Journalists and commentators at the country’s major metropolitan news organizations are forever trying to figure out who exactly the “tea partiers” are and what they want. Indeed, tea partiers are now the subject of a nascent academic subdiscipline, with at least one academic monograph already published on the phenomenon.
To get a feel for what the tea party is all about, however, you can’t do better than sitting down with Harry Kibler. He’s a Greenville businessman and the chairman of an organization with the rather abrasive name of RINO Hunt.
Kibler’s approach to political activism doesn’t rely on subtlety and consensus-building. He prefers open and direct confrontation, and his energy is inexhaustible. I recently spoke with him about his latest project, an effort to stop the Greenville County Council from imposing a one percent sale tax for the purpose of road maintenance.
“I’ve had so dad gum much fun doing this,” he tells us, “it ought to be against the law.”
Briefly, Kibler’s position is this: The county doesn’t have the responsibility for maintaining state roads; the state does. The state has badly shortchanged Upstate residents on road maintenance, particularly by allowing the state Transportation Infrastructure Bank to prioritize new projects in politically important counties over everyone else, but the answer isn’t to have already struggling county taxpayers pay for unmet state responsibilities.
“In just a few years,” he says, “this tax hike is going to take hundreds of millions of dollars out of the local economy. Taxpayers here are already paying dearly for roads that aren’t maintained properly. Telling them to pay more is going to cripple the economy, and it’s also, in my view, just wrong.”
Several months ago two councilmen came to Kibler and asked him to put his efforts into trying to stop the tax hike. He loved the idea. Kibler is a terrific storyteller, so I found myself just transcribing what he said. “I just picked up the torch and started running with it,” he says.
Out of a 12-member council – six Republicans, six Democrats – I could only count on two as solid No votes. I called my councilman, Dan Rawls, and asked him his position. He hemmed and hawed and told me he was a “conservative” and all that. And anyhow, he said, “we’re not voting on a tax hike; we’re voting on whether to allow the voters to decide if we should go that route.”
Well, I don’t buy that logic, because if they vote yes to allow the referendum, we’re going to have every special interest in the Upstate that might get a piece of that money campaigning around the clock telling people you’ve got to vote “yes” because “your future depends on it” and all of that. That’s what I told Dan. “If they put it in a referendum, it’ll pass. That’s just the way it’ll happen. So if you vote Yes, you’re voting to raise taxes. You know that and I know that.”
So I put my position just as plainly as I could. “Dan,” I said, “I’m going to be brutally honest with you. Here’s the deal. If you vote for this, I’ll announce the next day that I’m running against you in the primary. I don’t want to do that – there’s a lot of other things I’d rather do than run for office. But I promise you I will.” We talked for a little longer and, well, he told me he’d vote against it.
So that’s three in our favor.
Kibler approached two other councilmen. Although he didn’t threaten to run against them (since he couldn’t), he spoke to them with a similar kind of directness. They, too, said they’d vote No.
So then I had a meeting with the county council chairman, Bob Taylor. He was on record supporting it. I said to him, “Bob, you know I’ve got my opinion about the sales tax [increase], but I’d like to hear why you feel the way you do on it.”
He gave me the same line Dan Rawls had given me, but with a difference. “We’re not voting to create a 1 percent sales tax increase,” he told me, “we’re voting to create a committee to determine whether we need to move forward with the sale tax increase.” Ah, just the creation of a committee!
Now I was already familiar with that logic. In fact, I told him, the state law code – I believe it’s 4-10-320 [he’s correct] – allows you to create a committee to spend the money, not to create a committee to figure out if you should raise the tax. So I told him, “Dan, I don’t buy what you’re saying. If you vote yes, if you create this committee, you’re going to raise the money for it to spend.
Chairman Bob Taylor was for years a dean at Bob Jones University, and so Kibler took an unusual tack in his attempt to persuade the chairman to vote No.
I brought along some Bible verses that I thought Bob might appreciate. You know, verses that deal with the wise use of money and so on. Well, I was wrong. He didn’t appreciate it at all. He told me he didn’t need a lecture about the Bible from someone who’s lied to people as I had. I asked him to give me an example of a time I lied. He said, “Well I can’t think of any off the top of my head.” I told him those were pretty strong words for someone who can’t think of a single example.
You can guess it didn’t go well after that. So our group set up a little protest at the entrance to Bob Jones. We held up a great big sign that had Bob’s cell phone number on it – I believe it’s a taxpayer-issued phone so I thought why not? – and another big sign saying he wanted to raise your taxes so call him and ask why.
Later that day he called me and he was irate. He said, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Bob Jones, you had no right to do that, that was immoral.” [“Immoral?” I ask him.] Yeah, he said it was immoral. We talked for another minute and he hung up.
Greenville County Council is scheduled to meet tonight at 6:00 p.m. about the proposed tax increase. Harry Kibler plans to be there, together with a number of friends and allies
“If we can’t even stop the growth of government right here in the county,” he says, “we ought to just go watch football and forget it about it. I like to tell people: ‘Get off Barack Obama for a while and pay attention to what’s happening right here in your back yard.’”