TOM LUTEY Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette | Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2010
Harlowton-based Tea Party takes active role in local government
HARLOWTON — In this sleepy farm town of 948 people, the light in the windows of the old bank building the
Tea Party calls home are the only ones burning for several blocks.
There are as many people gathered inside as there are patrons at the Sportsman’s Bar and Steakhouse a half-
mile to the east. And that’s saying something because there’s playoff baseball, hot food and alcohol at the bar.
The menu at the bank consists of cold government talk, coffee in plastic-foam cups and, as the fall chill settles
in, no heat.
But Philip Wilsman gets the meeting going with the Pledge of Allegiance and a progress report that warms the
attendees. The group that hasn’t existed for six months has been drawing as many as 45 people to its
meetings. And it has taken on the role of local government watchdog, something it believes Wheatland County
A Tea Party member has been at every meeting of the county commission, every bimonthly meeting of the City
Council,” Wilsman tells the group.
* The group is leaning on the county to return unspent law enforcement funds collected from Harlowton.
County Commissioners have agreed to discuss the request.
Heads in the group begin nodding in approval, and as the report goes on, it becomes the clear that Tea Party
groups in rural areas are doing something their city cousin’s have struggled with: They’ve affected the way
their local governments operate.
On this night the assembly is a patchwork quilt of community newcomers, farmers, townies and even a cowboy
armed with six guns.
The group credits the Central Montana Tea Party in Lewistown for helping to defeat a $10.7 million bond levy
for a new middle school. It also recognized the Oath Keepers and Sweet Grass County Patriots for scuttling a
public park in Big Timber.
The Patriots are a group based on the idea that Americans are “losing our constitutional government.” The
Oath Keepers is a conservative group of current and retired members of the military, law enforcement or
firefighters concerned with what they see as an overreaching government. Only members of those public-
servant groups are eligible for full membership. They are not part of the Tea Party.
Dick Erlandson won’t go as far as Wilsman in crediting the Central Montana Tea Party for defeating the middle
school bond issue last month in Lewistown. A founder of the Tea Party there, Erlandson said his group simply
made an effort to get information out the voters by organizing a public forum that drew more than 100 people.
“Our purpose is to unite not divide,” Erlandson said. “We presented the pros and cons. They wanted to do
another school here, and we needed one like you know what. It got defeated almost 3 to 1. We’re interested in
better education, but if we did the school, then we’d have the budget tied up and couldn’t get better teachers.”
The Central Montana Tea Party has the biggest roadside billboard for hundreds of miles in any direction. It’s a
16-by-4-foot, red, white and blue sign right on the main drag that proclaims “The Tea Party: Americans for
Politically, Erlandson’s group has attracted candidates from both parties to its political forums, where the crowd
exposure goes beyond what candidates experience in a political debate. At a Central Montana Tea Party
forum, the candidates sit at the front of the room and field questions from the audience.
The forum was a learning experience for Kurt Myllymaki, a 26-year-old Democrat from Stanford taking a run at
the state House.
“I had the comfort of knowing I wasn’t going to lose many votes,” Myllymaki joked.
In a field of five candidates for the various offices, Myllymaki was the only Democrat. He was little worried about
the questions going into the forum, but they weren’t that hard, though he says he received more of a drilling
than the other candidates. But, in a small community when a sizable group requests your presence, you go.
Erlandson said the Central Montana Tea Party has the potential to grow.
“If you believe in God and you believe in America, you’re one of us,” he said.
Central Montana was drinking tea a full year before the party started. In 2008 when Republicans opted forgo
the public primary and select their presidential candidate through a party caucus, central Montana caucus
voters endorsed libertarian Ron Paul, who statewide outperformed national Republican presidential candidate
John McCain and placed second to Mitt Romney.
But in Fergus County, Paul won, as he did in Judith Basin County next door and Blaine County to the north.
The Atlantic magazine crowned Paul “the brain of the Tea Party” earlier this year as it became clear that the
Tea Party’s concern of unchecked federal spending and strict constitutionalism and attention to pre-
Depression government history lined up well with Paul’s beliefs.
But Tea Party groups at the rural levels have also made local government matters bread-and-butter issues.
In Harlowton, Wilsman and the other Tea Parties sort through the issues on the November ballot, sometimes
disagreeing over whether certain constitutional initiatives are good or bad for the community. When they move
on to local issues, everyone tunes in a little more.
This Tea Party group didn’t form on April 15, 2009, as so many around the country did. It formed just a few
months ago after the June primary. Tea parties working the polls as election observers saw behavior they
considered illegal. County election officials began counting ballots around noon, while people were still voting.
Then an election worker began making phone calls, which the Tea Partiers suspect was to relay results.
Results usually aren’t announced to anyone before the polls close.
There was a heated law enforcement race between current Wheatland County Sheriff James Rosenberg and
Everett Misner. Rosenberg’s wife is serving time in federal prison for stealing public funds, and the issue is
playing against Rosenberg’s bid for re-election.
* Wheatland County elections official Mary Miller said she doesn’t think the Tea Party members observed what
they think they did. Ballots were counted before voting stopped, which Miller doesn’t have a problem with. But
the election official making phone calls was on the phone with Miller talking about a ballot-marking machine
that wasn’t functioning well, she said.
The county is changing they way it counts votes this election to address the Tea Party’s concerns, Miller said.
All vote counting will take place at the courthouse instead of at precincts where the public votes. Proctors will
be assigned to the ballot counters, who won’t be allowed to even go to the bathroom without someone in tow to
make sure no information is being shared with the outside world.
“That’s what we’ve tried to do, and hopefully it will help,” Miller said
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correction: The Wheatland Tea Party has not been leaning on our county to return funds. We only made a
proposal because of the city's crumbling water system.
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Correction to present the truth: Mary Miller's whole statement is false. There was no Tea Party at the time of
the Primary election. It was the events at the Primary election that created the Tea Party a month after on July
4th, 10 so there were no "Tea Party Observers". The people she is referring to were two paid Election Judges
she hired herself to work the election. They did not "think" they saw something, they know exactly what they
saw. No rules were followed in that election, the ballot-marking machine was never used, many Election Judges
used cell phones throughout the election and the people counting the ballots were never sequestered.
Since then our General Election was changed and we did have one of the most professional elections we have
ever seen, thanks to the efforts of the Tea Party and the judges that were brave enough to step forward..
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