In the summer of 2009, a couple of right-wing agitators in Orlando, Florida, took note of the political theater exploding around the country — protests by men wearing tricornered hats and breeches, brawls at healthcare reform town halls, the tent-revival-style gatherings vowing to take our country back — and saw an opening.
They held meetings. They came up with a platform that ditched social issues like abortion and gay marriage, sticking with strictly fiscal matters — reduced government, lower taxes, and a reduced national debt. And then the brains behind the outfit, a 56-year-old conservative radio talk show host and political gadfly named Doug Guetzloe and a 58-year-old lawyer Fred O'Neal, promptly registered their group as an official political body, the Taxed Enough Already, or TEA, Party and put candidates up for election throughout Florida.
That's when the wave of popular outrage they were riding threatened to crash down on them. Other Tea Party groups around the state decried their maneuvering. It’s a movement not a party, they said. Registering the TEA Party name threatened to prevent other groups from using it, they said, as Florida law gives control of a political party's name to the registered user. They worried that TEA Party candidates would only siphon conservative votes from Republicans, and they were suspicious as to why Guetzloe, who is a controversial figure among conservatives, didn’t network with them to build a coalition of supporters first.
Then these grassroots Tea Partiers began suing the registered TEA Party — and suing, and suing. A coalition of groups filed eleven lawsuits in all, ten to knock TEA Party candidates off the ballots, and one federal suit alleging trademark infringement.
And just who was funding this explosion of intra–Tea Party litigation? Republican donors and the Republican Party of Florida itself.
Across the country, the GOP has hitched its wagon to the Tea Party, hoping its populist energy will help sweep in a Republican majority come November. Yet deep tensions exist between party regulars and Tea Party upstarts. Nowhere are those tensions more in evidence than in Florida, where a flowering of more than a hundred Tea Party groups is helping revive a local GOP beleaguered by scandal, where local Tea Party groups clash angrily with the national ones — and where the GOP sues those who threaten its chances at the ballot box.
“One of the goals of the Republican Party is trying to make sure the Tea Party doesn’t become a [viable] third party,” O’Neal says. “They want to make sure it stays in the fold.”
The specter of the Republican Party suing tea partiers, no matter what their provenance, makes some conservative analysts uneasy. Chris Ingram, president of Tampa-based 411 Communications, a political consulting firm, is deeply suspicious of Guetzloe, whom he labeled in August one of the “five most dangerous people in Florida politics” on his political blog Irreverent View. Nonetheless, he sees risks in the GOP’s approach.
“It's probably not a good call from a public relations standpoint,” Ingram says. “But from the party's perspective, in the long run the ends will justify the means when they win and deny this group the opportunity to be on the ballot.” With so many Tea Party candidates coming from within Republican Party ranks, Ingram says, GOP officials quickly realized that “if they didn't infiltrate and quickly get control of the Tea Party movement, they would start losing elections.”
At any rate, Ingram is skeptical about whether these activists can survive outside the Republican machine for long.
“I don't think we'll be talking about the Tea Party the same way three years from now,” he says. “It's going to become an unofficial subset of the Republican Party.”
Florida, a no-income-tax state with one of the leanest government workforces in the country, legally friendly to guns but not to gays, is not only fertile territory for Tea Partiers, it is arguably also ground zero for the movement: The appearance of less than a dozen protesters at the Fort Myers convention center in February 2009, where President Obama was attending a stimulus rally, is sometimes cited as the very first Tea Party gathering. That meeting was coordinated by FreedomWorks, the Washington, D.C. political organization run by Republican house speaker–turned–lobbyist Dick Armey, whose big money and formidable organizing apparatus have been essential to the movement’s growth nationwide — and in Florida, where FreedomWorks posted one of only two state directors.
The origin myth of the Tea Party movement, however, is that it’s a grassroots uprising by people disgusted with the way elected officials of both parties are handling our money. And while a natural pairing between a conservative movement and the Republican Party is inevitable, Tea Partiers are sensitive to the accusation they are simply shills for the GOP or, worse, tools of a Republican get-out-the-vote campaign, as when the GOP harnessed conservative evangelicals by putting gay marriage on state ballots in 2000.
“When this Tea Party idea started out, it was just revolts, people sick and so totally fed up with what was going on,” says Danita Kilcullen, an organizer with the Tea Party of Fort Lauderdale. “We were not part of some political party.”
“Both parties are forever expanding the size of government,” says Phil Russo, an Orlando Tea Party organizer. “I’m not a Republican. I hate Republicans. I’m a libertarian.”
“This is exactly what we're fighting against, political consultants and parties, politicians trying to make deals,” Everett Wilkinson, the head of the South Florida Tea Party group, which has occasionally coordinated events with FreedomWorks, told the Palm Beach Post.
You’d think Guetzloe and O’Neal would fit right in. Guetzloe started the activist group Ax the Tax back in the 1980s. He was a lifelong Republican until the bitter year of 2009, when he was suspended as a member of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee, ostensibly for backing a Democrat in a local mayoral race. (Guetzloe says it was for persistently criticizing the GOP’s local and state leadership. Among other things, he had called for an audit of the party’s spending under former state chairman Jim Greer.)
“Banished from the party, but wanting to stay politically active,” as Guetzloe put it, he turned to O’Neal, his attorney. The two had worked together before: O’Neal, who had once been a registered Democrat, helped Guetzloe incorporate Ax the Tax as a for-profit venture in 2002 (largely to protect the name). In 2006 both men explored making Ax the Tax an official political party. And in 2009 Guetzloe hired O'Neal to sue Greer and the Republicans to reverse the decision suspending him from the GOP. O’Neal’s opposition to taxation is personal — he once owed $150,000 in back taxes. (O’Neal insists he’s not a tax protester and says the amount he owed was reduced after a bankruptcy).
Russo, from the Orlando group, says his mantra is “fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free market.” O’Neal says the bedrock principles of the registered TEA Party are “reducing the size and scope of the federal government, reducing the national debt, and reducing taxes.” Different words, same concept. The only major disagreement, then, is on whether the TEA Party is a fraud.
“I think it’s pretty clear it’s a scam,” Russo says. “I don’t think it’s true that they were started by the Democrats [but] I think their whole goal was to get paid by someone — either by Democrats to stay on the ballot or by Republicans to stay off.”
Since filing their lawsuits, the Tea Partiers opposing the official TEA Party have revealed that Guetzloe's son once worked in the office of U.S. Representative, and liberal loudmouth, Alan Grayson, one of the Tea Partiers’ favorite punching bags; that TEA Party candidate Victoria Torres was once paid $11,000 to do polling work for Grayson; and that Roly Arrojo, a TEA Party candidate for Congress in Miami, was a business partner in a real estate firm with the campaign manager for Democratic Congressional candidate Joe Garcia, currently in a tight race against Republican David Rivera.
“It's total bullshit, lies, crap, feces,” O’Neal responds wearily. “They’re just making it up, and repeating it, repeating it, repeating it. It takes on a life of its own. We haven’t gotten a dime from the Democrats, and there’s zero evidence we have. The fact of the matter is we got this thing started in 2009, a bunch of people very unhappy with the Republican and the Democratic parties. And they’ve spent half a million dollars trying to kill us.”
Grayson has scoffed at the notion that he’s pulling the TEA Party’s strings. “As for all these whining Tea Parties factions, or fractions of factions, as Shakespeare said in Romeo and Juliet, ‘a plague on both your houses,’” he said in a statement quoted in the Orlando Sentinel.
Guetzloe explains away most of the evidence against them. Yes, his son did an internship in Grayson’s office — as a high school student for a community service credit. “He never even met Grayson,” Guetzloe says. When TEA Party candidate Victoria Torres was starting her own public relations/consulting firm, she was contracted by Grayson to do polling work in 2008 — “before there was a Tea Party movement,” Guetzloe points out. Torres was running a start-up and needed the work, he adds.
As for Arrojo in Miami: “Roly could be a plant, we don’t know,” Guetzloe chuckles. “We did not recruit him.” Arrojo filed to be a candidate, qualified, and didn’t have any primary opponents. “We know nothing about Roly,” Guetzloe says. “I reached out to him after he qualified. Mr. O’Neal reached out to him. But we never heard back.” Arrojo never supplied a picture, or set up a website. “The only thing we heard about him is what we read,” he says. (A message left for Arrojo at the number he supplied the party was never returned).
And that brings us back to Russo’s deep suspicions about the role of the official TEA Party. The party’s strongest candidate, a Polk County commissioner named Randy Wilkinson running for U.S. Congress, is polling around 20 percent. Peg Dunmire, who is running for Congress against Grayson, polls around 7 percent. So Florida’s TEA Party isn’t likely to send anyone to Washington this year. But they could indeed function as GOP spoilers in some tight contests. Grayson is in a fierce battle with Republican Dan Webster, and Dunmire’s 7 percent could very well decide that race.
That’s why what appears to be a battle between the Tea Party grassroots and the official TEA Party is actually a battle between right-wing activists and the GOP.
“The Republicans, instead of trying to battle us at the ballot box, file these bogus lawsuits,” O’Neal says. “They are trying to prevent Americans from having more than two choices at the ballot box.”
“A lot of these Tea Party folks are not [real] Tea Party people,” Guetzloe adds. “They are Republicans. A true Tea Party person is not someone being propped up by the Republican Party, or financed by the Republican Party. None of these Tea Party groups have ever revealed their finances. Some of them are set up as Republican Party operations.”
The federal lawsuit was filed on January 19, 2010, by Everett Wilkinson and Tim McClellan of the South Florida Tea Party, along with the South Florida Tea Party itself, the Martin (County) 9-12 Committee, the Naples (Florida) Tea Party, and Just Patriots Inc., otherwise known as United American Tea Party. The litigants are not forthcoming about who is paying the bills. O’Neal tried to get the answer from Wilkinson during a deposition in July.
“Do you know who is funding the lawsuit?” O’Neal asked.
“I don’t know,” Wilkinson answered.
“Have you gotten any bills from the attorneys who are representing the plaintiffs in this lawsuit?” O’Neal continued.
“No, I haven’t,” Wilkinson answered.
Contacted recently, Wilkinson referred all questions to McClellan, his co-plaintiff.
“To this point, there has been no money from the Republican Party of Florida,” McClellan says. “It’s another source.”
That source, O’Neal discovered, is Michael Caputo, a GOP political consultant based in the Miami area who is currently the campaign manager for Carl Paladino, the pugnacious Tea Party–backed Republican candidate for governor of New York. Caputo says Wilkinson was the one who solicited his donation.
“Everett Wilkinson, who is a friend, asked me to help,” Caputo says, during a brief break from campaigning in New York. “They wanted to make sure this fake TEA Party didn’t get any traction.”
As the lawsuit took off, Caputo helped pay the legal fees, he says, adding, “I have my own resources.”
It’s not clear how substantial those resources are. The New York Times reported that the IRS filed a $52,788 lien against Caputo in 2008 for unpaid back taxes. Caputo told the newspaper that he fell behind after launching his public relations firm in Florida.
McClellan, when asked about the GOP ties of his lawsuit’s funder, says, “We didn’t care, to be honest with you. None of us had money, and he offered to cover the costs. We didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
The trial in that case is scheduled to begin in December.
It was a little easier to track down who is behind the suits filed in August by Don Hensarling, Florida director of Glenn Beck’s 9-12 project and a member of FreedomWorks, to challenge TEA Party candidates’ place on the ballot. As soon as the suits were filed, the Republican Party of Florida issued a press release in support. “RPOF is happy to provide financial assistance to this legal challenge,” the party’s new chairman, John Thrasher, said in the August 11 statement. That press release has since disappeared from the RPOF’s online archives, and a party spokesperson did not return an emails seeking comment.
O’Neal obtained the contract between Hensarling and the law firm Kurkin Forehand Brandes, counsel on the lawsuit targeting TEA Party candidate John DeVries. That contract, dated August 13, 2010, and signed by RPOF executive director Ronald Whitaker, states clearly that “the Republican Party of Florida (the “Party”) has agreed to pay these fees and costs.”
“We are totally transparent,” O’Neal says. “You can look at our funding. You can’t do that with the other guys.”
The TEA Party has taken in between 200 and 250 donations totaling around $350,000, including a $40,000 loan from Congressional candidate Dunmire to fund her own campaign. This includes more than a hundred donations in the $15 to $100 range, from retirees, realtors, attorneys and a deputy sheriff. There are also some hefty in-kind donations from Guetzloe and O’Neal, to cover the legal bills. “The [federal lawsuit] in Miami has cost me about $75,000 in time,” O’Neal says.
One thing is certain — if the Tea Party movement hadn’t erupted, the Republican Party of Florida would have had to concoct it, at least for this election cycle.
As the summer’s primaries approached, the RPOF had been lurching from crisis to crisis for more than a year. The Speaker of the House was indicted for official and financial misconduct, while the party’s chairman — the same one who suspended Guetzloe — was indicted for theft, fraud and money laundering. The party’s policy of handing out credit cards to its potentates became a scandal when records leaked to newspapers revealed these officials’ lavish spending habits. One staffer spent $66,000 on chartered flights and $40,000 on a London hotel.
“RPOF — it even spells ‘rip off,’” Scott Maddox, the Democratic candidate for agriculture commissioner, quipped, to whoops of laughter, at a Democratic Party fundraiser.
Florida’s Republicans didn’t just need candidates untainted by scandal. They needed a party that looked entirely new. A lot was at stake here for the GOP; Florida is an important swing state, with the fourth most electoral votes in the country.
Played right, the new Tea Party activists could help the Republicans stay in power by giving their candidates a radical stamp of approval for voters — to be endorsed by a Tea Party group meant you weren’t one of “them.” But this would only work only if Tea Partiers supported Republican candidates.
Enter FreedomWorks and its chairman Dick Armey, who, with his strong Republican Party ties and ability to attract vast pools of corporate funding, was positioned to support — and shape — the new movement. Armey began endorsing Florida candidates such as House Speaker Marco Rubio, whose bid for U.S. Senate succeeded in pushing Governor Charlie Crist, a moderate Republican, out of the party and into a run as an independent. Political insiders saw this, at least in part, as a Washington proxy fight between Tea Party Senator Jim DeMint, an Armey ally, and DeMint’s rival, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had backed Crist.
Armey’s group also endorsed Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum for governor. But in a sign of how unruly things had become, another candidate claiming the Tea Party mantle took on McCollum in the primary. Rick Scott, the former hospital chain CEO who’d been forced to resign amid a massive Medicare fraud investigation, poured about $50 million of his own fortune into challenging McCollum.
Scott’s candidacy divided the state’s Tea Partiers. Everett Wilkinson, the South Florida Tea Party chairman behind the federal lawsuit and a McCollum supporter, gained some notoriety for shouting at Scott during a Palm Beach rally. Guetzloe and O’Neal enthusiastically endorsed Scott, who pulled out the victory.
Scott’s unauthorized run also distressed Florida’s Republican leadership, who thought Scott’s legal baggage would handicap him in the general election. In fact, the candidate who went on to win Tea Party endorsements in the governor’s race has been a friend to the Republican Party for years, donating hefty amounts to the Republican National Committee — $25,000 in 2004 and $28,500 in 2008.
Many in the movement still find such explicit GOP ties distasteful, like Phil Russo, the Orlando Tea Partier, a libertarian who is forever reminding folks he’s not a Republican.
“If it were up to me, I’d legalize gay marriage and pot tomorrow,” the 29-year-old activist says. He’s against Patriot Act government snooping. And he has taken on those who would try to control the movement’s message.
When the Tea Party Express, a traveling publicity event sponsored in part by FreedomWorks, announced plans to swing through Orlando on a fundraising tour in late 2009, Russo told them to stay away. He called the group’s plan to visit Orlando a “fraud” and accused the group of being little more than a political action committee out to raise money for Republicans. “The PAC [Tea Party Express] is using the emotional attachment that people have to the Tea Party name to raise funds,” Russo wrote on his blog.
And he was disappointed when he discovered that a 527 group he joined as a consultant, the Tea Party Foundation, had close links to the GOP. The foundation was set up in part to combat the influence of the Guetzloe and O’Neal’s TEA Party, which Russo abhors. But it was run by a GOP accountant named Abby Dupree, treasurer of the leadership PAC of Senator George Lemieux, the Florida Republican. Dupree had also been involved in the re-election committee of former state party chairman Jim Greer. “If I had known, I would never have called her,” Russo told the Sunshine State News, a conservative news site.
Russo admits “it’s quite a struggle” to keep the movement independent of the Republican Party. He disparages “people within the movement who are hardcore Republicans and always will be hardcore Republicans.” He pauses. “It’s those people who are taking over the movement and killing it.”
Guetzloe, of course, would agree — the Republicans are to blame. He is giddy with visions that the Tea Party, or at least his registered TEA Party, could cause them real havoc this election season. Republican leaders, he says, from Washington on down, are “absolutely terrified that a TEA Party elected official will go to Washington. It would open the floodgates for the demise of the Republican Party.”
“As the TEA Party advances,” Geutzloe crows, “the Republican Party will decline. If they let a TEA Party candidate win, it’s the beginning of the end.”
That’s if they survive the legal challenges. ”If we're still on the ballot come November, I'll consider it a success,“ colleague O'Neal says, with a bit less hubris. ”We're just trying to stay alive.“
This article was reported in collaboration with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, now known as Type Investigations.