"MILITIAS?" VICTORIA TAFT winces, like the word is causing her a molten fit of indigestion. “They’re dumb. I have no use for them.”
Sitting inside a Peet’s Coffee in Southeast Portland, Taft, sporting a black blazer and a blonde bob as sharp as her air of authority, expresses her frustration with government both national (“Do you want the government to run your life, cradle to grave?”) and local (“one-party rule”; “corruption”; “Kulongoski kissing up to labor unions”; a city hall that doesn’t “want you to buy a car”). A dreadlocked girl sitting nearby puts down her copy of Bob Woodward’s Plan of Attack and begins blatantly eavesdropping with a look of mock horror on her face. Taft is used to the reaction.
“I don’t walk with a swagger,” she says, cordially ignoring her ever-buzzing BlackBerry. “But I’m not afraid of it, either. People have a general caricature of who a conservative is—an intolerant, gay-bashing, pro-death-penalty nutball. We’re not.”
’We just need people digging and finding out what is really going on with our governement and saying it out loud. —Victoria Taft
Portland’s appetite for Taft’s brand of punditry seems insatiable. And with liberal holdout Air America’s recent bankruptcy, conservatives now own the radio dial. Rush Limbaugh holds down the top-rated AM station, KEX 1190. KXL-AM—number two in AM ratings—is home to Lars Larson, Glenn Beck, and Michael Savage. And Taft’s own KPAM pulled down a solid 2.5 rating in December, meaning that more than 176,000 Portlanders were listening to her. The competition for red radio is so intense that this past September, 970 AM changed its name to the more patriot-baiting moniker “Freedom” 970. The station plans to roll out programming from A-list right-wing talkers Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Laura Ingraham.
“We just need people digging and finding out what is really going on with our government and saying it out loud,” Taft says. “Once they know, they’re usually pissed off because they’ve been lied to.”
The biodome’s growing conservative movement also has quieter, less visible, but no less effective, faces. Bob (who asked that we not use his real name) sits high up on the food chain of one of the city’s biggest and most well-known employers, where he works with international clients. The 37-year-old says that while coming out as a conservative might not get him fired, it would make relations at the office awkward. “Part of me would love to be able to get into political discussions at work,” he says. “But I’d take so much crap.”
That hasn’t stopped him from becoming a firebrand among Portland’s virtual activists. Flush with pride after hearing friends’ reports of the 75,000 like-minded people at the Taxpayer March on DC (what he calls the “Conservative Woodstock”), Bob flipped on the television to see news reports saying that only a few thousand protestors had shown up on the National Mall. “That was a crescendo for me,” Bob says. “We’re doing the right things to be heard, we’re not attacking, we’re generally positive, and unlike, say, a G-20 protest, we cleaned up our mess. It was a punch to the gut.”
So Bob started a Facebook page to voice his frustration. He tossed out the idea of picketing the local Portland media, which he felt had an obvious liberal bias. Within an hour, he was getting requests from other people around the state who liked the plan and wanted to do the same thing in their towns. Two weeks later, 7,200 fed-up conservatives had joined his page and his brainchild—a “Can You Hear Us Now” march on the media. Here in Portland, a mere 100 people showed up to parade from the offices of the Oregonian to KGW studios at Pioneer Courthouse Square. But Bob’s effort spawned 53 similarly loud but peaceful events all across the country.
These are the kinds of gatherings that Neiwert calls a breeding ground for militias. Maybe there’s something vaguely menacing in the handful of protesters carrying “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” signs and yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flags. But mostly, watching the protesters lug their handmade posters up SW Sixth Avenue, some with their kids in tow, one doesn’t feel especially threatened. “Environmentalists aren’t compared to eco-terrorists, so why do we all get thrown in with the McVeigh-militia people?” Bob asks. “I see these protests as a positive. They help give voice to lots of frustration. We’re helping people get it out of their system. We are not all wingnuts.”
And in fact, in a sign of the rapid maturation of the Tea Party movement, it’s already held its first national convention in Nashville this year (with Sarah Palin as the keynote speaker), while in Florida, Marco Rubio—a rising star on his state’s Tea Party circuit—will duke it out in the Republican primary for the right to a spot in the US Senate. So far, Oregon’s Tea Party is holding to a policy of not endorsing candidates. But three Republicans—Doug Keller, Rob Cornilles, and John Kuzmanich—running for Oregon’s 1st Congressional district seat (now occupied by a vulnerable Democrat, David Wu) have aggressively courted the partiers’ audience. All three spoke at the Labor Day Tea Party. Last September, when Keller announced his intention to run, his reasoning typified the movement: “Instead of just complaining, I decided that it was time to step up and do something.” Tucked underneath his campaign logo—a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag—is his motto: “Join the resistance.”
Somewhere in Garden Home, William Krause must be smiling at Keller’s moxie. “A lot of the general public is willing to live in a socialist society and have the government run everything,” he says. “But America is supposed to be ‘by the people, for the people’—not by the government, for the government.”