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Once quiet, now vocal: Tea party head wants all sides heard

Art Havenhill, of Seneca, once only talked about politics. Now he's doing something about it. He heads the La Salle County Tea Party.
Art Havenhill, of Seneca, once only talked about politics. Now he's doing something about it. He heads the La Salle County Tea Party.

Years ago, Seneca residents Art Havenhill and his wife, Ruth, weren't active in politics. Not so these days.

"Both of us were like so many people are today," said Art, 73. "We read things, we heard things and we said, 'What the hell are they doing?' That was the extent of it. As far as being active, we weren't, only at the mouth."

For the last eight years, the couple have been involved in the tea party. Art was a co-founder of the Bureau and La Salle County Tea Party, which is now called the La Salle County Tea Party.

The group meets monthly at Pitstick Pavilion north of Ottawa. Often, the keynote speakers represent conservative organizations. Other times, the tea party hears from politicians, including Republicans, Democrats and Libertarians. Art said it's important members hear from all sides.

The Havenhills moved from the suburbs to Seneca two decades ago to place their son in the local schools.

Art spent more than a decade working in the credit and collections field, including at Encyclopedia Britannica in Chicago. In the latter part of his career, he worked at Harrah's Casino in Joliet, holding such positions as dealer, pit supervisor and slot training coordinator.

Ironically, neither of the Havenhills are interested in gambling, saying they don't think it's a good way to spend money.

For a time, Havenhill taught automotive technology at Chicago Heights-based Prairie State College.

"I don't have a degree. I'm a gearhead and used to race cars. It was a hobby of mine," Art said.

Art said he has always been a Republican, just like his parents, though he has voted for Democrats.

"I look at the person more than the party," he said.

His home office is not all politics. On one wall is a small photo of Ronald and Nancy Reagan. On the other is a certificate he received from Harrah's. Next to his keyboard is a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, which the tea party distributes at its meetings.

The tea party movement began in early 2009 in reaction to federal deficit spending and the bailouts of big banks. It backed smaller government and expressed unhappiness with the policies of both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. It strongly opposed the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare.

In 2010, the Havenhills became involved in the tea party after meeting with then-U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Crete, in Peru. She was offering office hours to meet with constituents.

The Havenhills said they didn't have a good experience in discussing Obamacare with Halvorson. The congresswoman supported it; the Havenhills were against. They found the congresswoman rude and condescending.

Outside the venue, a woman with a clipboard was opposed to Obamacare.

"She could see the fury in my face," Art recalled.

Her name was Chris Arndt; she lived in Princeton at the time. They found common cause, and shortly after, Art and Arndt formed the Bureau and La Salle County Tea Party.

At its third meeting, the local tea party attracted more than 400 people. Not long after, it attracted nearly 800 at a meeting at Illinois Valley Community College, where Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Brady spoke.

This was at the height of the tea party movement nationally. Locally, dozens still attend monthly tea party meetings, typically more than most government meetings in the area. Art is called the coordinator of the local tea party group.

'That's a personal thing'

Traditionally, the tea party movement has stayed away from social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

At the local tea party's August meeting, questions for two congressional candidates shifted from economic to social issues. The queries about abortion and marriage got more intense. Looking back, Art, the moderator, said he took too long to stop the discussion and encourage members to shift the focus back to economics.

"Social issues vary from person to person," he said. "Ruth and I may differ on some social issues. That's a personal thing. Realistically, you have to get into some of them."

"People feel strongly about those issues," Ruth, 74, added.

Asked about his favorite presidents, Art placed Reagan and Calvin Coolidge at the top of his list. John F. Kennedy also ranks highly.

"My choice of Kennedy may be a surprise," Art said. "He was a tax cutter. He believed in a strong defense. He started the race to the moon. That took a lot of foresight."

Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman also place among his favorites.

As for the worst presidents, Art listed Woodrow Wilson ("a far left guy for the time") and Jimmy Carter ("very, very weak").

No 'negative effects' yet

Art doesn't consider President Donald Trump a small-government advocate, but believes spending will drop after a while under the Trump administration.

"I think he is someone who wants more efficiency in government," Art said. "If the efficiency goes up, the number of government personnel will probably go down."

Ruth added, "The president is talking about increasing the military. That's very costly."

Art worries about the federal government's more than $20 trillion in debt.

"We haven't felt the negative effects of that yet," Art said, "but we will."

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