BARBARAELLEN KOCH PHOTO
Annette Petrone of Sag Harbor (with sign on her back) at Thursday night’s tax day TEA Party on the Riverhead riverfront.
TEA Party 2, the sequel, drew several hundred people to the Peconic River parking lot in downtown Riverhead last Thursday, but unlike last year, the ever-growing group was supporting a candidate for public office.
The Riverhead event, one of several held across the country on tax day — TEA stands for “Taxed Enough Already” — was sponsored by the Suffolk 9-12 Project, a conservative group co-founded by Bob and Mary Meyer of Baiting Hollow.
The candidate they had in tow, 53-year-old Gary Berntsen of Port Jefferson, is one of seven people hoping to run against Congressman Tim Bishop (D-Southampton) on the GOP line in November.
“We are overtaxed by elected officials and a government that does not respect us,” Mr. Berntsen, a retired CIA agent and Air Force veteran, told the crowd. “It was reported this week that 47 percent of the population paid no federal taxes in 2009 and two years ago, it was 44 percent.”
Mr. Berntsen said companies are avoiding taxes through tax credits, and that he favors a flat tax of no more than 15 percent. He also opposes the current health care reform plan and the nation’s increasing debt and spending, insisting the U.S. is putting itself at risk by borrowing money from countries like China.
“You can’t owe that much money to other people, like the Chinese, and not have them use that influence against you,” he told a reporter after his speech.
The local 9-12 Project, like other chapters in the U.S., was inspired by Fox News commentator Glenn Beck and counts itself among the thousands of Tea Party-affiliated groups nationwide. The local outfit, which is based in Riverhead but counts some 800 members from eastern Long Island, has targeted issues like health care reform, illegal immigration, federal debt and the federal government’s bailouts of large private companies. The Tea Party is not a political party.
Other speakers last Thursday included Republican Riverhead Town Councilwoman Jodi Giglio, Riverhead Republican committee treasurer Diane Stuke and members of the Suffolk 9-12 group.
But Mr. Meyer insisted the group is not backing only Republicans.
“We’re a non-partisan group,” he said prior to the event, held specifically on the day Americans are supposed to file their income tax returns. “But the fact of the matter is, not one single Democratic office has ever approached us, and that’s not our fault.
“We have a general rule that if you’re 80 percent in agreement with us, we’re on the same team no matter what party you’re with. Unfortunately, especially on the federal level, it would be hard to find a single Democrat to go along with us.”
Many of the people in the audience on the riverfront kept it simple: They’re just fed up with government.
“We got sludge in the bottle and we need to empty it and flush it out,” said Paul Nahas of Southold, who was carrying a sign that read, “Angry. Vote all incumbents out. Flush the system.”
“There’s a lot of sludge in Washington and I tell you, they’re deaf to the people,” said Mr. Nahas. “I’m an independent and I think they’ve all gotten too comfortable with all the big businesses and big spending and big government in Washington. It’s absolutely insane.”
“I’m not happy with any of them, especially the president,” said Pat Kelly of Calverton. “They’ve got to go. They’re destroying the country.”
She was carrying a sign that read, “You can’t fix stupid, but you can vote them out.”
Ms. Kelly said she’d never been politically active “until Obama got in.”
“I don’t like either party,” she said.
“They’re selling the country down the drain,” said Bill Hughes of Hampton Bays, a retired police officer who ran unsuccessfully for Southampton Town Board on the Republican line last November. “I’m angry at big government. This is supposed to be government by the people. We don’t need things shoved down our throat at more and more expense to the taxpayers.”
Mary Meyer said her group hopes to make the TEA Party an annual event.
“We are not playing anymore,” she told the crowd form a podium as the sun set over the river. “We will unseat every sitting congressman — and Bishop, that includes you — and every deadbeat official until we get the House and Senate back and can repeal this unconstitutional debacle you call health care reform.”
Jon Schneider, an aide to Mr. Bishop, said in an interview Tuesday that the first step in the election process will be to see who wins the Republican primary, and how much the Tea Party backing helps Mr. Berntsen.
“The Republican primary will be an interesting test of the Tea Party’s strength,” Mr. Schneider said. As for criticisms that the movement backs only Republicans, he said, “I take each person as their own entity. For some, it may be Republican politics by another name, but others may be more independent.”
Mr. Meyer said he’s confident Mr. Berntsen will win the Republican primary.