HARRISBURG, Pa.—As participants and reporters arrived at the largest-ever Pennsylvania Leadership Conference, talk was primarily focused on the heated contests for the U.S. Senate and governorship in Pennsylvania this year and on the nationally-watched special election for the seat of the late Rep. John Murtha (D.-Pa.) on May 18th.
But there was one very obvious development at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel that, while not widely reported, could have a major impact on politics in the Keystone State in 2010 and beyond: an alliance between traditional conservatives who have long been mainstays of the 21-year-old gathering and the newcomers who have had their political baptism with the “Tea Party movement.”
Fred Anton, president of the Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association and one of the driving forces behind the PLC since it began, dubbed this year’s conclave “a wonderful occasion for a merger between the existing conservative structure and the new people who are coming here for the first time.”
“We have a lot of the regulars you have covered here before and we have a lot of newcomers,” PLC organizer Lowman Henry told me, as he studied the ballroom for banquet speeches and tried to figure if the extra tables he needed would violate fire regulations.
Coming on the heels of a recent sweep through Pennsylvania by the “Tea Party Express,” the PLC—considered a state version of the national Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) held every year in Washington—afforded many of the conservative newcomers an opportunity to meet established conservatives and attend workshop on campaigns.
“This is my second PLC meeting,” said John Emmons, plant manager of a floor company in Chester County (Pa.) and organizer of a local Tea Party group known as the Coalition for Advancing Freedom. Emmons freely admitted before he came to the PLC last year, his political experience consisted of “pointing my finger at the TV set and getting mad at the news. The national debt and the failure to create sources of energy for the future were the things that really upset me. They were problems we seemed to be leaving to the next generation rather than facing now.”
After attending a Tea Party gathering, Emmons decided to form a group of his own. After just over a year, Emmons told me, his Coalition for Advancing Freedom “has more than 300 members in Chester County that we stay in touch with on-line and about 100 who go to meetings.”
“And all are going to work in campaigns this fall,” Emmons noted, adding that the race of certain GOP Senate hopeful Pat Toomey generated enthusiasm among the members of his group.
He also said that Tea Party activists were running for twenty seats on the Chester County Republican Committee.
Colin Hanna, president of the Let Freedom Ring conservative organization and former Chester County commissioner, has addressed numerous Tea Parties throughout Pennsylvania this year. He told me that “close to half of those who participate are not political regulars at all. But they are fired up and full of passion for the Constitution.
Recalling how he has been an active PLC participant for many years, Hanna said that “it is a good mix to have the Tea Partiers at a gathering of political regulars. Everyone here is encouraged by their energy.”
I asked whether the “Tea Party movement,” as some national liberal pundits have suggested, “is the last gasp of angry, white, middle-aged males?”
“People who say that are under-estimating the numbers of the Tea Party movement here, and the degree of their anger over government control of things,” John Trombetta of Erie, Pa., president of the Foundation for Free Enterprise Education, “A few years ago, the media under-estimated voter anger over legislators voting to give themselves a pay raise at midnight. And guess what? About 35 legislators were defeated over that one vote.”
Conservative state Rep. Curt Schroeder took sharp issue with the dismissive view of the new movement by the liberal media. As he told me, “Younger people are very active in the Tea Party movement and many of its leaders here are women. Diane Canney of the Valley Forge Patriots and Paula Stiles of Unite PA are dynamic organizers who are motivating a lot of folks here.”
“[The liberal media] have no idea what they are talking about,” said Schroeder, “But I hope they keep thinking that.”