Hundreds of Tea Party activists waving signs and Colonial-era flags gathered on the Boston Common on Saturday afternoon to hear antitax crusader Grover Norquist and other speakers at a rally protesting government spending and taxation.
“The Tea Party is America awakened,” Norquist said to the cheering crowd. “What’s the Tea Party done? Changed the direction of the country for the good, and I think on a permanent basis.”
Norquist, best known for the antitax pledge he asks members of Congress to sign, was the keynote speaker at the “Tax Day” event, which also included gun rights leaders, Panera Bread cochief executive Ron Shaich, author Dr. Keith Ablow, newspaper publisher Tom Duggan, and conservative commentator Jeff Katz.
Turnout for the annual event, which in past years has drawn household-name speakers like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, was moderate, though the mostly white and middle-aged crowd swelled slightly as the weather warmed up throughout the early afternoon.
Volunteers from the campaigns of Republican Senate candidates Daniel Winslow and Michael Sullivan also attended, working the crowd and handing out literature.
Issue-driven factions of the Tea Party set up tents around the Common’s Parkman Bandstand promoting gun rights and the repeal of the federal health care overhaul, which activists represented with a towering stack of paper tied with red tape.
One group had an unusually specific niche: The “Tea Party in Space” tent showed attendees a slickly produced video arguing for a large, privately funded space program that would “strengthen America as the vanguard of freedom and opportunity as we spread throughout the solar system.”
The ideology of rally participants was diverse, as single-issue diehards mingled and debated with moderates like 66-year-old Virginia Barberie of Dracut, who said she came to hear new ideas.
“I’m just here to listen and see what they’re going to say,” Barberie said. “I’m not opposed to taxes. . . . My concern is waste, fraud, and abuse.”
Barberie said she didn’t expect to agree with the Tea Party on every issue, but hoped the group will be taken seriously. “I hope people listen to each other more,” she said. “We can disagree, but let’s be respectful.”
Speakers at the event acknowledged the crowd’s range of views, urging attendees to focus on issues they agree on.
“There’s a lot of people here for a lot of different reasons,” Norquist said. “But what we want, each one of us . . . [is for] the government to leave us alone.”
Clark Patterson, 49, of Fitchburg, was glad to see the movement coalescing around a core value.
“The government’s too big, and it’s causing more problems than it’s solving,” Patterson said, echoing the concerns of many in attendance.
Despite last year’s election, the results of which caused some commentators to say the Tea Party was losing influence and momentum, Patterson sees cause for Massachusetts conservatives to be hopeful.
“Most people, if you really sit them down and make them think, they’re not as liberal as they thought,” he said. “All it takes is for 20 percent of people to get together and move on some common ground. Others will put their finger in the wind, and all of a sudden, you have a majority.”
Massachusetts’ reputation as a liberal bastion was a hot topic, with Duggan joking that the gathering was a “beacon in the wilderness,” and Katz saying Boston is “solidly behind enemy lines.”
But Norquist said Massachusetts voters “have a certain common sense,” as demonstrated by the 1980 passage of Proposition 2½, which limits local property tax increases.
Katz drew cheers for a line referencing the “optimism” of conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died last week. He also blasted the Legislature, which met today to debate a proposal that would raise taxes to fund transportation programs and infrastructure improvements.
“It’s one of the most bizarre situations I’ve ever seen,” Katz told the gathering. “The governor is a looking at a half-billion-dollar tax increase and saying, ‘it’s not enough.’ ”
After the rally, dozens of protesters entered the gallery of the State Senate chambers, where legislators were debating a transportation finance bill that would raise taxes. When one senator criticized the tax hike proposals, the protesters erupted into applause and chanted “No more taxes!” before they were escorted out by State House police.
In an interview, Norquist said raising taxes could drive voters away from Democrats.
“The tax increases they’re talking about are like the little darts they throw into bulls to make them irritated before a bullfight,” he said. “This tax bill will just tick people off and be a wonderful organizing tool for the Massachusetts Tea Party and Republican Party.”