While the Tea Party movement has been trying to "take back America" on the national stage since the election of Barack Obama, Tea Party activists have also turned their attention to taking back California – and, specifically, Senate Bill 375, the 2008 law that seeks to combat climate change by promoting density in the state's metro regions.
Environmentalists and many fans of cities hail SB 375 as an important step towards both curbing global warming and creating more pleasant cities. But Tea Party activists nationwide have fought against local and regional planning efforts, often invoking the United Nations' "Agenda 21" sustainable development effort as the enemy. In California, Tea Party representatives have increasingly turned up at regional and statewide planning sessions – including a recent SB 375 "One Bay Area" workshop in Concord, where they disrupted the meeting by challenging its premise.
Steve Brandau, head coordinator for the Central Valley Tea Party, did not attend any One Bay Area meetings. But he said that he understood the speakers' skepticism about government-led planning and social engineering.
"We would be suspicious of projects that are built around population control and density control," said Brandau. "We are leery of governmental agencies and their ability, based on the track record, to develop workable solutions."
Brandau said that Tea Party supporters are likely to support the status quo no matter what policies a governmental body would propose. "We'll continue to drive whatever we want to drive until we get a better working model," said Brandau.
Despite its name, the Tea Party is not an official party or even a formal organization and therefore has no membership requirements. But they have been more vocal at planning workshops around the state. At the One Bay Area meeting in Concord, they questioned presentations from the audience. An activist who goes by the username "cvminutemen" posted on YouTube a two-hour video of the entire meeting, with a preface suggesting that One Bay Area is part of a comprehensive, global conspiracy. The preface to the video characterizes smart growth, liveable communities, and social justice as attacks on "freedom," "your prosperity," "your property rights," and "the American dream." And it ironically questions planning that claims to serve "the greater good."
(One Bay Area is the brand name for the nine-county Sustainable Communities Strategy being developed by the Association of Bay Area Governments and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission.)
"There were Tea Party activists – and that's very much self-identified – no question that there was a group organized to participate in the meetings," said Randy Rentschler, spokesperson for MTC. He added that videographers by the name of Tea Party TV have filmed meetings.
At those meetings, self-identified Tea Party supporters decried nearly every goal of the SB 375 planning process. Speakers criticized the plan for forcing residents into dense housing and impinging on suburban lifestyles. Speakers questioned the notion of regional planning, claiming that top-down planning would usurp local control. These and other objections at one meeting were captured on a two-hour video shot by a Tea Party supporter and posted on the Internet.
"The things they brought to the table were: ‘leave us alone; we don't need your land use rules. We don't need people telling us what to do,'" said Rentschler.
At that meeting and others, participants say that Tea Party opinions all but drowned out other views, according to some.
"They were very vocal and in some respects they would get obnoxious," said Joel Ramos, a community planner with the nonprofit group TransForm, who said he attended several meetings in Contra Costa County. "I think that it was ultimately a detractor and that it devalued the overall conversation."
"The hard part with the Tea Party's participation was to get past their own agenda and think out what they want and to ask for it," said Rentschler.
Leaders of Tea Party organizations throughout the state – including the East Contra Costa County Tea Party, the East Bay Tea Party, the California Tea Party, and Tea Party Patriots – were contacted repeatedly for comment for this article over the course of several weeks. Only Brandau made himself available for comment.
Lawrence Rosenthal, director of the Center for Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements at UC-Berkeley said that the Tea Party's objections to SB 375 are not surprising. Libertarian movements have always been wary of government's use of eminent domain, and Tea Party members may assume that the construction of compact development and the empowerment of local governments to promote compact development will necessarily result in the taking of single-family homes and other private properties.
Supporters of One Bay Area insist that one of the purposes of the regional plan will be to promote density in center cities and at key transit nodes with the effect of preserving the character of many single-family areas, especially exurbs.
"The people who reside in less dense areas would probably have figured out, if they had allowed themselves, that we're not planning on doing anything to Clayton," said Rentschler, in reference to a city on the edge of the Central Valley. "The cities are taking things that you don't want."
The online video suggests that One Bay Area is advancing Agenda 21, a theme that Tea Party activists around the country have promoted.
"We didn't even know about the ‘conspiracy' until we were told about it," said Rentschler. "I had to look up Agenda 21."
Agenda 21 is in fact a UN program urging cities to voluntarily promote density, public transit, and other strategies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Whether high-density apartment buildings will be delivered via black helicopter is another matter, say the sponsors of One Bay Area.
Many of the Tea Party's concerns about SB 375 are grounded in far less outlandish concerns. Brandau said that, regardless of the particular concerns or personal inclinations, nearly all members of the Tea Party movement share a fundamental distrust for government. They believe that government actions both constrain civil liberties and fail to generate acceptable returns on investment.
Brandau said that many Tea Party members are inclined to oppose SB 375 purely because they do not trust the state government and regional planning agencies to come up with anything beneficial, regardless of what a plan might actually look like.
"We're not against infrastructure and we're not against what we would call smart planning," said Brandau. "Most of us feel betrayed by planning and these huge projects." Brandau cited high-speed rail and the as an example of planning that is destined to disrupt the livelihood of Central Valley residents in exchange for dubious benefits.
Rentschler noted that the Tea Party's anti-government ethos simply doesn't apply to places where many people live in close proximity and, therefore, have competing interests.
"In some communities there might be (no need for government-led planning). Maybe that's in Alaska," said Rentschler. "I think that was the hard part in dealing with the Tea Partiers is that the message wasn't subtle to the complexities of the world we inhabit."
Many speakers in Contra Costa County claimed that One Bay Area had arisen out of nowhere and was being imposed on an unsuspecting public. The difficulty for MTC and other regional planning agencies, of course, is that they are seeking to implement a state law that was adopted in 2008, no matter whether the Tea Party likes the law or not. Rentschler said that he knew of no Tea Party participation in any public meetings or hearings regarding SB 375 over the past few years.
Supporters of SB 375 say that Tea Party opposition is grounded in ignorance of both planning principles and the public process.
Ramos said that Tea Party supporters' combination of vehemence and ignorance threatens to undermine the public process – and even SB 375 itself.
"I would like to hope that we could move forward," said Ramos. "I've seen horrible things come as a result of politicians being scared of an angry group of loud, vocal minority groups."
UC-Berkeley's Rosenthal said that further debates are unlikely to change Tea Partiers' minds.
"If there were a key to engaging them in a way that got past their dismissiveness of this panoply of issues that they regard as elites trying to shove their fancy ideas down their throats…a great deal of progress would have been made already with the Tea Party," said Rosenthal. "Ideology, by its very nature, gives you the answers when you know nothing about the facts."
Despite the seeming frustration of working with such stubborn participants, the sponsors of the One Bay Area meetings say that they welcome all participants and all opinions. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation has sponsored several meetings with the express purpose of expanding participation.
"We feel incredibly positive about the success we've had in terms of the number of people we've been able to engage in discussion and the diversity of people we've been able to engage," said Erica Wood, vice president of community leadership and grantmaking at SVCF.
Rentschler said that the participation of the Tea Party, despite some counterproductive rhetoric, is a welcome component of the democratic process.
"If your comment is that climate change is fiction and you're part of a UN conspiracy, I can't do anything about that," said Rentschler. He did say, however, that Tea Party voices offer a welcome contrast the discourse that often dominates discussions in the Bay Area.
"We often get the far left comments," said Rentschler. "It was kind of refreshing to get the far right."
Retschler added that the Tea Party raises an issue on which activists along the entire political spectrum should be able to agree.
Should stakeholders be skeptical of government? "Yes. I am," said Rentschler.
Steve Brandau, Head Coordinator, Central Valley Tea Party, www.centralvalleyteaparty.com
Joel Ramos, Community Planner, TransForm, 510.740.3150
Randy Rentschler, Spokesperson, Metropolitan Tarnsportation Commission,
Lawrence Rosenthal, Executive Director, UC-Berkeley Center for the Comparative Study of Right-Wing Movements, 510.643.7237
Erica Wood, VP of Community Leadership and Grant Making, Silicon Valley Community Foundation, 650.450.5400