Protest suits thousands to a tea

Gov. Mark Sanford, who has received national attention with his position on federal stimulus money, waits to speak as U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint addressed a large crowd gathered at the U.S. Customhouse at the "Charleston Tea Party."

Lowcountry conservatives upset with the $787 billion stimulus bill and the beginning of President Barack Obama's administration turned out in force today to protest escalating federal spending, the nation's complicated tax structure and dozens of other causes.

Both U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint and Gov. Mark Sanford briefly addressed the gathering at the U.S. Customhouse — a crowd estimated at 2,500 or more.

"I guess my simple question would be ... will we use this rallying cry as the beginning of this larger notion to change the way things are going in America?" Sanford asked the crowd.

Sanford also defended his controversial handling of $700 million worth of federal stimulus money — money that he wanted to use to pay down the state's debt. "There is no such thing as free money, and that even applies to this notion of stimulus," he said.

DeMint, whose campaign announced today it has $2.2 million on hand for his 2010 re-election bid, asked those assembled if they were ready to take back their country.

"You probably have figured out that the only change coming to Washington is the change in your pocket," DeMint said.

The Charleston event was one of hundreds nationwide billed as "Tea Party" protests and held on the date federal income tax forms are due. Several thousand South Carolinans also gathered at the Statehouse in Columbia, where Sanford and DeMint also spoke.

Organizers drew parallels between their protest and the 1773 Boston Tea Party in which colonists dumped tea into that city's harbor to protest taxation without representation.

But tea rarely entered the picture at the Customhouse this afternoon. Only a few dozen people were sighted with tea bags from their hats or earrings.

Far more common were hand-painted signs that carried messages as diverse as: "Global Warming: Another LIE to raise taxes," "Don't spread my wealth, spread my work ethic," "Obummer" and "Socialism is not change."

Once Sanford and DeMint were done, dozens of regular folks got a chance to make brief remarks to the crowd, and their comments included support for the Fair Tax, which would replace the federal income tax with a tax based on what people spend.

They also voiced praise for U.S. soldiers overseas, complaints about how illegal immigrants were taking away American jobs, support for gun ownership and dwindling rights in general. A man who identified himself as "Bob the Builder" asked, "Apparently, there were those in Washington who didn't get the message that slavery was abolished 150 years ago. We want to give them that message."

Several also mentioned a new Homeland Security Department intelligence assessment warning that right-wing extremists could use the bad state of the U.S. economy and the election of the nation's first black president to recruit members. "Went to bed a bitter clinger —woke up an extremist right winger," one man's sign read.

The event was touted on conservative Web sites, but the Republican Party was not in complete control. One man wore a T-shirt with both a donkey and an elephant, the symbols for both major parties. "Cull both herds," the shirt read.

But former Charleston County GOP Chair Cyndi Mosteller said the event will help Republicans if the party's elected officials give voice — and their votes — to the sentiments voiced today.

"I think these people are saying government has reached too far in the scope of what it wants to spend and what it wants to control," she said.

But Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said many at the nation's Tea Party protests promoted and benefited from policies of President George Bush's administration.

"While we support the right of Americans to petition their government, what's clear is that the overwhelming majority of folks support President Obama's plan to get the economy back on track and provide 95 percent of working families with tax relief," Sevugan said.

Elaine Magliacane of Charleston said she showed up with an "I am not an ATM" sign because she was concerned about how the federal spending will affect her six grandchildren and future great-grandchildren.

Glenn Little of Ridgeville distributed phoney $1 million bills that he called "stimulus money." They had a picture of celebrities like actress Nicole Kidman on the front a religious message on the back.

"My pastor said, 'Let's go protest,' " Little said. "I feel like I have to do my little part. All of us together can make a light. We have to shine."

The crowd was larger than any GOP presidential was able to draw in the Lowcountry before the January 2008 primary. Charleston County Sheriff Al Cannon said he believed more than 2,500 might have shown up and said a sheriff's helicopter took photos that can be used to get a more accurate estimate.

Regardless of the number, the crowd was enough to pack the stone plaza on the west side of the Customhouse and to prompt police to shut down East Bay Street from Market to Cumberland streets. The crowd gradually shrunk between the time Sanford and DeMint left around 6 p.m. and the protest ended a few hours later.