Here's one thing about the Tea Party movement everyone can agree on: It's confusing. With decentralization as a core value, the Tea Party phenomenon can seem like a baffling collection of individuals and organizations, often divided against each other. But with its first national convention now underway in Nashville, and as Tea Party groups gear up for campaigns around the country, it's time we met the movement's main players. Herewith, a handy guide.
KEY DATES IN THE MOVEMENT
February 19, 2009 – Rick Santelli of CNBC goes on a rant against homeowner mortgage bailouts, calling for a “Chicago Tea Party” to protest big government intervention in the economy.
February 27 – Dozens of “Tea Party” protests occur across the country. In Washington D.C. the event coincides with the mainstream Conservative Political Action Conference.
April 15 – Announced by Top Conservatives on Twitter, fanned by conservative blogs, and coordinated by the new website TaxDayTeaParty.com, protests occur in 300 cities—to great fanfare on FOX.
July 4 – Another day of protest garners less coverage than the tax day events, but keeps momentum moving.
September 12 – Coordinated by FreedomWorks and heavily promoted by Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project, tens of thousands of protesters converge on Washington D.C.
January 7, 2010 – RNC chairman Michael Steele tells a St. Louis radio station, “I’m a tea partier, I’m a town haller, I’m a grass-rootser.”
January 19 – Scott Brown defeats Martha Coakley in the Massachusetts senate special election, with help from an influx of tea party volunteers and donations.
February 4-6 – National Tea Party Convention takes place in Nashville, headlined by Sarah Palin.
KEY FIGURES IN THE MOVEMENT (ALPHABETICAL)
Dick Armey – The former House Republican conference leader heads up FreedomWorks, a platform that he uses to school Republican party brass in how to appeal to the tea party base. In August, he was asked to resign his lobbying position at DLA Piper, which had been pushing health care reform while Armey’s group battled against it.
Glenn Beck - The FOX talker is perhaps the tea party movement’s most prominent and beloved media figure, having orchestrated the September 12 protest in Washington D.C. He has been skeptical of the Nashville convention, however, and will be headlining this year’s CPAC instead.
Keli Carender (a.k.a. Liberty Belle) – The Seattle-area hipster teacher with a theatrical streak organized the first anti-stimulus protest on February 16, 2009. Carender gained a large following with her energetic blogging and leads the Washington state tea party group, which organizes around issues from highways to health care. She was scheduled to speak at the Nashville convention, but the controversy prompted her to cancel yesterday.
Erick Erickson – As the editor-in-chief of RedState.com, an influential right-wing blog, Erickson has decried what he sees as the insufficient conservatism of Republican lawmakers and has championed tea party candidates like Doug Hoffman in NY-23. In early January, Erickson called out Judson Phillips’s National Tea Party Convention for seeming “scammy.”
Amy Kremer – Kremer, who blogs at Southern Belle Politics, was a leader in Tea Party Patriots until the group’s board filed suit against her in November 2009 for seizing control of parts of their website and email database. The episode, which the press played as a bitter internecine battle, brought the movement to one of its most fragile points. Kremer still leads the Atlanta Tea Party.
Michael Patrick Leahy – After a career in management consulting and media strategy, Leahy founded Top Conservatives on Twitter, a community of right-wing early adopters who tweet with the hashtag #TCOT. He was active in organizing the first tea parties, and self-published Rules for Conservative Radicals, an adaptation of Saul Alinsky’s seminal text. Leahy, based in Nashville, is now affiliated with the National Tea Party Coalition.
Michelle Malkin – The prolific blogger, author, and Fox News commentator has been on board with the tea party movement from the beginning.
Jenny Beth Martin – A computer programmer by training, Martin became a full-time blogger and Republican activist in the early 2000s. After her family went bankrupt in the midst of the recession—a tale chronicled through her role in Tea Party: The Documentary Film—she helped found Tea Party Patriots and became director of political operations at Smart Girl Politics.
John O’Hara and J.P. Freire – In February 2009, John O’Hara, a twenty-something staffer at the Chicago-based Heartland Foundation, and J. P. Freire, a writer with the American Spectator, organized an anti-bailout protest in front of the White House and several simultaneous ones around the country. Though both still comment frequently in the media, the two young activists have since stepped back from the vanguard of the movement—O’Hara recently released a book on the tea parties, and Freire holds forth from the Washington Examiner.
Eric Odom – The Chicago-based libertarian online activist, through his firm Strategic Activism LLC, is the man behind TaxDayTeaParty.com, the American Liberty Alliance, and the anti-incumbent Liberty First PAC, which is in the process of endorsing and funneling money towards tea party-minded candidates around the country. Along with Patrick Ruffini, Odom also organized the DontGO movement, which urged Republican legislators to keep the House in session through the 2008 summer recess, and was the most prominent tea party figure to make The Telegraph’s list of America’s top 100 conservatives.
Judson and Sherry Phillips – Nashville personal injury attorney Judson Phillips and his wife Sherry are the masterminds behind this weekend’s National Tea Party Convention. Judson, a former district attorney and 2002 GOP candidate for his county’s board of commissioners, has a troubled financial past. According to disaffected former volunteers, the Phillipses always hoped to make a profit from the pricey convention, and eventually drove all dissenting voices out of the planning effort.
Ned Ryun – The son of former Kansas congressman Jim Ryun and a one-time “presidential writer” for George W. Bush—which is one way to describe having worked in the Office of Correspondence—Ned Ryun is the founder of American Majority. Ryun also records podcasts on the history of the Constitutional Convention, and directs the Madison Project, a PAC that raises money for conservative candidates.
Howard Kaloogian – This former member of the California House of Representatives is now the chairman of Our Country Deserves Better, the PAC behind Tea Party Express. After leading the recall of Gray Davis, he launched unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate in 2004 and the House in 2006.
KEY TEA PARTY ORGANIZATIONS (IN THEIR APPROXIMATE ORDER OF IMPORTANCE)
1) Tea Party Patriots – Calling itself the “official grassroots American movement,” Tea Party Patriots was one of the first online networks that allowed tea party groups around the country to have a web presence and connect with each other. It now claims 15 million contacts and 1,000 local organizations, and while cautiously disavowing any attempt to control its member groups, is often seen as the movement headquarters.
2) Tea Party Express – The 9/12 protest in Washington was heralded by a highly-publicized caravan of buses that wound its way across the country, holding 34 rallies along the way. The organizer, Tea Party Express, will kick off its next big trip in Harry Reid’s hometown of Searchlight, Nevada, and arrive in Boston on April 14. Tea Party Express is funded by Our Country Deserves Better PAC, which runs campaigns ranging from defeating Harry Reid to demanding that Rahm Emanuel resign for his role in “stealing” the Senate seat President Obama vacated. Tea Party Patriots repudiated the group in October for its GOP-centric leadership as well as the PAC’s support of Republican candidates.
3) Tea Party Nation – In early 2009, Judson Phillips and his wife Sherry started Tea Party Nation, now a complex social networking site with nearly 13,000 members, and quickly began using it to organize a national tea party convention the following year. Phillips secured a $50,000 loan from a local baseball card mogul to pay Sarah Palin’s speaking fee, and promised to turn TPN into a non-profit and contribute any extra proceeds to tea party-favored political candidates. But in November, he hadn’t, and volunteers objecting to the couple’s autocratic methods (as well as “liberal trolls”) were kicked off the site.
4) 9-12 Project – With the slogan “We Surround Them,” Glenn Beck launched the 9-12 Project—based around nine principles and 12 values—to bring the burgeoning tea party movement to Washington D.C. on September 12, 2009. The next plan is 8/28 —a rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 2010.
5) American Liberty Alliance – Influential libertarian activist Eric Odom started the for-profit ALA as an umbrella group to help coordinate free market efforts. Its projects include an anti-healthcare reform site called Healthcare Horserace, the conservative news site 73wire.com, and the Patriot Caucus, a proposed new representative body that will “facilitate an environment of mass collaboration and communication within the liberty movement.” The ALA was the first major sponsor to back out of the Nashville convention, though Odom has been careful to avoid speaking ill of the organizers or participants.
6) National Precinct Alliance – With business slow in mid-2009, commercial mortgage banker Phillip Glass started researching the office of local precinct committee chair, a position he believes is especially important in the outcome of primary elections. The little-known office often sits vacant—so Glass, who says his only political ideology is adherence to the “Charters of Freedom,” organized a 50-state effort to recruit and train candidates, with the goal of reforming the Republican Party from the bottom up. The NPA followed the American Liberty Alliance in backing out of the Nashville convention, and then announced a “strategic alliance” with Eric Odom’s Tax Day Tea Party, which Glass says amounts to an endorsement by Odom’s group of the precinct organizing approach.
7) Regional groups – Much of the tea party movement’s activity happens on the state and local level, organizing around issues at all levels of government. Dallas, St. Louis, Atlanta, and many cities have particularly active groups that are endorsing candidates and becoming a force in local politics.
8) Smart Girl Politics – After the 2008 election, former Toys “R” Us H.R. director Stacy Mott started an online community for conservative women aimed towards increasing female participation in politics. Now with 25,000 members, Smart Girl Politics avoids specific issues, but may move towards forming a PAC and becoming the conservative equivalent of EMILY’s List.
9) Nationwide Tea Party Coalition – The NTPC, administered by Michael Patrick Leahy, played a role in organizing the early tea party protests and continued as a loose alliance of tea party leaders that is putting on a series of local leadership summits around the country to train organizers.
ESTABLISHMENT CONSERVATIVE ORGANIZATIONS RELEVANT TO THE TEA PARTY MOVEMENT (NO ORDER)
FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity – The two groups, which formed when the anti-tax Citizens for a Sound Economy split in 2004, have arranged logistical support for tea parties from the beginning. While it takes care to avoid the appearance of directing the movement, FreedomWorks has been heavily involved with its development, prompting charges of “astroturfing.” FreedomWorks arranged permits for the protests on February 27 and September 12, distributed how-to guides and talking points for health care town halls in August, and serves as a connection between beltway conservatives and the grassroots. AFP has more field staff on the state level, and gets involved in local campaigns.
American Conservative Union – The more mainstream, establishment ACU has been reserved in its endorsement of the tea party movement. Sarah Palin declined to speak at the ACU-sponsored Conservative Political Action Conference, citing an embarrassing attempt by ACU leader David Keene to extract donations out of UPS and FedEx.
Leadership Institute – Morton Blackwell’s group has been training conservative activists since its founding in 1979, with a special focus on college campuses—Landrieu phone tapper James O’Keefe got his start at an LI-funded campus magazine. The Institute, along with Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, Judicial Watch, Rick Scarborough’s Vision America, and the National Taxpayers Union, is one of the Tea Party Nation convention’s last remaining sponsors.
Sam Adams Alliance – Many online conservative projects can be traced back to this Chicago-based non-profit, including the Sammies awards for anti-big-government video projects, the conservative blog hub Blogivists, and the transparency watchdog Sunshine Review. Eric Odom spent time as the group’s media director before launching taxdayteaparty.com.
American Majority – Ned Ryun started American Majority at the beginning of 2008 with seed money from the Sam Adams Alliance to train conservative activists. With a $1.8 million budget in 2009, American Majority ran 150 sessions and started www.aftertheteaparty.com to draw tea party types into its programs. American Majority pulled its support of the National Tea Party Convention in mid-January; the Phillipses were reportedly perturbed that Ryun failed to promote the convention during a 5-minute spot on Fox News, and American Majority backed out after it learned that the Leadership Institute would be leading sessions as well.
Lydia DePillis is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic.