McLendon candidacy a test of local tea party muscle

County Commission candidate Randy McLendon / VIA RANDYFORSCGOV.WORDPRESS.COM

When Randy McLendon saw the list of donors supporting Republican County Commission candidate Charles Hines, he recognized more than a few names, many of whom, he says, supported Charlie Crist in Crist’s independent U.S. Senate bid instead of Republican Marco Rubio.

That motivated McLendon, a political novice before founding the Englewood tea party group Taking Our Country Back in 2009, to throw himself into an official bid for the Republican nomination.

“All this work that we’ve done for two years to help take our country and our state and even our county back in a conservative direction,” McLendon remembers thinking. “I just couldn’t let that go unchallenged.”

That evening, he sent out an email blast, asking for support. “Because of the encouragement from several tea party and conservative activists in our area, I have decided that it is time to step out and enter into the political arena instead of just observing (and complaining) from the outside,” McLendon wrote. He quickly qualified for the Republican primary, which ends next Tuesday, Aug. 14.

In true outsider fashion, McLendon is well behind when it comes to fundraising. As of press time, he had raised slightly more than $9,000. Hines? More than $40,000. Based on the developers and elected officials backing Hines financially, Sarasota Herald-Tribune columnist Eric Ernst declared Hines “all but elected.”

But McLendon hopes that, like Rubio in 2010, he can buck the conventional wisdom and shake up the conservative establishment. That means sticking to some of the hard-right rhetoric for which the tea party has become known.

The Taking Our Country Back website features posts that accuse President Obama of acting like a “dictator” and being “committed to Socialist Principles” [sic]. One post dispenses with the “socialist” rhetoric and instead accuses Obama of “embarking on a full Communist agenda” by launching an “Attack” on organized religion. “Through time, all Christian religions will be targeted,” the post warns.

In a post on civil rights, the author writes that “somewhere along the way, in a scramble  to make sure everyone has equal standing, we have left the white population in the dust of the the civil rights race track.”

When asked about those posts, McLendon doesn’t back away from their inflammatory rhetoric. He calls Obama’s DREAM Act-like Homeland Security directive “pretty dictatorial” and says that it has become “blatantly obvious” that some administration officials are “intimately associated with communists and socialists.”

“It’s almost not even debatable anymore,” he says.

When he describes what first motivated him to launch Taking Our Country Back, McLendon compares the country’s progress to an airline flight from Atlanta to San Francisco. “You’re settling in and you look out the window and you see an ocean and you scratch your head,” he says. “You kind of got a feeling you’re going in the wrong direction, but you’ve got a pilot you think you can trust.”

“All of a sudden it was like Obama became the pilot and we hit one of those air pockets where we dropped 1,000 feet,” he says. “All of a sudden everyone’s awake.”

“That’s when I decided to tear up my membership card in the silent majority,” he says. He  spoke at the first tax day tea party rally in Venice, and began organizing Englewood activists to form the first tea party there.

But are Sarasota County Republicans receptive to the tea party message? In the 2010 general election, Rubio failed to win a majority in Sarasota County, beating Crist by less than 6 percentage points. Sarasota County residents have voted to tax themselves more for extra school funding and for protecting environmentally sensitive lands, two votes at odds with the tea party’s lower-taxes-at-all-costs mantra.

According to McLendon, those votes show the importance of local decision-making, a tea party principle. “Local government can be whatever the people in that location want it to be,” he says. “Our founding fathers had no intention of making a bunch of cookie-cutter communities.”

McLendon may be trailing when it comes to money, but he says the grassroots volunteer support he’s received has been “astounding and humbling.” Whatever happens next Tuesday, he will remain unfazed. “The things that I’m saying are what the vast majority of people in this country believe,” he says. “We’re not going to give up on our country. We’re going to make sure we survive.”

Hines did not respond to a voicemail asking for his views on the tea party.

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