Judy Hartman, right, and Kathy Ross wave to passing cars while participating… (Christina House / For The…)
Reporting from Washington — Thousands of conservatives rallied on street corners and at statehouses across the nation Thursday to criticize a tax system they deem out of control and an administration they say has allowed socialism to creep into American life.
In Sacramento, a 12-year-old girl carried a sign estimating her share of the national debt at more than $160,000.
"Socialism is spendy!" declared Emma Ormesen's hand-lettered placard.
On the National Mall in Washington, thousands sang "God Bless America" and cheered calls for tax reform. "We don't need a tax code that drives us crazy!" said former House Republican leader Dick Armey, whose advocacy group FreedomWorks also held an evening rally at the Washington Monument. "Government should mind its own business."
The scores of tax day rallies were organized by the small-government, anti-tax "tea party" movement, marking a year since it captured attention for ardently opposing President Obama's agenda.
Since then the movement has become the most energized -- and unpredictable -- constituency on the right. It has proved its ability to draw crowds. But organizers hoped Thursday's rallies would highlight a shift to new goals: ousting Republican and Democratic officeholders who don't meet the movement's fiscally conservative ideals.
In Sacramento, a "candidates alley" drew a few office seekers, while some activists gathered petition signatures and the local GOP registered voters.
In Washington, organizers collected e-mail addresses and phone numbers -- techniques previously employed by the Obama presidential campaign.
In Atlanta, local politicians in blue blazers stood out as they mined the blue-jeans crowd for votes.
But the largest rallies -- like the anti-Washington movement itself -- were not exactly politician-friendly. Although polls show the activists tend to vote Republican, the movement has distanced itself from the GOP establishment.
"We're tired of the politicians talking down to us and not listening, so this is time for them to listen to us," said Ginny Rapini, an organizer with the Sacramento Tea Party Patriots.
Former Hewlett-Packard Chief Executive Carly Fiorina, who is seeking the Republican U.S. Senate nomination with hopes of unseating California Democrat Barbara Boxer, attended a rally in Pleasanton, Calif.
One of her primary opponents, tea party favorite Chuck DeVore, addressed a crowd in Irvine.
"It's great to show up to a rally under the Southern California sun," DeVore said. "What are you going to do after you leave?"
That's a question plaguing GOP congressional leaders, who did not speak to the crowd at the National Mall rally. Instead, the stage was filled with politicians who embraced the movement early such as Republican Reps. Ron Paul of Texas, Steve King of Iowa, Tom Price of Georgia and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota.
One national tea party group estimated that more than 800 rallies were scheduled for Thursday -- the day income tax returns were due -- while another put the number at more than 1,500.
But the crowds in some cities appeared to have dropped off since last year. The nighttime rally in Washington, expected to be among the largest, drew several thousand. In Atlanta, several hundred gathered in front of the state capitol, down from last year's estimated 7,000.
Robert Babcock, who was at last year's Atlanta rally, returned Thursday. Then, as now, he was unemployed. The 54-year-old machinist said he's been calling all over the country looking for work. His issue was both philosophical and practical: The government, he said, "can make it easier for companies to hire me -- by lowering their taxes."
The call for lower taxes is among the core beliefs of the tea party movement. In an attempt to codify the movement's tenets, national organizers Thursday announced its Contract From America, a 10-point plan modeled on the House Republicans' 1994 Contract With America.
The contract, drafted by online vote, included a call for "a simple and fair single tax rate system," a cap on federal spending growth and a balanced-budget constitutional amendment.
"We're just fed up," said Sue Sequeira, a Realtor who works in Roseville, a Sacramento suburb hit hard by the housing bust. "There seems to be more and more entitlement programs, and they're breaking the backs of working people."
But many of the day's events had a decidedly lighter tone.
In Atlanta, for instance, a ponytailed man worked his way through the crowd selling flags, and joked: "Hey, help the little guy here pay his taxes."
Times staff writers Robin Abcarian, Adam Weintraub, Richard Fausset and Seema Mehta contributed to this report, as did Kim Geiger and Clement Tan of the Washington bureau.