Tea’d off in Atascadero

Murray Suppanz, left, of Bradley walks through the crowd with his sign during at the Sunken Gardens in Atascadero.
Murray Suppanz, left, of Bradley walks through the crowd with his sign during at the Sunken Gardens in Atascadero. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

More than 200 disaffected Central Coast citizens stopped by Atascadero’s Sunken Gardens on Thursday afternoon to commiserate with others who share their belief that the government has grown too large and has stopped listening to them.

Atascadero’s contribution to the day’s nationwide tea party rallies was organized by Republican Matt Kokkonen, who is running to replace Sam Blakeslee in the state Assembly.

Kokkonen used the rally as a campaign event. But many in the audience said they weren’t there for Kokkonen, but rather to proclaim that “I want my country back,” as one of the many signs being waved put it.

In fact, one audience member, Dane Senser of Morro Bay, complained that Kokkonen should have had a member of the tea party movement speak to the crowd and not simply used the occasion to promote his own campaign.

Many of the signs in the audience were aimed at President Barack Obama or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, both Democrats. “Obama wants to unplug my Mama,” one read, and another said “Impeach Obama Yesterday.” “Dems’ Congress is Pelosi’s Cesspool,” said a third.

But most criticized government in general: “Don’t Tread on Me”; “Follow the Constitution”; “I earn my money, keep your hand off.”

Both the signs and the participants were civil and displayed none of the loud protests that have characterized some tea party rallies elsewhere.

Those present merely wanted to make a point.

Chance Waak of Atascadero, for example, said he was concerned about the number of people who don’t pay federal taxes. John Lohayza, an electrician and registered independent, said “government intrusion is out of control,” adding that he is going to be forced to purchase health insurance under the bill just signed by the president.

Aaron and Marnie Dilbeck of Paso Robles said they “aren’t being listened to.”

There were counter-protesters — Rebecca Howell of San Luis Obispo and Joan O’Keefe, who stood toward the back holding signs that read “Health care is a right, not a privilege” and “No human being is illegal.”

But, as though to underscore the relatively cordial nature of the event, they engaged in polite argument with passers-by from the large crowd of anti-government residents, including Joan MacMillan of Templeton, who sparred verbally with them about illegal immigration.

Whether the tea party rally will help Kokkonen remains to be seen, in the same way the national Republican Party cannot count on support from the tea party movement. Several people said Thursday that, while they might be dissatisfied with Obama, Republicans were at the controls until two years ago.

“The tea party represents an idea,” Senser said. “We’re tired of listening to the politicians.”

Kokkonen nonetheless made a pitch for support, hitting on several hot-button Republican talking points: supporting offshore oil drilling, opposing excessive pensions and opposing rights being granted to illegal immigrants who came here “sneakily.”

He said children of illegal immigrants should not automatically become citizens merely because they are born in the United States. The line drew applause.

Kokkonen faces three opponents in the Republican primary June 8: San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Katcho Achadjian, former Santa Maria Planning Commissioner Etta Waterfield and Paso Robles City Councilman Fred Strong.

Democrat Hilda Zacarias, a Santa Maria city councilwoman, and Libertarian Paul Polson of Arroyo Grande also are running for the 33rd Assembly District seat.

None of the five were at the tea party rally.

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