Roaring echoes of Reagan fuel a grassroots fire — and big bike ride.
Rhonda Lee Welsch has a vision. “When we go back to Washington next year, there’s going be a lot of Harleys,” the Florida activist said. “And those Harleys make a lot of noise.”
Making noise may not seem like much of a goal to D.C. political strategists, but if thousands of thundering Harleys roll up in front of the White House as part of a national Tea Party march on Washington, Welsch’s vision might make more impact than Beltway wizards imagine.
Like many others now suddenly active in the conservative grassroots, Welsch is a newcomer to politics. A divorced mom who has spent most of her working career in the construction and hospitality industries, she’s been an eyewitness to the devastation wrought by the recent economic collapse. Florida’s unemployment rate is at 11.2 percent, but that official statistic may understate the severity of the downturn.
“Everything’s come to a screeching halt,” Welsch says of construction work for small contractors in coastal Volusia County, where she lives. With business slow, she began paying more attention to politics, and soon found herself actively involved in the Tea Party movement. A breakthrough moment, she says, was when she joined the 9/12 March on D.C. and attended a seminar on organizing led by veteran conservative fundraiser Richard Viguerie.
Welsch returned to Florida and went to work on her vision: Bike Week Freedom Rally, scheduled during late February’s annual motorcycle gathering in Daytona Beach. She’s already booked the Volusia County Fairgrounds for the event, hired a rock band for musical entertainment, and is now in the process of raising more money and arranging speakers.
At a Tea Party last month in Orlando, Welsch handed out flyers promoting the Daytona rally. She sees bikers as a constituency instinctively opposed to big government. “Their motto is ‘Ride Free, Live Free,’” she says, and getting them involved in the political process could make a difference.
Her turn toward activism has brought some surprises. She was shocked to discover that one TV personality wanted a $25,000 speaking fee plus first-class travel from New York to appear at the Bike Week event. “What’s he going to do with that money?” Welsch says skeptically.
Skepticism toward big-money big shots is natural to a grassroots movement that sprang up nearly overnight in February and mushroomed in the span of a few months to bring hundreds of thousands to Washington in September. And one of the biggest big shots feeling the grassroots heat is Florida Gov. Charlie Crist.
In February, Crist joined President Obama at a rally in Fort Myers, Fla., to promote the president’s $789 billion economic stimulus plan. That deficit-spending measure ranks high on the list of grievances for fiscal-conservative Tea Party people like Welsch.
Three months after Crist’s embrace of Obama, howls of outrage erupted when the National Republican Senatorial Committee endorsed the governor for Florida’s 2010 Senate race, 15 months ahead of the GOP primary. Erick Erickson of RedState.com declared the NRSC endorsement “wholly unacceptable,” and the backlash against the national GOP’s interference catapulted Crist’s Senate rival, former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, to the status of grassroots rock star.
Despite the fundraising advantages of being the establishment’s choice, Crist has seen his poll numbers sag, while Rubio has surged. Crist was also recently hurt by revelations about his close association with Scott Rothstein, who is facing federal charges of defrauding investors in what prosecutors say was a $1 billion Ponzi scheme.
Asked her preference in the Senate primary, Welsch is emphatic. “Rubio, definitely. No question about it,” she says. She’s considered inviting him to speak at the Bike Week rally, but worries about making the event “too political.”
Welsch’s own analysis of the contemporary political landscape is not limited to narrow grievances or partisan squabbles. “It’s a systemic problem,” she says, discussing the top-down approach of leaders in both parties who seem indifferent to the concerns of ordinary Americans.
Since becoming politically active, Welsch has discovered a talent for organizing that suits what she calls her “tactile… hands-on” nature. Previously a mere spectator in politics, her participation limited to voting, she now regrets not becoming involved sooner. “This is what I should have been doing all along,” she says.
Welsch’s determination to make a difference recalls the can-do spirit of active citizenship that Ronald Reagan celebrated in his first inaugural address. “I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.”
Doing nothing is not an option for Rhonda Welsch anymore, and she knows many others who feel the same way. “We need to form a human chain — I just want to be one link in that chain.”
Reagan was “our last true conservative president,” says Welsch, who sees herself as part of a larger effort to revive Reagan’s vision of freedom. And when those Harleys come roaring up Pennsylvania Avenue next year, that vision will make a lot of noise.
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