As the Tea Party movement approaches its one-year anniversary, grassroots activists increasingly are finding themselves fighting off what they see as cynical bids by unscrupulous sophisticates to co-opt the movement for their own ends.
These new players on the Tea Party scene are lawyers, political consultants, business-people, and even Republican politicians. They’re not working together for the most part, and the details of their efforts differ. But all have taken steps lately that have been denounced — often by Tea Party activists — as efforts to benefit personally from a movement that prides itself on its independence and incorruptability.
Who are these outsiders who stand accused of hijacking a grassroots movement?
• Sal Russo — The Tea Party Express (TPE)
Russo, a veteran California Republican political consultant, took the lead in creating Our Country Deserves Better (OCDB), the PAC behind TPE. The fledgling group grabbed headlines last summer with its cross-country bus tour, but has been slammed by grassroots Tea Partiers as an inauthentic GOP creation. We reported last month that most of OCDB’s spending went to Russo, Marsh. As one member of the Tea Party Patriots put it in an email to fellow activists: “What would the true grassroots people think if they knew their money is being spent in this manner?”
• Judson Phillips — National Tea Party Convention
Phillips, a Nashville defense attorney who specializes in DUI cases, last year created Tea Party Nation, a for-profit social networking site for conservative activists. Now he’s organizing the National Tea Party Convention, scheduled for next month in the Music City, with speeches planned from Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann. But the hefty price tag for the con-fab, and Phillips’s vague statements about what he plans to do with any profits generated, have grassroots Tea Partiers questioning his motives. “The Tea Party movement is about to be hijacked,” one wrote recently. Last week, one of the event’s lead sponsors pulled out, citing concerns over the financing, and Erick Erickson of RedState agreed that the convention “smells scammy.”
• Fred O’Neal and Doug Guetzloe — Tea Party of Florida
O’Neal, an Orlando lawyer, had had little involvement with the Tea Party movement last summer when he registered the Tea Party of Florida as an official political party. Lately — backed by his close ally Doug Guetzloe, a GOP consultant who in the past has been accused of numerous political dirty tricks (Guetzloe denies all those charges) — O’Neal has been claiming rights to the Tea Party name, and pressing some Tea Party activists to drop the moniker. O’Neal even told TPMmuckraker he planned to take his case national, by urging Phillips to rename his national convention. One Tea Partier warned fellow activists in an email that O’Neal and Guetzloe “are trying to ‘hijack’ our movement and turn it into the thing we are protesting for their own personal gain.” For his part, O’Neal told us he’s only aiming to prevent confusion in the public’s mind, and simply wants people to follow the law.
• Michael Steele and Sarah Palin
The RNC chairman has been cozying up to the Tea Party movement as he pitches his new book. “I’m a tea partier, I’m a town-haller, I’m a grass-roots-er,” he told a radio interviewer recently. And Palin is being paid what may be as much as $120,000 to speak at the national convention. (She recently said she won’t gain financially from the speech — a pledge that doesn’t rule out directing the fee to friendly political entities.) Most grassroots Tea Partiers remain supportive of Palin, and have no particular animosity toward Steele — though many remain deeply skeptical of efforts to work with the organized GOP. But some commentators see parallels between Steele and Palin and the other insiders being accused of co-opting the movement. The two GOP pols, wrote Frank Rich yesterday, represent “the rise of buckrakers who are exploiting the [Republican] party’s anarchic confusion and divisions to cash in for their own private gain.”
What these various skirmishes suggest is that the Tea Party movement finds itself, almost one year in, at a crossroads. Many of the grassroots activists who helped turn it into a major political phenomenon see the more sophisticated players who have recently emerged as a threat to the movement’s basic nature. But at the same time, it’s inevitable that people with ties to the GOP will seek to get involved with a movement that has harnessed grassroots conservative anger. And, this being America, it’s also no surprise that some people might try to turn a buck.
So maybe all this turmoil proves is that the Tea Party movement has arrived.