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Tea Party Roils Over Talk of Alliance with GOP

An item that appeared in the ProJo's Political Scene column this week has unleashed controversy in the ranks of the Rhode Island Tea Party, a conservative advocacy group.

The piece suggested that the local Tea Party, like similar groups around the country, is weighing a bid to fill low-level positions in the state GOP as a means to political influence. And that sparked concern from Marina Peterson, a one-time member of the group's leadership who was ousted last month.

Peterson, who still works with members of the loose-knit group in the service of various conservative causes, sent a message to the rank-and-file saying she was alarmed by talk of teaming up with a political party. Indeed, significant segments of the anti-establishment movement have rejected the idea of working with politicians - even Republicans who, they say, are guilty of over-spending and other Washington crimes. This faction wants to remain a voice of agitation. Truth-tellers outside the system.

Rhode Island Tea Party leader Colleen Conley has pushed for more active political engagement. And she was quoted in the ProJo piece thusly:

“We want to build a farm team. And that’s what this is,” she told Political Scene. “It is through the GOP, and clearly we have a lot of independents and libertarians [involved in the Tea Party]. It’s just that the GOP here is such a nonentity.” 

After Peterson's email, Conley - clearly worried about reaction within the movement - responded with an email of her own charging that the ProJo misrepresented the Tea Party's intentions and pledging that the group would stay independent. A ProJo source says Conley did, indeed, offer a qualifier in her interview: she said the Tea Party would consider exercising influence in the Democratic Party, too.

But her belief in direct involvement in the political process is clear. And a tension between protest and politics that has bedeviled the local movement from the outset remains.

So, just as the Tea Party is showing signs of pragmatism elsewhere - Tea Partyers nationwide rallied behind Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, despite his heresy on some issues - the local movement will have to make a choice: back candidates who are less-than-ideologically-pure or remain an undiluted conservative voice and risk political irrelevance.

Indeed, the RI GOP, caught up in its own paralyzing fight between moderates and conservatives, faces a similar choice. A once-in-a-generation opportunity to chip away at the Democrats' dominance in Rhode Island hangs in the balance.

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