Internal disputes roil Tea Party convention
It was supposed to be a gathering of true believers, an occasion to celebrate the Tea Party movement's grassroots victories. And activists have had victories -- fanning opposition to President Obama's healthcare reform package in those angry tea party town halls last summer, along with last week's come-from-behind U.S. Senate victory for Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts that denied Democrats their 60-vote majority.
Convention organizers were thrilled when they got a star headliner -- former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- to keynote the Tea Party convention planned for Nashville next month.
But now rifts within the movement are threatening to derail the convention, organized by Tea Party Nation. The conflict: a convention that seeks to maximize the Tea Party's political clout by developing a mainstream organization and an audience of angry voters dedicated to grassroots actions and suspicious of top-down management.
“The idea that there’s one person, one event, that can somehow be the Tea Party spokesperson is inaccurate and counter to the movement of free-thinking individuals that want less government intervention,” says John O’Hara, author of “A New American Tea Party.” “This top-down model is what’s being rejected in politics, and that you’d adopt that for your movement is bizarre.”
Some have balked at the price tag for the convention -- $549 per ticket and a $9.95 fee, plus hotel and airfare -- as out of touch with the lifestyle of the average tea partier. Others have raised eyebrows at Palin's reported $100,000 speaking fee.
And some have withdrawn from the convention altogether. Philip Glass was supposed to lead workshops on his strategy as national director of the National Precinct Alliance, which seeks to influence Republican Party politics by putting conservatives in local and state offices. But now he's walking.
“We are very concerned about the appearance of TPN profiteering and exploitation of the grassroots movement,” he said in a statement Sunday. “We were under the impression that TPN was a nonprofit organization like NPA, interested only in uniting and educating Tea Party activists on how to make a real difference in the political arena.”
Sherry Phillips, who runs TPN with her husband, Judson, told the New York Times that “our budget on this convention is very tight" and that "if there is any profit, the money will go toward furthering the cause of conservatism.”
As former Republican Rep. Joe Scarborough of Florida wrote in Newsweek, “At the very moment the tea party has proved itself as an undeniable political force that must be taken seriously, it is at risk of tearing itself apart. “Riven with internal conflicts and lacking a coherent structure, the tea party's biggest challenge may be trying to deal with its own success."
So severe is the rift among activists that some are even predicting a protest outside the convention site by disaffected members of the movement. Angry meets angrier.
-- Johanna Neuman
Photo: Tea partiers protest in Las Cruces, N.M., last April. Credit: Norm Dettlaff / Las Cruces Sun-News