The party is back! For the second tax day in a row, hundreds of angry tax payers are expected to flock to the Customs House in downtown Charleston. As one of the most recognizable (former) federal buildings downtown, the Customs House is a fitting spot for the event. It’s also one of the few places where more than 10 people can stand together without bumping into a local pet project paid for with federal dollars.
It hardly seems like only a year ago that we were poking fun at the idea of tea parties. We’ve still got the promotional photo from My Little Pony’s The World’s Largest Tea Party hanging in the office.
But these guys aren’t a joke anymore. They’ve been emboldened by the fresh embrace of the rank-and-file Republican Party, as well as the kind of media attention typically saved for helicopter caribou hunts.
"The national media is infatuated with the Tea Party," says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.
Sometimes that’s enough to move fence-sitting undecided voters.
"(The media) has legitimized the movement, and that will have a trickle-down effect," she says.
Turnout last year was strong, with an anti-Obama sentiment running throughout the crowd.
But Cabot doesn’t expect quite the same crowd now that healthcare reform is behind us.
"It passed," she says. "There’s not that optimism of, ‘Maybe we can stop that.’"
Spending isn’t the only Tea Party rallying cry — signs at last year’s event noted the general threat of socialism, as well as what opponents of the Obama administration refer to as a defeatist foreign policy.
But federal spending is a chief concern. One sign last year read, "Our spending Congress gives drunken sailors a bad name," pulling a popular line from GOP presidential candidate John McCain. With a boy on his shoulders, another man held a sign reading, "Bailouts + Debt = Fiscal Child Abuse."
Be careful where you’re stepping in downtown Charleston with that sign. You just might be waving it at something Washington paid for.
Federally Funded Charleston
"It was a philosophical thing," Mayor Joe Riley told The Washington Post in 1986 regarding Charleston’s previous aversion to assistance. "They didn’t believe in federal aid."
That changed in the late ’70s, with Washington cash contributing to an urban renaissance that has made Charleston one of the leading tourist destinations in the country.
In a review of archived news clippings, we were able to create a pretty significant list, with some of the most recognizable peninsula projects in the last three decades owing some portion of the expense to federal aid.
We tried to avoid what could arguably be federal responsibilities — revitalization support after the Navy base closed, the new Cooper River bridge, and, most recently, $10 million toward a flooding fix on the Crosstown.
Looking for a place to stay? Two downtown landmarks are out of the running. A $10 million federal grant helped seal the deal for the construction of Charleston Place in the early ’80s, and $4.25 million went to renovating the Francis Marion Hotel.
As a side note, even getting to town is a challenge, with federal funding providing the lion’s share of parking at the Charleston International Airport.
And what can you do when you get done? It’s best to just huddle with a beer in some nondescript, non-historical building downtown (keep looking, you might find one).
The South Carolina Aquarium received $2.5 million in federal grants. The recent Dock Street Theatre rehab was shored up with $3.7 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Taking a walk? The Ravenel Bridge pathway extension along East Bay Street received $575,000 from Washington.
The Lowcountry Children’s Museum has a roof because of a federal grant. Similar funds helped build the Maritime Center and Waterfront Park.
That’s not all. Local police protection, vital to any protest of this size, is being subsidized by federal stimulus dollars. A car accident? The city’s fire department paid for extraction equipment, as well as other tools, with a federal grant.
Years from now, when Charleston’s next generation of bright young minds learns about the Tea Party rallies, it will be via smart boards and computers paid for from federal education grants.