Tea partiers expect 6,000 at Saturday rally at airport

| Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Southwest PA Tea Party will stage its third rally in Westmoreland County in less than a year when supporters of the movement gather at 9 a.m. Saturday at the Greensburg-Jeannette Regional Airport in Penn Township.

Event organizers said they expect a crowd of 6,000 or more to hear the keynote speaker, former Sen. Rick Santorum.

Melinda Donnelly of Greensburg, one of the event organizers, said petitions will be circulated calling for the enactment of two state House bills that would declare "state sovereignty" in the health care reform debate.

House bills 2053 and 2179, sponsored by Rep. Matt Baker, a Bradford County Republican, would set the stage for the state to "opt out" of the health reform measure passed by Congress in March, Donnelly said.

"Basically, what we are saying is you should have a choice" whether or not to purchase insurance coverage, she said.

The first Southwest PA Tea Party rallies, July 4 and Sept. 12, were held at Bushy Run Battlefield in Penn Township. An unaffiliated tea party rally in front of the Westmoreland County courthouse took place in April 2009.

The venue for Saturday's rally, the old Bouquet Airport, was chosen because of concerns about the parking lot at Bushy Run after a harsh winter. "We were afraid it would be a little muddy," Donnelly said.

The crowds have grown from 1,500 for the first rally to 2,500 for the second and an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 for the third, said another organizer, Brian Sayre of Monroeville.

"The whole point of the rallies is to get people involved," he said.

Donnelly described the conservative-leaning tea party as essentially educational. "The party is not looking to influence the Democratic or the Republican parties," she said. "We want to influence voters."

Donnelly said Santorum's appearance is not political. "He is a very conservative individual who is a Republican," she said. "We were looking for conservative speakers."

Several trips Santorum has made in recent months to Iowa and New Hampshire have fueled speculation that he will run for president in 2012. The Web site for his political action committee, America's Foundation, contains a link to an Iowa newspaper article discussing his possible candidacy.

Sayre, describing the movement as "grassroots," said Santorum would have to impress people if he expects to run for president with backing from tea party members. "I think Rick has to show the people, and the people will decide," he said.

Other speakers at the rally will be Grove City College economics professor Mark Hendrickson; Keith Klinger, president of the state Landowners Association; and radio talk show host Jeff Kuhner.

The gates open two hours before the speaking program kicks off at 11 a.m. Twelve "educational booths" will be open, including People for the Unborn Child, Firearms Owners Against Crime and Western Westmoreland 9-12, Donnelly said.

Penn Township police Chief Paul Ronca said officers will not provide security for the event but will assist with traffic control, if needed.

"We are not worried about security," Donnelly said.

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