‘The Tea Party Movement Is About To Be Hijacked’: Activists Slam Plan For Convention

January 11, 2010 4:00 a.m.

In the latest sign of rancor in Tea Party circles, a convention billed as an effort to bring together conservative activists from across the country is being attacked by some leading Tea Partiers as inauthentic, too tied to the GOP, and — at $549 per head — too expensive for the working Americans the movement aspires to represent.

The National Tea Party Convention, scheduled for early February in Nashville, grabbed headlines after announcing that Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann would appear as speakers, Palin as the keynote. According to a message on the convention’s website, the event “is aimed at bringing the Tea Party Movement leaders together from around the nation.” But organizers are a long way from unifying the notoriously fractious movement.Tea Party Patriots, which helped put together a September rally that drew tens of thousands to Washington, view the confab — which is being held at Nashville’s swank Opryland Gaylord hotel — as the “usurpation of a grassroots movement,” according to Mark Meckler, a leader of the group. “Most people in our movement can’t afford anything like that,” Meckler told TPMmuckraker, referring to the price tag. “So it’s really not aimed at the average grassroots person.”

Robin Stublen, a Tea Party Patriots volunteer, echoed that view. “This convention is $550 dollars,” said Stublen. “How grassroots is that?”

Indeed, one conservative activist who has organized Tea Parties with several local groups told TPMmuckraker that even though she lives in the Nashville area, she still can’t afford to attend. “To me its not worth it,” said Toni, who blogs at Bear Creek Ledger and asked that her last name not be used. “I’m not gonna throw my money around for that.”

“The Tea Party I know never had $1000 to pay for anything,” another conservative activist told TPMmuckraker.

The high cost may be driven by the speakers’ fees that organizers are shelling out. One activist who is familiar with organizers’ plans told TPMmuckraker that Palin is being paid $100,000, much of which is said to have been raised by wealthy local donors. That figure could not be confirmed.

The convention’s prime organizer, Nashville criminal defense lawyer Judson Phillips, founded Tea Party Nation, a for-profit company that runs a networking site for activists. Phillips, a former local prosecutor, didn’t respond to several requests for comment, but he told Politico that the convention was intended to make a profit so that Tea Party Nation can “funnel money back into conservative causes” through a 527 group it plans to set up.

Mark Skoda, another of the activists behind the event, told TPMmuckraker that the fees were required to pay for the event’s costs. He added that Tea Party Nation had urged volunteers to have their local Tea Party group sponsor their attendance — an idea that Stublen derided as inconsistent with the concept of personal fiscal responsibility that the movement professes. Skoda declined to comment on Palin’s fee, citing “the non-disclosure of speakers contracts.”

Lurking beneath the concerns about the price-tag are vaguer fears. First, that Phillips and his allies are using the convention to boost their group’s resources and its profile within the movement.

“The tea party movement is a grass-roots movement; it’s not a business,” one skeptical Tennesee Tea Partier declared to Politico.

“Who are they and what do they stand for?” another conservative activist asked TPMmuckraker, describing Phillips as “someone who is trying to make a grab.”

Perhaps even more unnerving to some activists, though, is the prospect that Tea Party Nation may be co-opting the movement — which prides itself on its independence and authenticity — on behalf of a professional political class with ties to the GOP.

It hasn’t been lost on members of the Tea Party Patriots that the Tea Party Express — which is run by a group of well-connected GOP consultants and who the Patriots already view as a group of astroturf parvenus — will be at the convention. Perhaps even worse: though Phillips has said that Tea Party Nation isn’t working with the Republican party, one activist told TPMmuckraker, with disapproval, that organizers had voted to invite RNC chair Michael Steele to speak. Skoda said he did not know whether such a decision had been made, but that he would support the idea. The RNC did not say whether Steele has received an invitation.

“The Tea Party Movement is about to be hijacked,” wrote one activist in an online comment recently. “TeaPartyNation.com orgaziners are hard lined GOP who use the proverbial veil of ‘conservatism’ to attract supporters.”

Stublen echoed that suspicion. “I think what we have in the movement is the GOP trying to take control, and a lot of the groups are trying to fight them on this,” he told TPMmuckraker. Stublen described the convention as “too GOP” and Phillips as “too politically connected.”

Stublen also said he viewed with distrust two Phillips allies with ties to the GOP. Michael Patrick Leahy, a delegate to the 2008 Republican convention, founded Top Conservatives On Twitter, which has been embraced by Beltway Republicans like Karl Rove. And Eric Odom, whose Liberty American Liberty Alliance is a co-sponsor of the convention, is a professional conservative organizer.

“I think they’re all good people,” said Stublen. “But I question the motive in this.”

Late Update: RedState founder Erick Erickson — an important voice in conservative activist circles — is wary of the convention too. He writes:

…I think this national tea party convention smells scammy.

Let me be blunt: charging people $500.00 plus the costs of travel and lodging to go to a “National Tea Party Convention” run by a for profit group no one has ever heard of sounds as credible as an email from Nigeria promising me a million bucks if I fork over my bank account number.

I am led to believe a number of the sponsors who lent their names early on have grown wary of the event. That lines up with what I am hearing.

The tea party “leaders”, if there are any, are actively at work in their home towns changing things one letter to the editor, one contribution to a candidate, and one protest at a time. They are not on bus tours headed to Nashville licking their lips at the $500.00 per person payments coming in to their for profit company.

The TPM Journalism Fund: A New Way To Support TPM
We're launching the TPM Journalism Fund as an additional way for readers and members to support TPM. Every dollar contributed goes toward:
  • -Hiring More Journalists
  • -Providing free memberships to those who cannot afford them
  • -Supporting independent, non-corporate journalism
Are you experiencing financial hardship?
Apply for a free community-supported membership
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Senior Editor:
Special Projects Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front-End Developer:
Senior Designer: