There was a time when Jim Fuentes wasn't sure whether the term "community activist" was a good thing. He still feels a need to qualify it when describing himself.
"I call myself a public servant," he said. "I am a positive activist in the community."
Otherwise, Fuentes has few verbal reservations. It takes a racecar to keep up.
In June, the highly energized 57-year-old Tinley Park native – who produces a local television show and boasts of sleeping only five hours a night – founded the Illinois Patriot Alliance Tinley Orland Park (TOP) Tea Party.
Across the nation, loosely affiliated groups like the TOP Tea Party have rallied under a banner claiming to be the moral heirs to the Boston Tea Party. Signifying a new wave of conservatism two years after voters put Barack Obama in the White House, the so-called tea parties have swept the nation under the leadership of people like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.
This is the story of our local tea party and what they believe.
A former village commissioner, high school wrestling coach and paramedic, TOP Tea Party founder Fuentes is found most days selling insurance in a quaint red building on Oak Park Avenue and select nights warming up a crowd between conservative candidates and speakers at the Tinley Park V.F.W. Hall Bremen Post 2791.
"November is coming," Fuentes thundered before a 100-person crowd on Thursday, amping them up for a midterm election tea parties like TOP hope will swing Congress right. "November is coming," the crowd entwined. "November is coming."
The self-described grassroots organization TOP preaches deregulation of markets and fiscal responsibility, as well as a strict interpretation of the Constitution. They hope to oust liberals and suspected socialists from county, state and federal offices.
With the help of the Palos Tea Party, run by Sue Hubbard, another retired teacher, TOP has been drumming support for conservative candidates on a platform of "change" – the same slogan that fueled Obama's 2008 campaign.
"I don't want to leave Illinois," Fuentes said. "My heart bleeds here. Why do I have to vote with my feet?"
Tea party newcomers and veterans say curiosity, as well as patriotic duty, inspires them to come rally every other week.
"Anything to help topple this regime," said one woman before a recording of John Wayne reciting the Pledge of Allegiance began rolling. "I'm hoping it influences those (voters) sitting on the fence."
Janet Chutro, a computer technician from Orland Park, was one of the few tea partiers willing to give her name along with her opinion.
"I'm here because I'm middle class, middle-aged and everybody thinks I should sit down and shut up," she said Thursday.
Chutro, of course, wasn't alone. The crowd was noticeably female, middle-aged and Christian. The rally began with a prayer and ended with a recitation of God Bless America.
Fuentes believes the tea party movement is inherently Christian. Like the church, TOP relies solely on donations. During meetings, they pass an Uncle Sam hat instead of a collection plate. The literature passed out at the door accuses Obama of ostracizing Christian beliefs to the fringe of serious debate.
"The Demos (Democrats) and the RINOs (Republicans In Name Only) have had their shot; we want new candidates that have the same mantra of our group," Fuentes said Thursday.
That mantra, he said, is "Faith, hope and charity," as laid out in the King James and some other translations of 1 Corinthians 13:13. Other translations replace the word "charity" with "love."
"The bottom line is we're on a mission from God," Fuentes said. "When I was a kid we said the Pledge of Allegiance (in school). What happened to that? I want the separation (of church and state), and I believe in it ... But can you say a prayer? Why not? What's wrong with that?"
(Editor's Note: The Pledge of Allegiance is still said in schools and at the beginning of local government meetings in Tinley Park and across the nation.)
The night's keynote speaker was Joseph Calomino, director of the Illinois chapter of Americans for Prosperity (AFP), an organization that receives talking points and funding from billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch.
Orland Park resident Paul Cervenka interrupted Calomino's speech – which covered such topics as Hispanic voters, "Reagan Democrats" and the importance of the collar counties in state elections – to ask about AFP's oil affiliation. Koch Industries, a conglomerate, dabbles in the refining and distribution of petroleum.
Calomino responded by saying he wishes there were more Koch brothers in the world.
"Americans for Prosperity has over 70,000 donors worldwide," Calomino said. "Here in Illinois, I have a little over 3,000 donors. I wish they were all Koch brothers because we'd be much more effective."
Calomino told Cervenka one person does not fund AFP, but many who have a desire to see the size and reach of government decrease. If the brothers' ideology aligns with that of millions of Americans, so be it, Calomino said.
"Whoever wants to give us money – whoever has that desire – we're willing to take it from them," he said of Americans for Prosperity and the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, which David Koch founded in 2004.
At a Democratic National Fundraiser two months ago in Austin, Texas, Obama criticized the group for its lack of transparency. In response, AFP produced a commercial Calomino played for his fellow tea partiers on Thursday.
"When you become productive and effective you're under attack constantly," he later said. "That's almost a badge of honor nowadays."