Political Notebook

Six years on, Central Valley Tea Party experiencing growing pains

Randell Widner is a former Hollywood stuntman now retired and living in Prather. He is a conservative who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War.
Randell Widner is a former Hollywood stuntman now retired and living in Prather. He is a conservative who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War. ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

On Tax Day 2009, thousands of people packed the Save Mart Center parking lot to denounce government spending and tax policies. Such “tea parties” were held that day across the nation, and few could have foreseen the conservative movement they spawned.

Now, 6 1/2 years later, where is the Central Valley Tea Party that was born that day?

Has it grown and matured? Diversified? Have there been internal squabbles and growing pains? To all of those, supporters say yes. And that’s not a bad thing, they say. Best of all, they believe the movement locally remains vibrant.

“The Central Valley Tea Party is full of independent conservatives, and they rarely agree on everything,” says Steve Brandau, a Fresno City Council member and head coordinator of the Central Valley Tea Party, “but they agree at the end of the day to work together on hot-button issues that are threatening the U.S. and our city and our state.”

But there are some critics from within who think the Central Valley Tea Party has lost its way.

The Auberry chapter has pulled out from the organization and some other chapters and members are unhappy, too.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but a few contend it’s serious enough to say the local Central Valley Tea Party (which doesn’t keep official rolls) has died.

Auberry resident Randell Widner even penned a “Central Valley Tea Party obituary” that started by recalling that first rally at the Save Mart Center.

“The once-great hope for an independent political voice for our neglected Central Valley has, after a long slide into establishment politics, finally passed the point of recovery,” Widner wrote.

In a nutshell, Widner argues that the movement died because it went mainstream. An organization that was supposed to be the loyal opposition to both Republicans and Democrats – the establishment – instead joined the system and became part of the problem by seeking elective office and working with the Republican Party.

“They want to be accepted within the Republican Party,” Widner says of the tea party movement.

This isn’t the first time the movement has been handed a presumed death sentence – especially at a national level – but this kind of pointed criticism at the local chapter is new, and comes from within and not from a pundit, the media or some other outsider.

Working within the system

Those active in the local tea party leadership don’t necessarily disagree with Widner’s charge that the movement has become more mainstream.

But instead of being dead, they say it is very much alive, and working into the mainstream was always part of the plan. Jared Gordon, the Central Valley Tea Party’s media coordinator and one of the movement’s founding leaders, says that local strategy was developed “long before Randy (Widner) got involved.”

“We’re different,” Gordon says. “We’ve matured, and we’re more focused on trying to make institutional, long-term changes.”

Gone, Gordon says, are the days when the local group held monthly protests and stood on Fresno street corners holding signs. Such rabble rousing only goes so far, and mostly doesn’t lead to real change.

“That’s just not the best way to advance our goals now,” he says.

The choices are to fight the system, or take over the system, and sometimes it is better to make real change from within. Gordon, who says he is a student of American politics, says third parties and substantial movements outside the political party structure all started like the tea party – from the outside. The next step in those previous movements was to move into the system and either take over or supplant an existing political party.

“This is what we have to do if we want to make lasting change,” Gordon says.

Given the two current political parties, Gordon and others say the choice of where to seek that change was obvious – the Republican Party.

But with that maturity, there has been some splintering.

Serafin Quintanar, a local conservative and tea party member, helped start a group known as the Reagan League, which focuses on traditional political campaigning as well as social media. Other tea partiers formed groups that focused on battling Common Core education and what others saw as potential voter fraud concerns. All were born out of the tea party.

“Any organization, as you grow bigger, there is going to be cliques and factions,” Quintanar said. “You can’t please everybody all of the time.”

Still, Quintanar said while his focus is on the Reagan League, he considers himself “a tea partier and a tea party member.”

Gordon says these outgrowths of the main tea party have been “encouraged rather than discouraged.” It’s the same with seeking political office, be it on a county Republican central committee, school board or city council. Brandau is an example of a tea party member being elected to office. Another, Gordon says, is Madera County Supervisor Rick Farinelli.

“The goal is to advance the tea party’s core principles,” Gordon says.

This is why Brandau is annoyed with Widner and others who have developed their own purity test for conservatives, a standard he says few can meet, and which ultimately holds back the tea party movement.

Brandau remains a lightning rod

Widner, however, says that since Brandau got elected to the Fresno City Council, he has lost sight of the tea party’s core mission.

“He’s kinda switched to the dark side,” Widner says.

Part of that likely stems from Brandau’s support of recent wording changes to the immigration plank of the state Republican Party’s platform. The changes were pushed by Marcelino Valdez, a Fresno Republican and the state GOP’s Central Valley vice chairman. But both Valdez and Brandau have said the plank’s meaning didn’t change, just how it was worded.

Criticism of Brandau, however, is nothing new. He has been hearing it from conservatives and fellow tea party members almost since the day he took office. His votes to open the Fulton Mall to traffic, for instance, drew the ire of lots of tea party members.

One of those Brandau critics was Fresno business owner and anti-tax advocate Steve Wayte, who was a part of the tea party from its formative days, but hasn’t been involved in more than two years.

“After Brandau got elected, it turned into the Steve party,” Wayte says of the tea party.

Brandau says his job as a council member is to govern responsibly based on conservative principles. But he says he’s just one of seven voices on the council, and so he can’t go in with a request for massive fees cuts or lower taxes that would never pass muster on the council or with Mayor Ashley Swearengin.

But when that doesn’t happen, Brandau says, some conservatives are angry and blame him. Brandau sees it as his job to “push the ball as far as I can.” Even then, it won’t be enough for some, he says.

“These are people with unrealistic expectations,” he says. “Wildly unrealistic expectations.”

Widner says it is about more than just Brandau or tea partiers seeking elective office. The entire movement, he says, has been co-opted by the Republican Party to be used for its own ends. Now, he says, it is just a front for the GOP.

“We need to go back to our founding principles almost six years ago in the Save Mart Center parking lot and become the honorable opposition for conservative values,” Widner says. “We are not establishment Republicans.”

But Wayte, a libertarian, says Widner is part of the problem as well, and has contributed to the tea party’s move toward “anti-freedom” and away from its early goals of fiscal responsibility and constitutionally limited government. Part of that is him pushing neo-conservative viewpoints on people, and being too focused on President Barack Obama as a person.

“It’s hypocrisy I can’t get myself past,” Wayte says.

And so the divide widens, though many tea party supporters say such rebels represent a minority of the movement.

Still, Widner says his new Auberry group, Concerned Citizens of Central California, has around 600 families among its supporters. And unlike other splinter organizations that have maintained an affiliation with the Central Valley Tea Party, he says his group has cut the cord.

“All in all,” Widner says, “we’ve just kind of walked away.”