Born in Brooklyn, Frank Santarpia, co-founder of the Staten Island Tea Party, is a graduate of Brooklyn Technical High School and Fordham University where he received a B.A. in Communications. A truck driver for 10 years, Frank would later become an entrepreneur who started several successful businesses. Recently, Frank sat down for an interview to talk about his experiences.
Ilya Galek: A great deal has been written about the Tea Party movement in America – some of it correct, much of it lies and smears. What can you tell us about the movement from the perspective of an insider?
Frank Santarpia: I believe that the rise of tea party groups throughout the country was a spontaneous – and disconnected – reaction to the frightening growth of the federal government. This fuse was lit under Bush, as we all know, but it was the policies proposed by Barack Obama, and finally the mortgage bailout scheme, that really caused the explosion.
Conservatives had been quietly seething for years – certainly after we realized that Bush was far from the fiscal hawk we thought or hoped he would be. The nomination of a moderate, reach-across-the-aisle guy like McCain was another kick in the pants to conservatives, and eventually the initiatives of the Obama administration became unbearable. His policies were like a modern-day version of the Intolerable Acts. Finally, when the mortgage bailout scheme precipitated the Santelli rant in March of 2009, people like me – people who had never been involved with politics before – got off our butts and got involved.
I guess it was the timing, though, that led to the number one smear. Because critical mass was reached, and public demonstrations began, after President Obama took office, the movement was immediately labeled racist. Of course, the lead perpetrators of that smear knew it not to be true, but the low-information progressives who followed them could not fathom a conservative movement that wasn’t purely white, mostly Southern, fundamentally Christian, anti-gay, anti-minority, xenophobic and, of course, unintelligent. It was what they were being spoon-fed for years, and the mainstream media wouldn’t disabuse them of their misconceptions; it was what they wanted to believe, too. In fact, they bent over backwards looking for overtly racist signs or banners at tea party rallies, and when they couldn’t find any of those they tried to latch onto secretive “code words,” which, of course, didn’t exist either.
IG: What can you tell me about the beginnings of the Staten Island Tea Party?
FS: Oh, it was definitely the Rick Santelli rant. When he said he was going to have a tea party in Chicago on July 4th, I was hooked. I got online and started to look for like-minded people who might be going and stumbled across a website that acted as a sort of clearing house for groups that were popping up all over the country. I learned that individuals with no experience whatsoever were organizing tea party demonstrations in their towns, and all I needed to do was to post up some contact information. So I screwed up my courage and did it, fully realizing that I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. And for about four hours the Staten Island Tea Party consisted of one person – me. Then I got my first response; it was from Lorraine Scanni, my co-organizer, who’s a housewife and mother of two from the other side of the island and who, like me, had no political experience. Now we were two.
Today, we are two thousand, which is pretty damn good for a borough that’s part of super-blue New York City.
What’s really great about this story is that when we started neither one of us had any organizing experience, we had no history of political activism, no connections with any political party, no money, were barely computer literate, had no database beyond our Christmas card lists and knew no elected officials. That’s why I laugh when I hear that this movement isn’t “grass roots.”
IG: What are the Tea Party’s First Principles? I’ve heard, “fiscal responsibility, adherence to the Constitution and national security.” Are there any others beyond these?
FS: There are no rules, and different tea party groups have different priorities. My best guess, though, is that ALL of them share three common principles; I think of them as the three legged stool upon which all tea party groups sit. First, we believe in free markets. Second, we believe in a constitutionally-limited government. Third, we believe in fiscal sanity.
These are the three tenets – and the only tenets – of the Staten Island Tea Party. I gave this a lot of thought, and realized that if we were to have broad appeal we had to allow for many different opinions on a host of issues. So, using the principle of Occam’s razor, I tried to pare it down to the core. To me, if you believe in those three things you can call yourself “tea party,” which is really just another term for conservative activists.
Of course, our members tend to be conservative-minded on social and foreign policy issues, too, but as a group, we have never touched social issues. I guess the bottom line is that if we cannot limit this government and return to prosperity through the principles of free-market capitalism, there’s not much point to worrying about social issues.
I catch a lot of flak from folks who insist that social issues are THE root of our problems, that the erosion of the moral fabric of our country is the cause of all our other failures. I don’t disagree – but I don’t see how you can run a tea party organization that is founded on a dozen different precepts. Social issues are too nuanced and too personal – and ultimately, I believe, would cause fractures at a time when we most need unity.
IG: Do you consider the Tea Party to be a real grassroots movement or orchestrated by elite groups of people?
FS: Well, I’ll tell you this. Lorraine and I stumbled around like the bunch of amateurs we were when we organized our first rally on April 15, 2009 – nary an “elite” in sight. We have never received one dime from any outside organization; if we do meetings or rallies or bus trips I lay out the money up front and hope to collect enough from the participants to cover the costs.
We receive no “talking point memos,” or instructions from anybody. Most attempts by individuals or groups to consolidate regional tea party groups fail – we’re too independent-minded and have no desire to pursue the agenda of some committee somewhere. Of course, I can only speak to the way this group is run, but I see no indication that tens of thousands of local tea party organizations are being directed by some conspiratorial master plan – the whole idea is laughable.
IG: Is Occupy Wall Street the answer to the Tea Party?
FS: I don’t know that the OWS is the answer to anything. I haven’t been able to figure out what they are – but they sure exhibit poor social skills. The tea party movement is comprised of ordinary Americans from all walks of life – the OWS movement seems to be a bunch of kids spouting pseudo-academic pap behaving badly.
IG: What is the state of the Tea Party today?
FS: After the November elections what would you think? I would say certainly depressed and disheartened, but still determined. We know we have moved past the rally stage – much to the disappointment of many who want to know when our next big thing will take place. But how many times can you go to that well? How do you recapture the magic? The unique enthusiasm that brought 700,000 people to Washington DC on 9/12/09 can really never be duplicated. The raging success of the 2010 election set such a high bar we were bound to have a letdown. We’re now at the point where the summer soldiers have gone home – where do the rest of us go from here?
All I DO know is that we won’t throw in the towel. I know that the nation crafted by the Founders became the greatest nation in the history of the world. I will never give up on that.
IG: Do you anticipate the Tea Party organizing into a legitimate national third party?
FS: My answer used to be “Not just no – HELL no!” However, if the Republican Party continues to drift towards becoming the Democrat Party Lite my answer will evolve. … The House Speaker’s “Plan B” is a good example. Boehner couldn’t whip enough Republicans to bring it to the floor before the holidays. Why? They were afraid of a primary fight from conservatives back home, who are tired of congressional Republicans looking like – and acting like – they’re caving in. Those who think it was wrong to pass on Plan B point out that it was the best deal Boehner could get – they use the lifeguard analogy: if a hundred people are drowning and you can’t save them all, isn’t it better to save ninety-nine?
But you know what? Not only would voting for Plan B play into the class warfare meme, it would be a tacit admission that increasing revenues through taxation was proper and necessary. It is not. We need to stick to our guns – we have a spending problem. Period. We need steel in our backbones for a change. Compromise got us nowhere, and it was rarely true compromise anyway. It was merely advancing the Left’s agenda a little more slowly. That’s not good enough anymore.
IG: Who could be the Tea Party candidate in the next presidential election?
FS: Good question with no easy answer. Bill Buckley’s rule said to vote for the most conservative candidate who can win. The problem is that the general consensus among Republican primary voters is that the one who can win is the most moderate one. What is it they’re not getting? Conservatives win – moderates lose. And we need a new primary process, one with national standards. No state should allow Democrats to vote in a Republican primary – the very idea is absurd. And too much control over the process is vested in the early primary states; a poor showing in Iowa and New Hampshire and the fund-raising dries up, effectively ending many campaigns before they really get rolling. This is plain wrong – the process is horribly flawed and needs to change. Many more states need to be involved in the primary process to insure we are going with the best possible man or woman for the job.
As far as the next presidential election goes – it’s far too soon to make a prediction. The 2014 races will change the landscape yet again, and we don’t know in which direction. I believe there could be a big tea party pushback in 2014, and we could once again gain House and Senate seats. If we don’t, I don’t think there will be a “tea party” candidate in ’16 – the Jindals and Rubios and Christies of this world will modify their positions away from the conservative right and shift further towards the center, rendering them useless – at least to me. Then there will be serious talk of a third party, and I would certainly join that conversation.
But you asked me a question and deserve an answer. The individual I see carrying the tea party banner in the 2016 cycle is Rand Paul, and I recognize that it is possible it won’t be on the Republican line.
IG: What are your thoughts on the future of the tea party movement?
FS: I am encouraged that tea party groups around the country have wormed their way into local committees, and I expect to see increasing numbers of local candidates coming out of the pool of tea party activists.
As long as good tea party groups keep their members informed and engaged we’ll continue to be a home for conservative American activists; that’s been our mission from day one. I don’t want to tell anyone how to think – I just want them to think. I don’t want to tell them where to get involved – I just want them to get involved.
The first tea party movement – the Sons of Liberty in Boston – was there for the birth of this great nation. I know people make fun of us for comparing ourselves to them, but I like to think that we are their philosophical heirs, and that the same spirit of independence, self-reliance and liberty that burned in their hearts burns in ours. I don’t care if it sounds corny, I believe it. Only now I believe we are here to prevent a revolution, not start one, because I think we are in the throes of a hostile takeover. The Left has taken dead aim on the United States Constitution and it needs to be protected. My favorite Reagan quote ends with the words: “If we fail, at least let our children and our children’s children say of us we justified our brief moment here. We did all that could be done.”
That should be our mantra – let’s leave nothing on the field. Let’s do all that can be done.
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