In Fort Worth and beyond, Coffee Party tries for more civil approach

Annabel Park wanted to talk about the proposed healthcare reform earlier this year, but she found it hard to get past the frustration and anger being expressed by many.

So she turned to Facebook and suggested that people interested in the issue get together for a cup of coffee and "have real political dialogue with substance and compassion."

With that message, Park started a movement now known as the Coffee Party -- an effort she said is designed to counter the grassroots Tea Party effort.

"The Tea Party was triggering panic, fear and hatred even," said Park, 42, a documentary filmmaker from Maryland. "Their rhetoric is very extreme, designed to trigger emotions.

"I think we need to bring things down to the ground level and really look at the facts before we get emotional about it," she told the Star-Telegram, adding that she felt as if "that dialogue was missing from the healthcare debate, and it's still missing."

But as people nationwide connect with the Coffee Party, Park and others believe they are getting closer to that calm dialogue.

On Facebook, nearly 230,000 have signed on to the "Join the Coffee Party Movement." At least 680 have signed on to the movement in Texas and more than 100 in Fort Worth, according to their Facebook pages.

Some political observers say that while the Coffee Party's goal is laudable, emotion is often needed to drive an issue to success or failure.

"In politics, there has to be real passion behind your position if you are going to have an impact," said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "The group certainly is attractive when judged against the Tea Party, which can be raw and more emotional than thoughtful. It's nice to see reason given priority over emotion.

"But in politics, emotion plays a role and it keeps people working on a particular task."

The beginning

Park's post kicked off the Facebook Coffee Party movement in January. In March, the Fort Worth Coffee Party began, and members have now met four times, talking about healthcare and priorities in public education. At one gathering, they heard from state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

At their next meeting, on Saturday, they'll talk about how to have an impact on the November elections.

Local members stress that this is a grassroots group with no political or religious affiliation, although many members are Democrats or Libertarians. There are no fees or dues, and participation is open to anyone interested in an informed political discussion.

"We are open to people of all political persuasions," said Kathryn Hansen, one of the organizers of the Fort Worth group. "I would like for our group to be an example to our politicians of how to compromise, always remain civil and 'play nice.' We can only improve our state/country if we work together.

"Spreading inflammatory lies and verbally abusing people with different views is very un-American to me," Hansen said. "This is a democracy. Sometimes your party wins; sometimes the other party wins. We have to recognize that and work together and compromise in order to move forward."

Linda Jenkins, another member, said the group plays an important role.

"Although the Coffee Party began, in part, as an alternative to the Tea Party, it's important not to depict it as simply that," she said. "If we have ideas for reform that are congruent with those of the Tea Party, we would work with Tea Partiers."

"We believe a strong government is important and that we have an obligation to contribute to strengthening government," Jenkins said. "We support politicians who cooperate to enact reforms and will work to defeat politicians who are obstructionists."

A civil discourse

The key, members say, is to focus on civility, which is why many members sign a pledge promising to be "civil, honest and respectful" even toward people with whom they disagree.

"Some Americans, like us, are angry, yes -- angered by the loud and uncivil people who are obstructing important reforms in areas like healthcare, the environment/energy, education and the financial sector," Jenkins said. "We're angry at what we see as lies being promulgated. ... We want to channel that anger into positive, considerate citizen participation."

But some within the Tea Party movement, which has propelled many Americans frustrated with big government and growing federal spending to protest what's happening in Washington, D.C., say they aren't paying much attention to "coffee parties."

"Our nose is to the grindstone on educating citizens on issues, legislation, candidates and our founding principles so that all citizens can see how liberalism spends us into huge debt, increases the size of government and strips us of our personal liberties," said Konnie Burton, a member of the Northeast Tarrant Tea Party.

Moving forward

Park said she had no idea that her first post, and her creation of a Coffee Party page on Facebook, would spark an effort that would draw like-minded people across the nation.

She has been traveling around the country talking to Coffee Party chapters, seeing a desire for civility in political debates that echoes her own.

To figure out the next steps of the Coffee Party effort, members will meet for an inaugural national convention Sept. 24-26 in Louisville, Ky. It's called "Wake Up & Stand Up America."

"We need to meet one another," Park said. "It would give people reassurance to know there are so many people who feel the way they do. We also need to put our heads together and figure out how we are going to go forward from here on."

ANNA M. TINSLEY, 817-390-7610