Tea Party: Sending a message

Dee Jones of Charleston gathers with others Thursday afternoon in front of the U.S. Customhouse downtown. She said she thought private businesses should never be regulated by the government.

More than 120 people, many holding up handmade signs and "Don't Tread on Me" flags, gathered on the U.S. Customhouse steps Thursday to make a public showing of their concerns over health care reform, cap-and-trade legislation and the nation's direction in general.

It was at least the fourth such grass-roots gathering in Charleston since the national "Tea Party" movement began more than three months ago.

Many at Thursday's gathering also attended the April 15 Customhouse tea party event in which a few thousand people flooded the steps and surrounding streets.

Unlike that big event, there was no organized program Thursday. It was just a chance to wave signs at passing cars and pedestrians and to chat with other similarly minded voters. The group gave a hearty applause as a soldier dressed in gray camouflage walked through the crowd to enter the building. At another point, the crowd broke out with a verse of "My Country Tis of Thee."

Elaine Cuthbertson held a sign reading, "Health Care is expensive now. Wait till it's free," and she said she was very concerned over how health care reform is unfolding in Congress.

"We definitely need reform, but putting government in charge of the whole thing is not the answer," she said, adding that her husband is a physician.

"It's going to be devastating if this happens, not just personally, but for the country."

K.C. Lombard, a Johns Island roofer, called health care reform well-intentioned, "but the answer is not more bureaucracy or government involvement."

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At the same time as the Tea Party was going on, eight members gathered at a library in North Charleston to weigh in on the opposite side of the health care debate.

The roundtable was sponsored by South Carolina's Organizing for America, a grassroots project of the Democratic National Committee.

Those attending told grim tales from the world of private health care, from paying $1,700 for a $300 procedure to covering a daughter's hospital bill by selling a house. They talked about how best to implement President Obama's threefold agenda of reducing costs, guaranteeing choice and ensuring access to care.

Meanwhile, health care wasn't the only concern at the tea party. Wayne Shanko of Summerville held up a health care sign but also said he was equally concerned about cap-and-trade legislation that ultimately might force his employer, Alcoa, to close some U.S. plants and move them overseas.

"It's going to shut down more industry than it grows," he said of the bill that passed the House.