11:50 PM PDT on Saturday, September 18, 2010

By JEFF HORSEMAN and JOHN F. HILL
The Press-Enterprise

The tea party movement started with a Washington focus. But as the November elections approach, the populist conservative movement is increasingly in the backdrop of the nation’s city council races.

In the Inland area, the tea party’s impact on local elections is most visible in conservative southwest Riverside County, where council elections feature candidates who call themselves members of the tea party movement or promote its message of low taxes, controlled spending and anti-incumbency. Tea party-linked candidates are taking on council members in Temecula, Murrieta and Menifee.

Menifee council candidate Tom Fuhrman, who has hosted two or three tea party rallies at his sprawling Wooden Nickel Ranch, said the anger that tea partiers have toward Washington politicians also is held locally. The major complaint: Elected officials aren’t listening to the people, he said.

“The people’s voice have to be heard more than it has been heard in the past,” Fuhrman said.

The tea party affiliation can give candidates a promotional tool, said Matthew L. Hale, an assistant professor in the Graduate Department of Public & Healthcare Administration at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

“Local candidates don’t often have big (or any) advertising budgets to tell voters who they are and what they stand for,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The Tea Party label solves that problem because with two words, it tells people what a local candidate is about.”

ELECTION SUCCESSES

The movement has no central establishment, but the collection of disparate groups known as the tea party has emerged as a force in this year’s elections. Tea party-backed candidates have been successful in races for national posts, where in some states they have knocked off more moderate Republicans. Its most recent victory was the surprise win of Christine O’Donnell over a popular representative, Mike Castle, in Delaware’s Republican Senate primary.

Republican voters in the 59th Assembly District, which stretches from San Bernardino to eastern Los Angeles County, picked former Minuteman and self-described tea party activist Tim Donnelley as their nominee. In the 63rd Assembly District, Rancho Cucamonga businessman Mike Morrell won the Republican nomination after speaking at tea party rallies and picking up the endorsement of the Redlands Tea Party Patriots.

Now in southwest Riverside County and elsewhere in the nation, candidates for local races are draping themselves in the tea party banner. The Fort Walton Beach, Fla., tea party is sponsoring five candidates to unseat the five City Council incumbents after the sitting council passed a budget with a higher property tax rate. And news reports from cities such as Pasadena, Roanoke, Va., and Shreveport, La., show local tea Party groups exerting influence in council races.

The tea party has a welcome audience in southwest Riverside County, home to many families from conservative havens in San Diego and Orange counties that were lured to the area by cheaper home prices.

Tea party rallies in Temecula have attracted hundreds of sign-waving protesters upset with federal spending, the size of government and illegal immigration. A Sept. 12 tea party rally in Murrieta drew a number of local political candidates seeking to curry favor with voters. National tea party figure and former Rep. Dick Armey recently addressed a Republican group in Temecula.

A local tea party group advertised a protest outside a Temecula Islamic center seeking to build a mosque in town. And tea party organizers led rallies in Temecula, Murrieta and Lake Elsinore urging city council members to require businesses to use the federal E-Verify system to ensure their employees can legally work in the United States.

MAKING IT LOCAL

At tea party rallies across the Inland area, Murrieta council candidate Douglas V. Gibbs can be found at the “constitution booth,” answering questions from the curious about the nation’s governing document. The sand-and-gravel hauler moonlights as a freelance constitutional lecturer and political commentator.

Gibbs said he never considered running for office until prodded by fellow tea partiers at rallies.

“The way to take back our country is not just at the national level, but at the local level,” Gibbs said.

Tea party anger has been aimed mostly at Washington politicians and rooted in a disdain for incumbents and those perceived as professional politicians. The same forces are at play locally, he said, though city council is a part-time job and most local politicians have day jobs.

The locals may not be career politicians, Gibbs said, but they act like it.

“It’s an attitude of, ‘I’m looking down my nose at you because you’re just a citizen, so just be quiet and let us do our work,’ ” Gibbs said.

Gibbs’ platform conforms with many of the tea party ideals of small government and strict conservatism. He opposes the Temecula mosque — “I would prefer that we not have mosques in the Temecula Valley,” he said — and would like to see the city phase out employee pensions.

Gibbs said he’s had an almost universally positive reaction from voters when they hear he’s affiliated with the tea party.

“Overall I think it’s been to my advantage,” said Gibbs, who is not related to Murrieta City Council incumbent Rick Gibbs.

WAKE-UP CALL?

Temecula City Council candidate Patrice Lynes is another candidate closely linked to the tea party. Lynes has spoken at tea party events and said she considers herself a tea party member.

The first-time candidate seeking one of three seats on the five-member council said the tea party “helped to wake up a nation that took for granted our leaders are going to do the right thing.”

The other challenger in the Temecula race, Paul Runkle, who said the tea party is “not something I’m running on,” nevertheless said the movement has brought greater attention to government spending.

“To me, that’s the main message of the tea party — fiscal prudence in government,” he said. “That is one part of what I am about.”

While the Inland region is not known as a bastion of left-wing politicians, conservative incumbents may risk being ousted by tea party voters frustrated with the economy and distrustful of sitting politicians.

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