NASHVILLE — At 1 p.m., four representatives of Tennessee Tea Party groups gathered in a ballroom adjacent to the National Tea Party Convention with about 50 reporters and unleashed the criticisms that had dogged the event in the weeks leading up to it. They couldn’t afford tickets on their own. They had tried, and failed, to get Judson Phillips to set up a cheaper and larger convention.
“We were told they wanted to keep the convention elite,” said Anthony Shreeve, who’d alerted reporters to the press conference, saying that the word came directly from Judson Phillips.
But persistent questioning from reporters found the organizers hesitant to “bash” the convention or keynote speaker Sarah Palin. “We’re happy about the success of this convention,” said Jim Tomasik, a Tea Party activist from Cordoba, Tenn. “We’re impressed that they could get Sarah Palin.”
The activists attempted to promote the state-wide Tennessee Tea Party Coalition, which they set up in late January, passing out the one-page constitution they’d written and informing the press that the National Tea Party Convention didn’t represent any of their members. But the rest of the criticism was unclear, and they backed off whenever they realized they’d sounded harsh.
“So what’s your message?” asked Carl Cameron of Fox News. “Is it one of us and them?”
“Were you not here listening?” asked Tomasik.
“I was,” said Cameron.
At one point, the activists brushed off questions about Sarah Palin’s speaking fee. “We are capitalists,” said Antonio Hinton. “We don’t begrudge anyone for making money.”
But at another point, activist Mark Herr attacked Phillips for charging so much money for the convention to pay for Palin. “Government of the money, by the money, and for the money is unacceptable,” said Herr. The model for the Tea Party movement, he said, was more like the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition.
After the press conference, the activists backed off even further on Palin, rejecting the idea that negative press about the convention’s cost — buzz that included this press conference — should reflect badly on her.
“I want her to run for president next time,” said Tomasik. “I’m proud of her! She’s making some money. She’s not hurting herself at all.”
Some National Tea Party Convention activists who wandered by the scrum were annoyed at the Tennessee Tea Party Coalition’s antics.
“They’re trying to cause infighting between the tea parties,” said Vern Shockwell, a retiree from Nashville. “Theirs is a socialist goal, equality for everyone.”
“I go to a lot of trade shows,” said Lee Penner, a medical supplies salesman from Nebraska. “They’re expensive. How are you supposed to put on a convention and feed everyone and not charge for it?”
The activists hung around after the event to take more of that kind of criticism — some of it coming in a combative interview with Pajamas TV, which is livestreaming the event.
“It was a very tasteful press conference,” said Reese. “There’s a lot of controversy over it, so I wasn’t surprised that they wanted to ask questions about conflict. But what we weren’t here for that.”
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