Produced by HuffPost's Eyes & Ears Citizen Journalism Unit
The primary sponsor of the National Tea Party Convention has abandoned the event a day after announcing its support.
The National Tea Party Convention, organized by the group Tea Party Nation, is to take place from February 4-6 at the Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. For days now, American Liberty Alliance has been listed as the event's main sponsor. But according to a blog entry posted today by Eric Odom, Executive Director of ALA, "The American Liberty Alliance will pass on being involved with the Nashville event, and we'll ask to be removed from the sponsors list."
On January 4, Tea Party Nation sent out a press release providing details of the convention, which will be held in Nashville's posh Opryland Hotel. The release announced the convention's already-confirmed headliners -- former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann -- although Bachmann's name is misspelled.
Tea Party Nation also announced that the Tea Party Express will be "rolling in" to the National Tea Party Convention while at the same time thanking Odom and American Liberty Alliance for their support and sponsorship of the convention. This is an interesting pair of endorsements, as American Liberty Alliance called the Tea Party Express a sham, "astroturf" group in an October 9 article by Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent.
The self-described grassroots activists in Tea Party Patriots and the American Liberty Alliance see the Tea Party Express as a sham organization, using the political heft of the movement to push a bland, partisan Republican agenda. Privately and publicly, they accuse the Tea Party Express of being an "astroturf" outfit, a scheme for Republican strategists and candidates to take advantage of a movement that was chugging along fine without them.
According to Odom, immediately after American Liberty Alliance's Monday announcement of its sponsorship of the event, they "met with a plethora of replies, emails and Facebook messages that revealed a high level of concern" amongst American Liberty Alliance members. Odom refuses to reveal any evidence, though he says he is "fairly confident that it will present itself during the next few days." Despite this caveat, Odom continues, "I still at this point hope that those who have invested money into the event will attend and make the best of it. I don't think anyone on our leadership team wishes to discourage folks who are registered from attending the event."
The Silver Sponsor of the National Tea Party Convention is TeaPartyEmporium.com, a group started by "jewelry industry veterans." The site makes money by selling tea bag jewelry, as well as tea bag caps, tea bag cups, tea bag coolers, tea bag megaphones and tea bags. According to its website,
Tea Party Emporium was established by jewelry industry veterans, a family who has manufactured the world's finest gold and diamond jewelry for over one hundred years. Today, inconspicuous, as opposed to conspicuous, consumption is very much in vogue. Affluence and the attainment of wealth seem to have fallen out of favor. What has not changed is appreciation for something beautiful. In that vein, and in the light of the current climate of a government hell bent on the largest redistribution of wealth in history, we designed a small, delicate piece of jewelry which we hope will galvanize feelings felt by millions of Americans.
When asked if American Liberty Alliance supported Tea Party Express, Odom would only say, "We do not support the PAC. We support the tens of thousands of activists who go to events." Commenting on Weigel's report that the American Liberty Alliance considers Tea Party Express astroturf, Odom wrote in an email, "Tea Party Express was able to get 10,000 people to an event in a suburb of Chicago. No other outfit has been able to do that, ever."
Tea Party Express, operated by Our Country Deserves Better PAC, is a series of bus tours which travel the country holding rallies and fundraisers that garner FOX News coverage. Sal Russo, chief strategist for Our Country Deserves Better, is also principal partner at Russo Marsh & Rogers (aka Russo Marsh & Associates), a Republican-affiliated public relations firm in Sacramento. Joe Wierzbicki, another RM&W principal, is the PAC's coordinator.
Russo has been involved in Republican campaigns since Ronald Reagan's 1966 gubernatorial run, and his firm's clients include the California Republican Party. Its president, Howard Kaloogian, is a former California Republican state legislator who ran for disgraced Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham's vacated seat. Kaloogian's campaign tried to drum up support for the Iraq war by posting photos of Istanbul on his website and claiming they were of Baghdad; Kaloogian blamed the error on a staffer.
Tea Party Express came under heavy fire in late December when outraged Tea Party Patriot Robin Stublen posted Tea Party Express's itemized expenditures for 2009 on the right-wing website ResistNet (ResistNet is operated by Grassfire.org, a Tea Party Express tour partner). Tea Party Patriots is a coalition of local Tea Party groups across the country, and Stublen says that he is acting on his own personal initiative and not as a representative of Tea Party Patriots. According to Stublen's calculations, the PAC paid over $850,000 to the firm of Russo, Marsh & Rogers and its partners, as well as roughly $655,000 on advertising in conservative news outlets such as Fox Business News.
The PAC spent $1,597.29 on a meal for six at Chops Restaurant in Sacramento -- roughy $266 per person. In response to Tea Party Express's spending, Odom replied in an email, "I don't like it one bit. But many of our members don't care. All they care about is liberty and the fight to keep it. We go where our members want us to go." This sudden sensitivity to the whims of the movement may be connected with American Liberty Alliance's failed rally outside the Detroit Auto Show on Monday. Odom emailed the entire American Liberty Alliance list and others, all their members in the nation, asking them to show at the auto show to protest. According to the AP, only a few dozen turned up. For the first 45 minutes it was just two men.
The low turnout was in some part due to the efforts of Joan Fabiano, a tea party organizer with the group Grassroots in Michigan. She emailed tea party protesters across the state, imploring them not to come to the Auto Show protest. "I think it was ill-conceived," she told the Associated Press. "It only hurts fellow Michiganders and Michigan commerce. Businesses are already hurting." What's truly embarrassing is the fact that this Motor City disaster was organized not just by American Liberty Alliance but by the National Taxpayers Union, Michigan Taxpayers United and Common Sense in Government as well. A four-car pileup, as it were.
Meanwhile, Stublen said in a phone interview that what both Odom and Our Country Deserves Better PAC do is "deceptive advertising."
It's easy to get Tea Party Express, Tea Party Patriots, Tea Party Whatever, confused with each other. People who aren't connected with this closely, they get confused. They truly believe in this movement and the Tea Party movement and they believe our country has problems. They send money to Tea Party Express believing it's going to an actual grassroots movement. I don't want to corrupt the Tea Party movement. But I don't want them saying the Tea Party Patriots are spending $266 per person on a meal.
Stublen also had choice words for the National Tea Party Convention. "If you're really going to have a National Tea Party Convention, it seems like you're excluding a lot of people if it costs $550 to go. Then you have to spend $100 to $120 a night for hotels, then there's food and transport costs. In this time of economic crisis, do they really think people can afford to spend a thousand dollars or more on a convention?"
As far as Stublen is concerned, Odom, American Liberty Alliance and Our Country Deserves Better PAC are all the same. "These guys make their living off of politics. American people of different parties, they suffer because of the way these people make their living."
Odom's blog post touches on this, albeit inexplicably.
"When we look at the $500 price tag for the event and the fact that many of the original leaders in the group left over similar issues," says Odom. "It's hard for us not to assume the worst."
According to NationalTeaPartyConvention.com, the event is sold out.