One year and one day ago, Mark Meckler was known locally mostly for creating Cafe Mekka, the popular Nevada City hangout he opened in 1993 and ran for five years with his wife, Patty.
Then Meckler attended a hastily organized "Tea Party" on the steps of the Capitol in Sacramento - and catapulted himself onto the national political stage.
Since then, Meckler has crisscrossed the country as one of the co-founders of the Tea Party Patriots. He has emerged as one of the public faces of the admittedly amorphous movement, giving interviews to the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor and CNN.
He has shown his political savvy with some political stunts given wide play in the media. In December, Meckler won headlines when he organized a die-in on Capitol Hill - and when he claimed that staffers for independent Sen. Joe Lieberman tried to have him arrested.
He's handsome, charismatic and intelligent - but Meckler, 48, insists he will "never" seek political office.
"I can make a bigger difference from the outside, rather than stepping into the cesspool myself," he said.
"I'm a very private person; I never had the desire to be front and center. I can better serve the movement by lifting up other people and pushing them to stay on track."
Meckler, a Southern California native and McGeorge Law School graduate, moved to Nevada County in 1993, looking for a quiet, low-crime, rural area in which to raise his family.
"I was always very into the art scene and music - in college, I was a punk rock DJ," he said. "That's where I come from."
But Meckler also grew up with solid "cowboy ethics," courtesy of his dad, Stan.
"He had this underlying, tremendous love of America and raised (me) as a very strong patriot," Meckler said.
Nevada County appealed to him because it has a "very alternative culture, but there are also loggers and miners and truckers."
Meckler at first practiced law, then "threw all his energy" into running Cafe Mekka. When he sold the coffeehouse in 1997, he started MekTek Industries, which manufactured equipment for snow-skiing operations. Then, he "stumbled into" Internet marketing law, which allowed him to work from home - an important consideration once Jacob, 14, and Lucy, 10, came along.
Meckler's expertise in Internet-based marketing perfectly positioned him to facilitate the explosive growth of the Tea Party movement through social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook.
CNBC commentator Rick Santelli sparked the movement in 2009 with an on-air call for a Tea Party protest, which was quickly picked up by Top Conservatives on Twitter - a list of the most-followed conservative Tweeters. A Facebook page was put together to organize some tea parties and within a week, 48 separate events were scheduled for Feb. 27.
"It was just explosive," Meckler recalled.
He heard about it online and decided to attend the one in Sacramento with his family.
"I wanted to show the kids what the First Amendment was all about," Meckler said. "We brought pre-made signs. At first, no one was there. The police came over to give us a hard time - we didn't know we needed a permit."
Eventually, about 150 people showed up, a number Meckler found "astounding."
"It was liberating to feel there were other people out there" who felt the same way, he said.
There were "people from all walks of life, both political parties, pro-choice, pro-life, Prop. 8 supporters and gay-rights activists," Meckler said. "It was magic - it was something I'd never seen in politics. That really jacked me up."
Meckler, who describes himself as a "natural networker," quickly began working to link up organizers and solidify the Tea Party movement. He helped organize a statewide Tax Day Tea Party on April 15 and then was asked to become the state coordinator for the national effort.
"I'm the guy who always raises his hand," he said. "That's how I got 'catapulted' to the forefront. It's very unglamorous work."
After the nationwide protests drew what Meckler said was an estimated 1.2 million participants, a decision was made to form the Tea Party Patriots.
"Some of us weren't willing to let it die," he said.
Meckler stresses three primary themes for Tea Partiers - fiscal responsibility, a government limited by the United States Constitution, and free markets.
The core issue of fiscal responsibility is just common sense, he argues - and it's a message "the majority of Americans know in their gut."
Fiscal conservatism does not mean shirking social responsibilities, Meckler noted, insisting that "if we get our fiscal house in order, there will be plenty of money to take care of those who need help ...
"There is waste, fraud and abuse at every level. There's plenty of wealth in this country," Meckler said. "So much of it is frittered away."
Although the Tea Party movement is often associated with the Republican Party, Meckler strongly disavows a political connection. He dropped his own Republican affiliation eight years ago and now is a registered Independent.
"I felt like the Republican Party didn't represent my values," he said. "The political parties represent entrenched interests ... and they never do what they say."
Meckler estimated that about 40 percent of the people who are part of the Tea Party movement are Republicans, with another 40 percent identifying themselves as independent and 20 percent identifying themselves as Democrats.
He stressed the distinctions among the Tea Party Patriots, the Tea Party Express - which is run by a Republican political consultant and raises funds for a PAC - and the recent Tea Party Nation convention, which offered a lot of exposure but also gave the erroneous impression that Sarah Palin is the leader of the Tea Party movement.
"With any movement, you'll have people attach themselves for good reasons and bad reasons," Meckler said. "You're going to have the crazies, (like) the birthers, but that's not the movement. You can't judge the movement by the fringe."
("Birthers" is a term used to refer to people who question President Barack Obama's citizenship.)
Meckler also refutes any perception the movement has splintered, arguing that is a charge used by the political left to denigrate Tea Partiers - and by members of the right wing who come from the "old, top-down paradigm."
"They want to know who's the leader," he said. "And, too, some people call for unity because they want to be the leader. You see that with the GOP; they're trying to co-opt the movement as hard as they can.
"The Republican Party is not the Tea Party. Anybody who tries to co-opt the movement doesn't understand the Tea Party. We cannot be co-opted."
The Tea Party strategy, as Meckler sees it, starts at the very local level, developing a "farm team" that will run for city council and school board seats, training to move up to the next political level.
"I expect to see a revolution of elected leaders who believe in fiscal responsibility," he said.
The ideal candidate? Someone who really believes in public service, in putting country ahead of party.
"I think Ronald Reagan would have loved the Tea Party," he said.
Meckler has no problem being called politically naive.
"I can't tell you the number of times politicians have told me, 'You just don't understand how it works,'" Meckler said, dropping into a Southern accent.
But politicians need to know the electorate is paying attention, Meckler added.
"This is what we've been guilty of the last 20 years: We let them get away with it," he said. "Our job is to melt the phones, to send the e-mails."
Part of the sea change he advocates has to do with people acting as "permanent citizen activists."
"I spent my life voting for people I at least marginally believed in," but never held them accountable, he said ruefully. "A lot of good people have gone to Washington and gotten co-opted by the system. I think we've got to send people to Washington and make sure they don't get co-opted."
Meckler references Thomas Jefferson and the Mel Gibson film "Braveheart" in his willingness to subsume all to the Tea Party cause.
"It's this incredibly difficult thing, to do what I believe is right to save the country."
Asked how he handles the stress, Meckler teared up.
"It's been tough," he said, adding he doesn't care about the effect this has had on his career as a lawyer. "All I've ever wanted is to be a good guy - a great husband and a great dad. I think I have been, and I'm proud of that. I designed my career to be home with my kids and my wife.
"I've never liked traveling .... and this ride has required that. I hate being away from my family, and I've probably been away 40 days in the last two months," Meckler said. "It gives me a lot of sympathy for those in public office."
Meckler - who recently sent out a personal e-mail to friends and family asking for financial help - said he's not alone in making a deep personal investment.
"I'm representative of what's happened to others in the movement," he said. "We're willing to sacrifice it all.
"It's a brutal balance," he said, then added, his eyes reddening, "I don't think there is a balance."
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call (530) 477-4229.