Is Michigan’s Mysterious ‘Tea Party’ A ‘Sham Organization’ Hatched By Dems?

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A mysterious “tea party” is causing a stir in Michigan politics this summer. It doesn’t sound like the conservative-backed tea party you’ve heard so much about this year, and better known elements of the movement are disavowing it. To hear many political watchers in Michigan tell it, the new Michigan Tea Party — which has submitted 60,000 signatures to the state in an attempt to get on the ballot, mostly in races where Democrats are facing tough Republican opposition — is nothing but a Democrat-hatched plot to siphon votes from the right and help Dem candidates win.

The state Democrats have denied any involvement in the Michigan Tea Party.

Founded by Mark Steffek, a retired UAW worker in the Thumb area, the Michigan Tea Party is trying to field “23 candidates for offices ranging from Secretary of State to Oakland County Commission,” the Detroit Free Press reported yesterday. Steffek says the party’s for real, though he doesn’t want to talk much about it. The Free Press only managed to snag an interview with him earlier this month after “weeks of avoiding the media,” and even that didn’t shed much light on the mystery.

Steffek says his party is focused on “concern over deficit spending and government debt, but is also opposed to free trade agreements like NAFTA that he believes cost American jobs.” Those are all solidly tea party issues. But the man helping Steffek get the party off the ground is a former Democratic party operative and aide to former Gov. James Blanchard (D). That fact, coupled with other nuggets about the party, like Steffek’s refusal “to identify the source of tens of thousands of dollars” that paid for a 60,000-name signature drive that got the party on the ballot, has left many conservatives in the state crying foul.“It’s a sham. It’s an attempt to confuse voters in November,” tea party movement organizer Wendy Day told the Detroit News earlier this month.

The state Republican party agrees with Day’s assessment — party chair Ron Weiser told the News that the party is a creation of “desperate stooges of the Democratic Party” who “have attempted to confuse Michigan voters by hijacking the name of the tea party movement.”

So, who’s to be believed? The angry tea partiers in Michigan or the cryptic group behind the Michigan Tea Party? The answer is unclear, though most of the reports coming out of Michigan seem to side with the critics of the party rather than its supporters.

They point to the list of candidates the Tea Party hopes to field as evidence that the party is likely more about helping Democrats than the tea party movement. Inside Michigan Politics editor Bill Ballenger told Michigan Public Radio that the legislative and Congressional races which will have Tea Party candidates on the ballot if the party gets its way “seem to have been chosen where one more name on the ballot could change the outcome.”

“Clearly, I think, this is a nefarious attempt by a band of troublemakers to influence the result of the November election in a way that would disadvantage the Republican Party,” Ballenger told Michigan Public Radio.

Though the Michigan Tea Party seems set to make it onto ballots this fall after submitting 60,000 signatures to state officials this week, some tea partiers in the state have vowed to stop the Tea Party dead in it’s tracks. They’re calling on the state board of canvassers to throw out the signatures and keep the Tea Party off the ballot.

“We’re concerned that a number of the signatures were collected unwittingly from people that were not properly explained what this tea party really was,” Jim Lefler a member of Michigan Tea Party Patriots told WILX-TV this week. “We consider it to be a sham organization.”

The board has until August 13 to review the signatures and decide what to do next. Lefler told WILX his group of tea partiers will sue if the Tea Party makes it on the ballot.

For its part, the Michigan Tea Party continues to claim it’s legit. Mike Hodge, the former Democratic party operative who’s now the Tea Party’s lawyer, told the Free Press that the leadership behind the party have remained in the shadows because “‘they feel they’re under attack.'”

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