First Person - Oh, to be young and in the Tea Party

Chandler Epp, Georgia Tech senior and conservative

Chandler Epp is the vice chair of the Georgia Association of College Republicans, a political operative and a proud member of the movement that, after just two years of Democratic rule in Washington, D.C., blossomed out of nowhere to help usher in a Republican sweep in state-wide races. The 22-year-old Lilburn native and Georgia Tech senior discusses why he joined the Tea Party, how the movement has been smeared as racist nutjobs with misspelled signs and the rising numbers of young Republicans.

I was a news junkie as a kid. Even as an elementary and middle school student, I used to read the paper every morning before school. I'd read anything I could get my hands on — the back of the cereal box, anything. I used to run around the house singing the CNN theme song. It's purely instrumental, but somehow I managed to do it. So I've always loved news, learning about current events and reading what's going on in the world.

I come from a pretty conservative family. But I wouldn't say my parents were particularly politically active in the sense they do stuff other than going out to vote. There was the dinner-table talk about current events. Around the time I was a freshman in high school or eighth grade, I became a precinct captain for Herman Cain's U.S. Senate campaign in 2004. That was my first political action, going door to door with my grandpa, helping out the campaign office and getting a taste for what politics is all about. It's very fulfilling in the way that you feel like everything you're doing is making a difference. I guess I'm a little idealistic as a young person. There's that tangible feeling that we can change things and make peoples' lives better.

When the Tea Party held its first big rally in the nation, in Atlanta on the Capitol steps with 20,000 people, I was there. A bunch of College Republicans and I went.

I was totally unprepared for what was there. You couldn't move. Shoulder to shoulder, wall to wall, taking up the entire block around the Capitol and streaming into the streets around it. American flags, people in patriotic, revolutionary outfits. Sean Hannity was broadcasting live, Fox News was there. The atmosphere was very palpable. You could tell that something was happening that was very big. Twenty-thousand people just didn't show up for nothing. This wasn't a fleeting moment. This was a wake-up call. You could get the sense from being there that we would not go unheard. And that there was no way they could ignore us now.

To me, the Tea Party is exemplified by people disaffected with the status quo. These are people who are, by and large, concerned citizens, patriots. There's no ill will toward Democrats or President Obama. It's the policies. The movement scared the Democrats. They went on the attack because it represented an inherent threat to their ideology and world view — spend more, tax more, "do more" government — it was a complete 180. The only way for the opponents of the idea to stifle the movement was to sensationalize it or paint them as racists or as extremists.

In the media, sure, there were all these accusations, liberal media nitpicking, picking out one random person in a crowd that had an offensive sign who didn't represent the views of mainstream Tea Partiers. It certainly didn't work as we saw a huge success by Tea Party candidates this past November.

A lot of Tea Party members and conservatives, myself included, had been turned away from Republican overreaches during the Bush years. The massive spending, running up the deficits — that was so contrary to what we thought was responsible government. It seemed like both parties weren't living up to the Founding Fathers' ideals or the Constitution. They'd strayed from their ways. The Tea Party gave an avenue to those who felt disappointment in both parties for not working together, continuing to allow economic decline, and not pursuing the correct policies to turn it around.

People were proclaiming conservatism dead after Obama's handy win in 2008, and then one year later you had this complete revival. I don't think you would have had the 2010 Republican gains without the Tea Party. It was the galvanizing factor. It reignited the conservative base. It refocused the Republican Party on its core principles: financial accountability, individual responsibility, civil liberties and social conservatism as well.

I think young people have been disappointed, not with the lack of change, but the kind of change we've seen since Obama's been elected. Part of the euphoria surrounding Obama's campaign with young people was the idea that finally someone would get it right. They'd say, "Let's get in there and get things back on track."

But the financial situation is not sustainable. Entitlements are running out the window. We can talk all we want about cutting discretionary spending, but the deficit keeps ballooning to the point that other countries will say, "We won't loan you any more money." We're not there right now, but we're definitely reaching the precipice. And people are awakening to that fact.

When I ran for vice chair, during my nomination speech, I said, "I have to give a shout-out to President Obama, because he's been the most tireless recruiter we've ever had. We need to give this guy an award because, between him, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, they've really turned out the youth vote in a surprising way."

If you look at the poll numbers, around 60 percent of young people voted Democrat in 2008. That trend was greatly diminished in 2010. We had a record number of College Republicans sign up. College Republicans made more than two million voter contacts and signed up thousands of new recruits. People who've never been political before were saying, "We have to do something now or it's going to screw me when I'm in the workforce."

Young people — whether they ID as Tea Partiers or plain old conservative Republicans — they want the same thing. We're the most worried of all age groups. These changes we see happening to the detriment of our country, they'll affect us most directly. We'll have to clean up the mess that Washington is creating. We're looking for answers.

Will I ever run for office? (Laughs) I don't know. I just love being able to do my part and thinking we're making a difference. It's our future, it's my future, that we're trying to improve. I don't want to grow up in a United States that's been diminished economically, militarily, you name it. We're saying, Let's put the brakes on the decline now and return to that morning in America that Ronald Reagan talked about.