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Originally published April 28, 2009 at 3:05 PM | Page modified April 29, 2009 at 10:44 AM

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Bruce Ramsey / Times editorial columnist

The "tea party" protests began in Seattle

The "Tea Party" anti-bailout and anti-tax protests of April 15 have been falsely labeled as "AstroTurf" — fake grass roots. But the grass roots were real, as is clear in the story of Seattle organizer Keli Carender.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

The "tea party" protests of April 15 were dismissed by progressive columnists as "AstroTurf" — fake grass roots, ginned up by moneyed interests. Paul Krugman said that. So did Joe Conason. Progressives delight in slandering their opponents in this way. It is an excuse not to answer them.

The protests had many organizers. The big one in this state, in Olympia, was partly organized by the libertarian Evergreen Freedom Foundation (EFF) and promoted on KVI-AM radio, the Seattle Fox News affiliate. But no radio station or 24-employee foundation has the AstroTurf power to order out 5,000 people on a Wednesday afternoon in Olympia to protest government fiscal policy. Counsel Mike Reitz says EFF has never had a turnout that big. KVI host Kirby Wilbur says the turnout was KVI's largest in 15 years.

Nationwide, the tax-day protests brought out at least 300,000 Americans in 800 locations. In this state, there were protests in at least 13 towns. They were not commanded by anyone. The protest in Spokane was started by a student, Gary Edgington, networking on Facebook and Twitter.

Some AstroTurf.

Tax day wasn't the beginning of it. Several earlier protests had tested the waters — and the first was in deep-blue Seattle, on President's Day, Feb. 16. The organizer, a political novice, called it a "porkulus" protest against the "pork" of President Obama's economic stimulus.

Maybe you didn't hear of this protest; The Times didn't cover it. Neither did the Post-Intelligencer. But it happened, and it started something.

The woman who started all this supposed "AstroTurfing" is Keli Carender. She is 29, and engaged. She lives in Seattle and makes a living teaching math to adults. She is also a stand-up comic, which is better training for politics than you might think. On both arms she has small tattoos, one of them for the Scarlet Pimpernel, an appropriate tale of subterranean conservatism.

She grew up in a Catholic family, longtime Democrats, who became alienated with the party over abortion and its attitude toward the military. Her father was a Navy man, and a great-uncle had been a prisoner of war. By the 1990s, her parents felt the national Democratic Party had left them.

At Mercer Island High School, she was outspoken in class, often on the conservative side. Later, at Western Washington University, majoring in biology and math, she shut up about politics.

"It's a very liberal school," she says. "I began to be afraid of saying anything. I felt I was such a minority."

She attended Oxford University in England and traveled and worked abroad for a while, returning to Seattle to be in the theater scene. There, too, sentiment leaned left.

"I put up with a lot of mean-spirited remarks about conservatives being old, rich, white males, and that we're heartless," she says. She kept her mouth shut.

Then came the bailouts, the spending, the debt. She had to do something. "I felt like I was suffocating," she says.

She started a blog under the name Liberty Belle. On it she called for a "porkulus" protest one week hence, and got the attention of Wilbur at KVI. About 120 people showed up, frustrated at the sudden ballooning of government through bailouts, nationalizations, spending, money creation and debt.

Finally, political friends.

That is how the nationwide protests began. It was not AstroTurf.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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