Sunday, April 26, 2009




All over California, protestors against new taxes and big government spending turned out in respectable numbers the other day for "tea parties" decrying tax increases enacted by legislators and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in February and the extensions of those taxes contained in Proposition 1A, lead item in the May 19 special election.

"No More Socialism," read some signs. "Repeal Pork, Cut Taxes." Demonstrators shouted slogans like "No more taxes" and "Hey, hey, ho, ho, big government has got to go." There were scores of other rallies around the nation protesting President Obama's economic recovery spending, but few as intense as those in California.

The hope of the folks behind all these events, promoted heavily on cable television's Fox News Channel (possible new slogan: "We promote, you decide"), plainly is to create a new anti-tax movement of similar intensity to the one spurred by the landmark property tax cuts of Proposition 13 in 1978.

But there's a subtext here and it's an underlying motive Howard Jarvis never had. Jarvis, a longtime political gadfly before Proposition 13 made him prominent, had considerable disdain for both major political parties. Not so the tea party sponsors.

Their motivation was perhaps best expressed by Steve Frank, former head of the ultra-conservative California Republican Assembly, now aiding the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

"If we get the voter revolt I expect against all the propositions in that election, all bets are off for 2010," Frank said in early April.

A similar message came from Michael Steele, Maryland-based chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an email he titled "Enough is Enough: Send a Tea Bag." Said Steel, "Let…liberal Democrats know you already pay enough in taxes by sending them a virtual tea bag." He then provided an Internet link for that purpose, and followed with a pitch for donations to the party. In California, then, Republicans are milking the May 19 propositions for all they're worth.

That was plain, too, in the cast of characters speaking at various "tea parties" around the state, a group replete with the conservative talk show hosts who have become the GOP's most prominent voices in a day when the party's elected officials are few and far between.

Besides Frank speaking in Santa Maria, there were radio hosts Melanie Morgan in San Francisco and Tammy Bruce in Los Angeles, Fox-TV host Neil Cavuto and radio talker Michael Reagan in Sacramento, among others.

Prior to the April 15 tea parties aimed to evoke images of the Boston Tea Party (with TEA also standing for "Taxed Enough Already), other protest rallies were also led by talk show hosts, most prominently John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou, better known as John and Ken, of the powerful Los Angeles radio station KFI, the same talkers who cried for "heads on a stick" tactics against six Republican legislators whose votes allowed passage of the February tax increases and a new state budget.

Some academics and others think there's a possibility this movement may catch fire the way Proposition 13 did. "There's no way to predict whether we're going to see a reprise," Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former press operative for both Republican ex-Gov. Pete Wilson and former GOP presidential candidate John McCain, told a reporter.

Schnur didn't live here in 1978, so he may not remember the fast-rising property tax assessments of that era, when levies on ordinary houses in nondescript neighborhoods often rose by several thousand dollars every two years or less, the frequency varying by county. This was literally taxing many people on fixed incomes out of their homes, providing fuel for the Proposition 13 wildfire.

But there is no such existential threat from a temporary 1 percent sales tax increase or a one-quarter of 1 percent income tax boost or even a vehicle tax increase, the main new taxes involved with the May propositions. So the non-partisan energy that fueled Proposition 13 is absent today.

Plus, large corporations, property owner groups and other special interests that benefited from Proposition 13 put big money behind it. Most of those outfits today are backing Schwarzenegger and the May measures.

The climate, thus, is not the same as in 1978.

This doesn't stop tea party backers from hoping. "There's a lot of latent anger boiling to the surface," says Jon Coupal, current head of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. and the first and loudest foe of the May ballot package.

Polls do indicate the propositions are in serious trouble just weeks before they come before the voters. That's because no one wants to pay more taxes while the economy threatens jobs and savings of all kinds.

But defeating the propositions and starting a grassfire political movement are two different things. Which makes the likelihood slim for a far-ranging political shift moving California from a predominantly Democratic state into the Republican column.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns, visit

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