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Tea Party Descends on Arizona as Policy Battlefront

PHOENIX — It’s Arizona, not Washington, D.C., that has become ground zero for tea party activism.

The state that set off a national immigration debate last year and is now debating pension and education reform has become the movement’s shining example of how conservative legislatures can take action where the federal government will not.

“Arizona is definitely one state that is exercising its 10th Amendment rights more than others,” Tea Party Patriots spokesman Randy Lewis told Roll Call.

The Patriots, a national coalition of more than 1,000 local groups, kicked off its first American Policy Summit here Friday, the latest indication that the tea parties are moving their fight to the state level.

State legislatures are already playing key roles on three policy issues on the tea-party agenda: education, health care and immigration.

As activists gathered in Arizona, a standoff between teachers unions and Wisconsin’s Republican governor threatens to spread nationally. Virginia awaits a Supreme Court decision on the legality of the health care mandate. And Utah is considering a bill that mimics Arizona’s controversial immigration enforcement law.

Those fights are challenging the Obama administration in a way that the divided Congress will not, tea party activists at the summit said.

“There’s a real attitude among states that the federal government is not doing their job, so we will,” said Andresen Blom, executive director of the American Principles Project, the Washington-based group that led a boycott of the Conservative Political Action Conference last month over the inclusion of a gay group.

Blom said the Arizona gathering is just the latest example of that frustration.

The weekend conference kicked off with a session on state budget crises. Bob Williams, president of the conservative advocacy group State Budget Solutions, blamed the Obama administration’s efforts to “make states dependent on the national government” and said he is optimistic about what conservatives can accomplish without Congress’ help.

“We have a lot of new governors that I’m impressed with,” Williams said.

The Patriots are no strangers to Arizona. Leaders of the group have made an effort to host events across the country, but Arizona’s defiance of the federal government has made it a favorite locale in the movement.

Tea party groups supported rallies here last year as others tried to boycott the state for passing S.B. 1070, its immigration enforcement law. The Patriots also organized a gathering near the Arizona-Mexico border in August.

Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County sheriff who rose to national recognition last year for backing Arizona’s immigration enforcement law, was scheduled to kick off a debate on that issue during the opening ceremony Friday evening.

“Arizona has been on the front lines as far as the battles on border security,” said Debbie Dooley, one of six Patriots national coordinators. “Tea party activists realize that, if we are really going to change America, it’s going to be from the bottom up.”

That’s not to say they have ignored national politics altogether. Summit attendees are participating in a presidential straw poll, and several Republicans considering 2012 runs — including former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) and businessman Herman Cain — are scheduled to speak.

Blom said the state focus could be one way to prod the federal government to take action.

“All this state action is either going to force a response or action from the national government,” he said.

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