwoman of the Express Tour, both gave enthusiastic introductions. Kremer, wearing a red windbreaker, announced to a chuckling audience, “We are happy to bring our buses here that are made in America. President Obama can learn a little about job creation when you have products that are made in America and not Canada, right?”
Despite the rain, the scene at Wilson Park was a lively one. Supporters wore pins, held signs, and waved American flags—a few men even wore black colonial style hats. When the musical acts came on, the crowd danced and sang along. Lloyd Marcus, a self-titled “(Black) Unhyphenated American Entertainer/Spokesperson for the Tea Party Movement” and the writer of the American Tea Party Anthem, performed the anthem while tapping his feet and donning a black suit and black leather top hat. “Freedom ain’t free,” he crooned, and the crowd sang the same words back at him.
Ron and Kay Rivoli, a husband and wife duo described on their website as “Exciting, funny, energetic and charismatic personalities…who write music to reflect their love of God, family and country,” also gave a lively performance. Ron stood at the back of the stage playing an acoustic guitar while Kay was front and center in a tie-dye blouse, pumping up the crowd with a light rock ‘n’ roll rendition of lyrics such as: “Listen up, listen up, listen up, here’s what you need to know! We’re reclaiming America with the power of our vote.”
The special guest speaker of the day was Sharron Angle, a former member of the Nevada Assembly and the unsuccessful Republican opponent of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid in the 2010 Nevada Senate election. Local Rhode Island gay rights groups protested the appearance of Angle, who opposes gay marriage, allowing same-sex couples to adopt children, and adding sexual orientation to the list of protected minorities under existing civil rights laws. Marriage Equality Rhode Island called on Doreen Costa—the North Kingstown Tea Party Organizer responsible for bringing the express to Rhode Island—to “disavow” Angle’s “bigoted beliefs.” The organization urged Costa to let the public know that “discriminatory principles are not welcome in the Ocean State.”
Angle, in a sea foam green blazer, began her speech with a reference to Senator John McCain’s recent comment in the Wall Street Journal that “Sharon Angle and those tea party hobbits need to go back to their holes in Middle Earth.”
“You need to read ‘til the end of the story,” said Angle. “The hobbits win! They’re the heroes! So, we decided we had to come in our Team Hobbit Express.” Lo and behold, Angle’s SUV—parked behind the merchandise tent—did in fact bear a “Team Hobbit Express” bumper sticker.
After the buses had pulled away—bound for Pennsylvania—and the contents of the merchandise truck had been packed back up into a truck, a dozen or so supporters still lingered in the rain. Will Grapentine, a young man in a trench coat and black colonial hat, felt strongly that the rally was a success. “Usually we get a big turn out in April, which is tax season, Tea Party season” he said. “But considering the weather and considering that it’s off season, we got a huge, huge, turn out.” When it comes to the future of the Tea Party in Rhode Island, Mr. Grapentine feels optimistic. “Rhode Island was recently ranked as the most corrupt state in the nation,” he said, “And I think that reputation is spilling over into people’s approval of public officials. People want change.”
Jeff Brown, a financial planner and investment advisor from Barrington, felt similarly. “There was a lot of enthusiasm here today,” he said. “A lot of enthusiasm. The Obama camp is already counting this state as a done deal, but I think that’s far from the case.”
GRACE DUNHAM B’14 is an exciting, funny, energetic, and charismatic personality.