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Tea Partying On

At the Saddle Up Texas Straw Poll, tea partiers take weirdness to a new level
by Published on

On Saturday afternoon, I sat in the Union Station lobby of Minute Maid Park in Houston and listened to two men with acoustic guitars play a cover of “I Come From the Land Down Under” for a gray-haired audience of twelve, one of whom wore a red tee-shirt emblazoned with, “OBAMA IS A RACIST BIGOT AND TERRORIST SYMPATHIZER.”

Welcome to the Saddle Up Texas Straw Poll.

If it sounds weird, that’s because it was. For three days, some 700 Houston-area tea partiers did their version of partying, which means selling each other bumper stickers and struggling to bolster what they seemed to know was a dying relevance. The two highlights were the straw poll itself, for which one had to have a state-issued ID and register with the SUTSP but didn’t actually have to be registered to vote, and a speech by Herman Cain, who’s not actually running for president.

You wouldn’t know it to hear him talk, though. He’s still riding around in a blue bus with his face on it, touting the Cain’s Solutions Revolution, which includes 9-9-9 and a balanced budget amendment and, in his words, “Sound money—we have too much inflation and it is helping to fund terrorism.”

The audience of about 350, which had been cheering at appropriate pauses, was silent after that one. Cain didn’t elaborate.

He did take the mic from the podium and stride around perspiring, looking sea-worthy in a blue- collared shirt, white v-neck sweater and double-breasted navy blazer with brass buttons. And he told them what they wanted to hear.

“Don’t listen to the mainstream media that says we’re not a factor. We’re not just a factor, we’re a force!”

Cheers.

Attendees had each paid $75 to be thusly encouraged. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, they gathered in small rooms to hear sessions on the 10th Amendment, how to follow a bill through the Texas Legislature online, and other lessons in activist literacy. Simultaneously, speakers took to the small stage in the Union Square Lobby, one after the other, from talk radio luminaries to state lawmakers to Ted Cruz and several other U.S. Senate hopefuls leaning so far to the right as to be horizontal.

And then there was the vote. Attendees seemed to know that they weren’t voting in any legal way, but to think that the SUTSP results would influence presidential candidates’ campaign decisions. “I’m excited that candidates might stay in the race long enough for Texas to have a voice in the election,” said Sue Stringer of the Alvin Tea Party.

“Romney is being forced on us,” said Muriel Owens, who helped organize the straw poll. “We need a voice. We haven’t been given one by the GOP so we’re going to make our own.”

Muriel, a semi-retired chiropractor who supports Ron Paul, had an inch-high corona of dyed red hair and a grandmotherly countenance. We sat together listening to the guitarists and waiting for the straw poll results. Cain had just departed, taking with him most of the audience and practically all of the media. Cain closed by affirming his and the tea party’s disempowerment, to cheers. “We the people are coming!” he roared. “We want our power back and we are going to get it!”

Standing ovation.

Muriel was small and kindly, and I wanted to like her. I wanted her to tell me what all the fuss was about, why she and so many people that I would otherwise let dog-sit for me had organized this weird, expensive, symbolic event.

“Why hold this Straw Poll?” I asked. “What do you want?”

“I want the government out of my daily life,” she said.

“But what would that look like,” I said, “day to day?”

“Well,” she began slowly, “I would abolish the EPA. When they start telling us what kind of light bulbs to buy, that is an abomination.”

I thought her language a little extreme, but confessed to liking the incandescent.

“And they’re not teaching the exceptionalism of the United States. They are not teaching our children to understand how truly fortunate we are to live here. They’re trying to make it so that everyone’s the same, but that just brings everyone down. At my grandson’s T-ball tournament, at the end, everyone got a trophy, even the losers!”

“But,” I began, “the government didn’t give the losing team a trophy…”

“No…” she conceded. We sat with our hands in our laps.

At this point, I was still with her. I didn’t have to agree, but I could see where the feelings came from.

Then she continued. “Well, but they want us all in a one-world corporation. UN Agenda 21 promotes certain practices that will put us into a one-world corporation. That’s why they want us to have electric cars and live in cities, so they can control…”

And with that, the weird returned.

Half an hour later, the guitarists were permitted to leave the stage and organizers took over. The crowd was spare. In a raffle of twelve items, only three winners were still in attendance. After dozens of thank-yous, they finally announced the results. Ron Paul had won. Muriel cheered.

Emily DePrang is a staff writer at The Texas Observer where she covers criminal justice and public health. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic and Salon.com, and she’s a former nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. She’s holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a B.A. from the University of Texas at Austin. In 2013, she was a National Health Journalism Fellow; in 2012 she won the Sigma Delta Chi award for public service in magazine journalism.