Rus Thompson might not be marching with the tea party had he not been thrown out of a Grand Island Town Board meeting 17 years ago.
The self-employed home-remodeling contractor, who shuttled Carl Paladino across the state as a driver during the 2010 gubernatorial campaign, has since become the face of the tea party for many in Western New York.
Maybe you saw him in a tricornered hat at tea party rallies or heard him urge thousands in Niagara Square to protest a new gun-control law.
But back then, in 1996, Thompson was trying to get a proposal pushed through the Town Board. The way he explains it, when the motion failed to get a second, he and two other guys were escorted from the room by a police officer for interrupting the meeting.
He saw the board’s refusal to vote on the proposal as political retribution against one of the members of the board. “Three months of very hard work were thrown out the window,” he recalled last week.
It’s the kind of small-town politics that erodes people’s faith in government, and for Thompson, it sent him on a quest of political activism. He spent years attending Town Board meetings, writing letters, bouncing from party to party as he challenged entrenched politicians and fought to remove the Grand Island tolls.
So the local tea party leader wasn’t all that surprised last week when he learned that the Internal Revenue Service was under fire for singling out applications for nonprofit status from groups that included the words “tea party” or “patriots” in the name.
“We need to have trust in all of our government agencies,” Thompson said. “But with everything that’s been going on, more and more of that trust is going by the wayside.”
Thompson’s group never applied for nonprofit status. He knew that its main goals would be political, so it would exceed rules that limit electioneering by tax-exempt social welfare groups. But he has been appalled at the findings in an inspector general’s report confirming that IRS workers used “inappropriate criteria” when they attempted to weed out political organizations.
Ousted IRS head Steven Miller offered a head-scratching explanation last week, calling the decisions “foolish mistakes” by “people trying to be more efficient in their workload selection.”
It’s a tough justification to swallow for such boneheaded behavior, even when you learn how ridiculously swamped the unit tasked with processing organizations’ applications for tax-exempt status really was.
Americans might love to hate the IRS, but it’s an agency that requires us to have at least some semblance of trust that it is treating people fairly. It relies, after all, on people to honestly report what they’ve made and tally up their taxes.
Good government – whether at the local Town Board or in a bureaucratic federal building – is built on faith that leaders, for the most part, are motivated by doing what’s right. Without basic fairness, we might as well start printing this on the dollar bill: “In the United States, we’ve got very little trust.”