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School of Bloc

The Tennessee Tea Party says it’s looking to shift its agenda in the state Legislature this year from reactive to proactive.

The group is offering classes for citizen activists on how best to contact lawmakers, track legislation and deal with the media, with its first session for about 100 activists held over the weekend at a hotel in Nashville.

“It’s all about arming the people with the proper tools to be activists,” said TTP Director Robert Kilmarx.

Tea partiers enjoyed some apparent success at the ballot box with last fall’s Republican gains in the statehouse. But now Kilmarx says they’re looking to expand their clout by actually influencing legislation and policy discourse.

“Obviously, we’re totally changing the dynamic,” Kilmarx said. “Whereas before we were protesting and sending e-mails, and everything was just kind of confrontational – responding to what was being thrown at us – now we’re building relationships with legislators, and we want to be working on crafting legislation and influencing legislation through lobbying efforts on the Hill.”

Speakers at the “Legislature 101” training advised participants on everything from the need to turn off the radio to avoid feedback when phoning a call-in show to the importance of refraining from impolitic gestures and angry outbursts — like threatening a lawmaker’s seat if he or she refuses to cast the desired vote. A general rule of thumb in the realm of legislative political advocacy, said event organizers, is if you can’t make a friend, at least don’t make an enemy.

Former state Rep. Susan Lynn, R-Mt. Juliet, gave an overview of the legislative process: how the committee system works, roles within party caucuses and how to track bills on the Legislature’s website. She says acquainting tea partiers with the Legislature will be key to expanding the movement’s political influence.

“Their legislature and the way it functions is virtually a stranger to them,” she said. “They don’t know a lot about the way it functions.”

Attendee Pat Bugg said she got up at 5 a.m. to drive in from Crossville for the conference. Bugg is particularly concerned with cultivating a positive image for tea partiers, who she feels are misrepresented as “angry” and “mean.”

“I want to make sure that we don’t do anything at all that would make people perceive that about us,” Bugg said. “We want to know how to do things legally. We want to know how to do things the right way.”

With no leading body to enforce a top-down agenda, occasional rifts within the tea party movement over philosophy, strategy, priorities or tactics are seen as inevitable.

“It happens, it’s happened, it’s going to happen more,” said Kilmarx. “I think a strength of the tea party movement is it doesn’t have a single leader. There’s not a single face that is a spokesman, so it’s a marketplace of ideas.”

Kilmarx says the groups typically share similar core goals. Several people attending Saturday’s “Legislature 101” class, aimed at giving participants the tools to influence legislation, mentioned Christian and family values. But Kilmarx says he sees some tension between such views and tea partiers who are gay, for example.

But Bugg said the potentially divisive cultural or social issues don’t seem nearly as important to most tea party activists as fiscal restraint and limiting government to essential functions.

“It has nothing to do with gay, and it has nothing to do with abortion,” Bugg said. “It has to do with the Constitution and (making politicians) stop spending money. And I think all that other stuff just messes it up.”

Stepping up the tea party’s post-election civic involvement and political influence hinges on expanding communication and public outreach, Bugg said, especially via the Internet.

But she also doesn’t want the tea party to become too organized. A loose structure is what makes the movement work, she said.

“I don’t want someone telling me I have to be somewhere on a certain day,” she said. “What has happened in the past is somebody says, ‘I think this is a good idea. We’re going to show up here at this time. Come join us if you can.’ And people show up.”

A “Legislature 102” session as well as a version focused on local governments are in the works, said tea party organizers.