Tea Party Patriots did not want to lose Amy Kremer. The Atlanta activist had co-founded the organization. She’d helped organize some of the biggest events in the nationwide Tea Party movement. Then, at the end of September, Kremer decided to join the Tea Party Express, a project of the conservative Our Country Deserves Better PAC that was embarking on its third cross-country round of anti-tax, anti-spending rallies.
This wasn’t going to work for Tea Party Patriots. As several leaders in the group told TWI, they stressed to Kremer that Our Country Deserves Better was a partisan-leaning PAC that rushed to the aid of Republican candidates; working with them could imperil the tax status of non-profit Tea Party Patriots. Other leaders argued that Mark Williams, the vice chairman of Our Country Deserves Better, was a firebrand whose rhetoric made the rest of the movement look bad. In May, Kremer had told Newsmax.com that the movement was being “hijacked” by Republican operatives, with the biggest offenders being the Republican Governor’s Association. Kremer did not respond to multiple requests for comment from TWI.
Kremer turned down the advice and took the plunge,signing up for the Tea Party Express’s next tour. On September 27 she was removed from the board of Tea Party Patriots. She responded by locking the Tea Party Patriots email account, a problem that the other members of the group quickly solved, but one that rankled.
“It appears that Amy has chosen the Tea Party Express over Tea Party Patriots,” said Mark Meckler, a Sacramento, Calif. organizer. “That’s her decision.”
An argument has broken out, perhaps inevitably, between Tea Party activists and one of the groups that has laid claim to the Tea Party mantle. The self-described grassroots activists in Tea Party Patriots and the American Liberty Alliance see the Tea Party Express as a sham organization, using the political heft of the movement to push a bland, partisan Republican agenda. Privately and publicly, they accuse the Tea Party Express of being an “astroturf” outfit, a scheme for Republican strategists and candidates to take advantage of a movement that was chugging along fine without them.
“Right now,” said Tea Party Patriots national organizer Jenny Beth Martin, “we can’t be involved with PACs. We want to make sure the organizations we align with are in line with our core values–that they’re not just supporting one party over the other. There could be a point to the Tea Party Express, but I don’t think its goal is the best goal.”
Other Tea Party organizations were less diplomatic. Last week, Houston and Austin Tea Party organizers had argued with Tea Party Express organizers about the Express’s upcoming tour, somewhat controversially titled “Countdown to Judgment Day.” The local organizers didn’t want the Express to come; the Express put their cities on the map anyway. In response, Houston Tea Party organizer Josh Parker released a blistering statement declaring that his group did “not promote, support, or endorse the activities of the ‘Our Country Deserves Better’ PAC and its ‘Tea Party Express’ bus tour,” and that “a growing number of Tea Party organizers in the country are disclaiming any association with TPE.” A Houston organizer, Judy Holloway, grumbled, “I call it the astro-turf express.”
One complaint that Tea Party activists have about Our Country Deserves Better PAC is the amount of money–raised in email appeals that ask Tea Party attendees to keep the bus running. According to the PAC’s FEC filings, it has paid out $106,455.65 this year to Russo, Marsh & Associates, a Republican consulting firm. Sal Russo, that firm’s principal, is the chief strategist for Our Country Deserves Better PAC and Move America Forward, the political group that shares much of OCDB’s leadership. Howard Kaloogian, a former Republican assemblyman in California, is also a leader in both groups. And in 2008, Our Country Deserves Better PAC ran a more explicitly partisan campaign, a nationwide Stop Obama Tour. According to Lloyd Marcus, an African-American singer who traveled with both that tour and the Tea Party Express–and appeared in a November 2008 ad the group made to thank Sarah Palin for her 2008 vice presidential campaign–the group is simply being practical. The attacks from Tea Party activists were the sort of thing that “happens anywhere that there are human beings involved.”
The Houston Tea Party statement did not just attack these funding priorities. It also went after the Express employees personally. “Some personalities on the bus have viciously clashed with grassroots organizers,” Parker wrote, “made exceedingly childish and offensive public statements about others, and savaged grassroots organizers over the internet. [The Houston Tea Party Society] considers people with that temperament unfit to credibly represent the movement.”
Tea Party activists who’d worked with the Express recounted various problems with the Tea Party Express, such as being dragooned into setting up their stages and cleaning up after they left. Meckler was paid $500 by Our Country Deserves Better PAC for his help in setting up a Sacramento event.
“I’m the guy that brought Williams into the movement,” said Meckler. He hired Williams as an emcee for Sacramento’s April 15 Tea Party rally, with positive results. Then came “erratic behavior” from Williams at a June 27 rally against cap and trade legislation. Williams, said Meckler, started “yelling through megaphone,” drawing the attention of police, whom Meckler had to pull away from the scene. “In my book,” said Meckler, “once you go off on law enforcement you step over the line.”
Williams didn’t respond to interview requests from TWI, and Our Country Deserves Better PAC spokesman Joe Wierzbicki declined to make Williams available for an interview, explaining that he and the rest of the staff were too busy and focused on the upcoming tour. But Wierzbicki, acknowledging Meckler’s complaints, said that most Tea Party groups were perfectly happy working with the Express. “We do NOT consider ourselves at OCDB or the Tea Party Express to be the leaders of the movement in any way,” said Wierzbicki. “We are just one part of the big faction. Think of it like the anti-war movement. Code Pink was not the definitive voice. Nor was MoveOn.org or International ANSWER or anyone else. There were a lot of groups involved that made up the coalition. It’s a similar dichotomy with the tea party movement.”
That’s not quite how Williams has sold the Tea Party Express. During its journey to Washington for the 9/12 taxpayer march, the Tea Party Express was heavily promoted by Fox News–Griff Jenkins, who’d reported live from Washington, D.C.’s April 15 Tea Party, was embedded on the bus. In media appearances, Williams said that the Tea Party Express was “herding cats,” and “giving people a constructive outlet” for their activism. And in those media appearances, Williams repeated some red-hot rhetoric–calling the president an “Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug”–that, according to other Tea Party activists, reflected poorly on the movement.
“I have a 13-year-old son,” said Meckler. “He reads the news. I want to be sure I can tell him, with moral certitude, that this”–referring to Williams’ rhetoric–”is not how we are.”
The partisan aspect of the spat–the question of whether or not Tea Party groups should embrace the GOP–looks likely to remain a sticking point between different factions of the movement.
“The thing that has endeared me to Our Country Deserves Better is their standing up for conservative values,” said Lloyd Marcus. “There are some conservative Democrats, but the fact of the matter that people pushing this far-left liberal agenda are mostly Democrats.”
Marcus did have a ready exception to that rule. “I can’t tell you how many conservatives I meet are Joe Lieberman fans.”