The tea party, facing lagging interest, is searching for a path to renewed relevance.
Gone are the annual April 15 mass rallies protesting taxes and government spending.
New leaders are changing priorities in Broward and Palm Beach county chapters. They're hoping to return to the glory days of the movement's youth — 2009 and 2010 — when the tea party made Democrats nervous, commanded obedience from Republicans, stalled action on health care overhaul and helped propel conservatives to big election victories.
Several tea party leaders in South Florida said a new approach is critical to keep the movement alive, a re-evaluation prompted by a string of setbacks in the past six months including President Barack Obama's re-election, Congressman Allen West's defeat, and Gov. Rick Scott's abandonment of stands that once made him a darling of tea partiers.
"After the 2012 elections, a lot of tea party people were demoralized and upset," said Charles Robertson, who co-founded the Broward Tea Party. "There was a bit of a setback after the elections. Some did give up and say, 'OK, we've taken a hit,' and they moved on."
Tea Party Fort Lauderdale, which has been at the corner of Oakland Park Boulevard and Federal Highway every Saturday without interruption since Feb. 28, 2009, used to attract anywhere from a couple of dozen to 100 people. Now, it's lucky to get 12 to 15, said co-founder Danita Kilcullen, who refocused her own activism in January and no longer attends every week.
Still, Robertson said, the tea party isn't going away. "We're not hearing a lot of tea party in the news, but I think the tea party is still strong and organized and pushing our agenda in different ways,' he said.
Michael Riordan is at the forefront of an attempt to rejuvenate and refocus the movement. Since January, he's been chairman of Palm Beach County Tea Party — which he said is moving forward by going back to the original economic issues that generated interests during the depths of the Great Recession.
"We have to communicate better," Riordan said. "I don't want us to be the people who just stand around screaming that the sky is falling. We need to be able to come out with a positive message, explaining to people that we can't continue the way we've been continuing."
The Broward Tea Party, now run by a second generation of leaders, is taking the same approach, said Kristin Matheny, co-leader of the Broward Tea Party since January. "We devote ourselves entirely to fiscal issues and small government causes. We don't take on social issues. Some groups do. We don't."
Both counties' groups hold regular meetings, with speakers to teach members about issues. In Broward, there's a monthly meeting in Pembroke Pines. In Palm Beach County, there are three monthly meetings, including one in Boca Raton.
Focusing on the economy is a good strategy, said Gary Gershman, who teaches history and legal studies at Nova Southeastern University. It avoids alienating people who agree with the small government and lower taxes approach, but not with conservatives stands on social issues.
At the same time, it's going to be harder for to motivate new or old tea party members as the economy recovers, he said. "It's difficult for them to say, 'Iif you don't do as we say, it's going to hell in a handbasket,' " Gershman said.
And not everyone agrees on the strategy.
Kilcullen and Karin Hoffman, founder of the tea party group DC Works for US, said many tea party activists are interested in high-profile issues such as gun control and overhauling federal immigration law, and don't intend to retreat to an economics-only agenda.
The Fort Lauderdale group help mobilized tea partiers to protest against the Florida Atlantic University class assignment in which an instructor asked students to write "Jesus" on a piece of paper and step on it as part of a lesson on the power of symbols. Kilcullen said tea party members made up half the 200 people who she said protested at FAU in Boca Raton on April 4.
Mitch Ceasar, chairman of the Broward Democratic Party, said the tea party has had a terrible influence on American politics by pushing Republicans toward take-no-prisoners stances that prevent compromise. The resulting gridlock makes Americans disgusted with government, he said.
Ira Sabin, chairman of the Palm Beach County Republican Party, said the tea party can be a valuable ally — if it focuses on economics and doesn't alienate voters heading into the 2014 elections.
One big test will involve Scott, who is running for re-election next year. He was a darling of the tea party in 2010, but Hoffman said he's alienated many in the movement. His biggest alleged sin: reversing his position on part of Obamacare and deciding to support an expansion of the Medicaid health program for the poor. Speaking to reporters in Davie on Friday, Scott declined to answer questions about his level of tea party support.
Gershman said it's a mistake to think the tea party is disappearing.
"I think they're here to stay," he said. "I don't think 50 years from now we'll look back at the tea party and see it just as a flash in the pan."
Video of U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, assessing the tea party movement at SunSentinel.com/BrowardPolitics.
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