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A 'tea party' predecessor

Before the national movement gained traction, there was the Gang of Four in a township in Michigan — four trustees who took to task what they considered profligate Republicans and dramatically scaled back government.

October 30, 2010|By Richard Fausset, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Flushing Township, Mich. — Before there was a " tea party," there was the crew of arch-conservative budget hawks that took over this staid Midwestern suburb — the group that critics call the Gang of Four.

It's a nickname that the core members — a contractor, a former hog farmer, a sheriff's deputy and a libertarian economist — have adopted with good humor as they've carried out their own revolution in this one-restaurant hamlet of 10,200 people, deposing what they considered to be a profligate Republican regime and dramatically scaling back government.

Since forming a majority on the Board of Trustees in November 2008, the Gang has shrunk the Police Department from 13 officers to six, eliminated the building inspector and park staff positions, and cut board members' dental, vision and guaranteed pension benefits.

The Gang has discussed pulling out of the maintenance contract for the local cemetery. There was some talk of eliminating the gas money for the van at the senior center.

This month, some locals were dismayed when the Gang canceled "Nature Halloween," a pumpkin-painting and educational event that typically drew 1,000 costumed kids. It cost the township about $1,000.

"Why can't the government do something nice for the people once in a while?" said Ida Reed, 82, a former board member and one of numerous residents who don't understand why the township — which balances its budget every year, in accordance with state law — should be considered in crisis. "If nobody came, I could understand it. But they had droves of people come in. They took them on hayrides."

The Gang has been motivated by questions at the heart of the nation's rowdy, recession-era shout-fest. "It's one thing we've been saying in unison that's similar to the tea party mantra," said Trustee Mike Gardner, the economist. "What is the proper role of government? What expenditures are truly necessary?"

The austere answers offered by the tea party have been limited largely to slogans on placards. In Flushing Township, the Gang of Four has turned the placards into policy. The reaction has been fierce.

For decades, board meetings were sleepy affairs. These days, the modest council chamber — with its folding chairs and "In God We Trust" poster — tends to be packed. Gang critics alight on the left of the aisle, supporters on the right.

"It's been a zoo. It's been an absolute zoo," left-side local Sandy Lanxton, 69, whispered to a visitor just before the board's October meeting. "They're getting rid of our police. They don't support what this town should build up.... You know, they're tea baggers."

Right-sider Gordon "Mike" Cookingham, 74, said the recession awakened residents to the realization that their government had grown arrogant and bloated.

"This group," he said nodding to the Gang, "has saved us a ton of money."

The Gang — Gardner; Mark Purkey, 56, the contractor; Scott Minaudo, 39, the deputy; and Bill Noecker, 59, the farmer — narrowly survived a bitter recall campaign last year.

They inherited a Police Department whose budget swelled from $660,000 per year to $1.2 million between 2001 and 2009, even though the township, with its modest homes on generous, woodsy lots, has not had any serious crime waves. The Gang preferred to cut cops rather than raise taxes.

Other cuts are necessary, they say, because the previous board saddled the township with over-generous pensions. They are also concerned about possible future declines in revenue from property taxes and the state sales tax, of which they receive a modest yearly chunk.

Noecker — a big, blustery man with a white Wilfred Brimley moustache — fears that there isn't much on the horizon, here in General Motors country, to replace the tens of thousands of jobs lost since the mid-1970s.

Across the nation this year, many towns and cities have been reluctantly slashing services, including public safety, in response to declining revenue.

But in Flushing Township, residents like Kurt Zimmerman — a Republican who mounted the recall — contend that the Gang has gone overboard.

"Even communism looks good on paper," said Zimmerman, 55, who manages a chain of hardware stores. "Even though I agree with some of their ideals, there's no compromise when you're dealing with a revolutionary."

Gardner, who founded a countywide tea party, said that was the point.

"That's where people in politics get a bad name, when they have their ideals, but they leave them at the door for compromise," he said. "I believe we need to hold to our ideals."

The seeds of insurrection were planted shortly after May 2008, when voters rejected, by 69 votes, a property tax increase to avoid laying off police officers.

"Most people thought we were paying enough in taxes, and the economy was just starting to fold up," Zimmerman said. "It's not like these people didn't have an extra $80 to $100 a year, but they just decided they'd had enough."

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