SEBRING - Is the Highlands tea party like the national Tea Party?
Not so much, said Vice President John Drozinski, who joined the locals a year after the organization formed in 2008.
"Actually, there is really no such thing as a national tea party," said John Nelson, president of the local party. "It's all local grass-roots parties. There is the Tea Party Patriots, which is a central gathering spot, and the Tea Party Express, which endorses candidates and raise funds. We don't endorse; we are non-partisan. They like to try to tie us to the Republicans, but there are Libertarians and Democrats who wear our shirts."
Drozinski said the Highlands County tea party isn't closely aligned with any political party, although he disparaged Democrats for fiscal irresponsibility and concluded that President Obama must have instigated the government shutdown.
When the Highlands tea party hosts informational gatherings on Islam or health care or election forums, all candidates are invited. "Libertarian, Republican, Democrat or Green Party. We're open to information," Nelson said.
Without being specific about his sources, Drozinski intimated all three Highlands County senators and representatives are Common Core supporters. "They were sold a bill of goods. Common Core is a lessening in education standards, rather than an improvement."
And although Rick Scott has also supported Common Core, Drozinski said he would vote for the governor if the 2016 election was held today.
"But - and there's that 'but' - I think he's being influenced by Jeb Bush and the hidden agenda. I agree with Barbara Bush, that we don't need another Bush in the White House. Bush is steering Common Core in Tallahassee," Drozinski said. He would also vote for the re-elections of Attorney General Pam Bondi, Agriculture Secretary Adam Putnam and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater. "I like Adam, and I think Pam is the smartest person they have in Tallahassee."
Nelson plans to vote for Scott, Bondi and Atwater, but not Putnam. "Because the shady land deals the Putnams pulled over the past few years. They got very, very rich, under the auspices of the government." In July 2012, the Palm Beach Post reported the Putnam family accepted $25.5 million from South Florida Water Management District for their Highlands County land, although it was valued at $5.5 million the year before.
An October Pew Center survey of 1,504 adults found divisions among Republicans and those who identified themselves as "tea party Republicans." House Speaker John Boehner has dropped by seven points;and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has slipped 8 percent.
"They're not issue oriented. They say, 'We can't do nothing.' Obamacare passed three years ago and the Supreme Court okayed it too." The Congress doesn't take the same stance on gun control, Drozinski agreed.
"Boehner tried to go along with what the tea party candidates were trying to do, and he finally stood up to them," Nelson said. "McConnell shirked his duty to them."
By contrast, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas was more popular after the shutdown with tea party Republicans, but less popular with Republicans. Pew also found that unfavorable views of the tea party rose from 25 percent in February 2010 to 43 percent in August 2011 to 49 percent after the government shutdown.
"That was because of the tea party candidates in the House, not because they have an unpositive view of the local organization," Nelson suggested.
Like the national tea party, Drozinski and Nelson oppose the farm bill, and more specifically on tobacco and corn subsidies. "I don't believe the farm bill should go through the way it has," Nelson said. "Back when it was originally written, most of the farms belonged to families. Now, 90 percent are corporate, and they're giving away federal money to corporate farms that don't need it."
Drozinski stood before the county commission and advocated that commissioners privatize the Emergency Medical Services department. "If it's listed in the phone book, government shouldn't be involved."
Last fiscal year, when Positive Mobility's Ron Layne suggested that county ambulances shouldn't transfer non-emergency patients, the local tea party backed his play.
"With our involvement, (the commissioners) sorta saw the light," Drozinski said, and changed county policy.
Because 20 to 25 tea partiers sit in nearly every county commission meeting and advocate for smaller government and fewer taxes, Drozinski credits them with keeping the tax rate at 7.1 mills and for shrinking annual budgets for the past five years.
"We have made (commissioners) more aware of the public they work for," Drozinski said.
"I think the local tea party had a key part," Nelson said. He thinks the county commissioners really wanted to raise taxes to 8.3 mills this year, but didn't because the tea party was "a very strong voice in local government."
However, he doesn't count the continued existence of the 2 percent hotel-motel tax as a loss. "That's an ongoing issue."
"The tea party wasn't behind that issue," Nelson said. One of its members, Bill Youngman, advocated that the tax be abolished, and the tea party vocally supported Youngman. "We were not seeing the transparency, now we are. I think the pushing for the sunset is a moot thing now."
The national Tea Party describes a love-hate relationship with the federal government. Drozinski isn't as combative about county government. "No, I think they're reasonable. It's more or less an understanding about what they can and can't do."
The same with the local GOP. "We work in tandem with each other," Nelson said. "We don't have any disparities right now. We attend their meetings and they attend ours. We do have an issue on Common Core, and we're trying to get them to make a statement about it. Now the state GOP, they call us a bunch of whackos. Of course, the GOP is not in sync with the national GOP."
When Pew asked tea party Republicans which federal agencies they trusted most and least, the IRS got a 15 percent rate, Homeland Security 39 percent, and NASA 70 percent.
Drozinski most admires the clerk of court and tax collector's offices, and holds the least respect for county administration. "I have mixed feelings about getting rid of Rick," he said, speaking of the firing of Rick Helms in July 2012. "The Road and Bridge department is a oxymoron. Where are the bridges? It's not like this is New York. At the most, we have culvert crossings. And we have an asphalt plant, but we can't use it. Why aren't we buying asphalt off the market?"
Nelson couldn't name a county department he opposes. He has worked with the engineering department, the tax collector and the property appraiser. "The sheriff's department is fantastic with us. We 100-percent support them.
"We're not nuts, we're not terrorists, we're just regular people looking for smaller government," Drozinski said.