Rick Cohen

It’s been a year and a half since CNBC’s Rick Santelli launched into his now famous on air rant from the pit of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange against President Obama’s plan to refinance troubled mortgages. The testosterone was palpable as traders on the floor clapped and quipped around Santelli in support of his quasi-populist rage. “That’s a novel idea,” one trader says, very audibly, in mock surprise to Santelli’s suggestion to the President that he reward “those who carry the water, not just those who drink it.” It was a fine stage to launch a massive PR campaign, which as some have pointed out, is exactly what Santelli was doing.

To the sounds of whistles and hoots from traders the pit, on February 19, 2009, Santelli called for the creation of a “Chicago Tea Party.” The Shot Heard Around the World? Maybe. Maybe not. But premeditated or not, many people ascribe the origins of the Tea Party movement to this very moment. The question of whether or not you believe the Tea Party is a genuine grass-roots movement or a well-funded right wing machine, cuts right to the question at hand: Who and what is the Tea Party and how is it funded and structured?


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The national nonprofit political infrastructure of the Tea Party movement is a rapidly developing, Protean mélange of organizations, very young in real-time age so that they lack much depth and resources, but with the potential of following a growth trajectory in numbers and constituents that could make this movement a more powerful political actor than it even is—or make it burn out like a moth drawn to a candle.

At this point the Tea Party movement may need its own Will Rogers, who famously declared that he didn’t belong to an organized political party because he was a Democrat. Compared to the sprawling Tea Party, the Democrats look like the epitome of centralized, hierarchical, obsessive compulsive structure. 

Various groups’ identities compete with each other for the legitimacy of their claims to the Tea Party name. They argue over ideological pureness, authenticity—who was there first, how close or distant their distance from the Republican Party. 

The Tea Party is a movement, not quite a political party, though it could certainly evolve to be one with its track record of political successes. There is no thing or entity that qualifies as the national Tea Party, but rather over two thousand mostly very local entities with “tea party” or “patriots” or other Revolutionary War language in their names. These groups are connected as much by what they are against—an inchoate image of “big government”—as by what they are for. 

The Tea Party Non-Platform: Contract From America
Nonetheless, even adherents drift from describing the Tea Party as the “Tea Party movement” to simply calling it the “Tea Party.” Dick Armey and Matt Kibbe, whose new book, Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, attempts to put a conceptual order to the sprawling collection of kitchen tables, Facebook postings, weekly book clubs, and Twitter feeds that they say generate the “new ideas, effective innovations and creative tactics” that animate this movement. 

The Armey/Kibbe manifesto is hardly the only one floating around, attempting to provide an intellectual shape to the tea party’s political power at this moment of its political prowess. There is a palpable fear that the Tea Party movement will follow H. Ross Perot’s Reform Party into oblivion or even, if it is seen as too intellectually silly, counterproductive, like Perot’s opposition to the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) which nearly doubled in support from the American public after he debated Vice President Al Gore on the topic.

In April, 2010 The Drudge Report printed a 10-point Tea Party Manifesto attributed to the Tea Party Patriots, a bit on the thin side in content (for example, the manifesto called for “scrapping the internal revenue code and replacing it with one that is no longer than 4,543 words—the length of the original Constitution”), but simple enough to provide structure. This manifesto is also being used as the “Contract from America” that some Tea Party activists are advocating that electoral candidates sign in order to get a conceptual imprimatur of Tea Party support at the polls. Scads of Republicans, winners and losers, signed the Contract, and some closely associated with the Tea Party philosophy such as Colorado’s Ken Buck, Kentucky’s Rand Paul, Florida’s Marco Rubio, Joe Miller in Alaska, and Nevada’s Sharron Angle are still alive in their races. 

Political Sensibilities
Nonetheless, there’s a feel to the emergence of these manifestos as an attempt to rein in the kitchen table politics of some Tea Party groups and activists, many of them motivated by an oddly strident but inconsistent libertarianism that even the U.S. Libertarian Party might not buy.1 Not in the manifestos or the Contract are some distinctly anti-libertarian, strongly Nativist positions getting support among Tea Partiers such as positions on immigration, particularly vocal support for Arizona’s immigration enforcement law or opposition to the “Ground Zero mosque” as opponents describe the proposed Islamic Center in lower Manhattan. 

Savvy types with sharp political antennae may try to rein in some Tea Party outliers who hold extreme or exceptionally unpalatable views (even for the Tea Party movement, such as Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams, booted from inner circles not for calling Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer a “Jewish Uncle Tom” or President Obama an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug,” but for an incredibly vile blog posting of a satirical letter from “the Colored People” to President Lincoln praising slavery.2

Other fringe ideas rooting around the Tea Party movement include Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell’s denunciation of masturbation as the equivalent of adultery, not to mention her insinuations that her Republican primary opponent, Mike Castle, might be gay, or Sharron Angle’s ideas to phase out Social Security and federal income taxes, both positions being downplayed in her campaign. Watch Christine O'Donnell's acceptance speech below from her win in last night's Delaware primaries.

It all feels so Russian Revolution, like V.I. Lenin pulling his few hairs out about how to manage Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman from the anarchist side, and Leon Trotsky and his pure, ideological brand of Bolshevism.3 Who are the groups trying to position themselves to influence, shape, and run with the tea party movement for as long as it might last? While there is no way to comprehensively describe, much less list the thousands of groups with Tea Party roots or affiliations, we can provide some sense of the components of this movement and how they look to the world outside of the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, or Sarah Palin rallies and events where so many Tea Partiers seem to congregate and connect. 

National Intermediaries
If the Tea Party “starfish” network were redrawn as a pyramid, at the top might be national organizations that provide training, support, logistics, technical assistance, and sometimes financing to elements of the Tea Party movement. 

These national groups may be 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) organizations, or sometimes both with a Political Action Committee (PAC) mixed in. Most people know that (c)(3)s can organize and lobby, but they cannot engage in partisan political electioneering activities. But there is more latitude for direct political activity in the 501(c)(4) model: The IRS defines (c)(4)s as “Civic leagues or organizations not organized for profit but operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare.” Key for the purposes of the infrastructure of organizations supporting the Tea Party movement is the political latitude they can exercise. From the IRS website: “The promotion of social welfare does not include direct or indirect participation or intervention in political campaigns on behalf of or in opposition to any candidate for public office. However, a section 501(c)(4) social welfare organization may engage in some political activities, so long as that is not its primary activity.” In most cases, the national intermediaries have (c)(4) structures or affiliates giving themselves that extra dose of political flexibility. 

The national infrastructure of the Tea Party movement involves the following organizations:
Headed by former House majority leader Dick Armey, FreedomWorks is the national organization most well known as the national entity that articulates the inclusive message of the Tea Party movement, particularly in light of Armey’s book coauthored with the organization’s president, Matt Kibbe. That doesn’t always go down well with a movement that sees itself as locally focused and rooted.  In part, Armey’s perceived advice to emphasize government and tax issues of concern to the corporate donors to FreedomWorks and deemphasize polarizing social and religious issues has sparked some local Tea Party pushback against FreedomWorks, though some of that seems to be generated by conservative blogger Michele Malkin and religious conservative Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. Armey’s endorsement of John McCain for President—McCain seen as establishment and “pro-amnesty” for undocumented aliens—also generates opposition. FreedomWorks has a (c)(3) arm (with end-of-2008 annual revenue of $3.15 million and assets of $2.51 million) and a (c)(4) arm (with revenues of $4.35 million and assets of $1.93 million).

Established in 1984, long before the birth of the Tea Party movement from a television commentator’s rant against federal efforts to fix troubled mortgages, FreedomWorks gets lumped with a number of conservative think tanks such as Americans for Tax Reform (Grover Norquist’s organization), the Campaign for Liberty, the Club for Growth, and the Ayn Rand Center for individual Rights as having created these Tea Party groups, paying for them through corporate donors whose identities are kept secret behind 501(c) tax structures. For example, FreedomWorks gets top billing on the Contract from America website, but other national groups credited with assisting the effort include policy experts from Americans for Tax Reform, the National Taxpayers’ Union, Liberty Central, Newt Gingrich’s American Solutions, and Regular Folks United. The involvement of these pre-Tea Party organizations with the likes of Armey, Norquist, and Gingrich facilitating and appearing to ride the Tea Party movement leads to the charge that the Tea Party movement is really “Astroturf” as opposed to “grassroots,” serving the interests of the corporate financiers of FreedomWorks and others. 

FreedomWorks is a powerhouse, with a membership that increased from 150,000 in 2009 to over 600,000 in 2010, so dismissing it as simply the tool of Dick Armey’s corporate sponsors without any base is too easy. FreedomWorks does get some corporate support, but typically its corporate funders don’t have to be revealed. On the foundation side, there is track record of support for the organization:

Grantmaker Name Grantmaker State Grant Amount
Sarah Scaife Foundation, Inc. Pennsylvania $1,040,000
The T. Boone Pickens Foundation Texas $1,000,000
Parks Education Foundation Nevada $348,980
The Jeld-Wen Foundation Oregon $320,000
The Richard and Helen DeVos Foundation Michigan $200,000
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Inc. Wisconsin $290,000
Galashiels Fund, Ltd. Illinois $110,000
Gershinowitz Memorial Fund New York $80,000
The Armstrong Foundation Mississippi $65,000
Searle Freedom Trust District of Columbia $50,000
Ed Foundation Texas $50,000
The JM Foundation New York $40,000
The Honzel Family Foundation Oregon $35,000
Perrigo Company Charitable Foundation Michigan $25,000
The Anschutz Foundation Colorado $20,000
General Motors Foundation, Inc. Michigan $20,000
The Foundation Directory Online

Missing from the list of official top funders of Freedomworks and its Citizens for a Sound Economy predecessor is Koch Industries (unreported because it is a corporate funder), the Koch brothers themselves (again, as individual donors, no need to disclose), or the Koch Foundation. The latter however was a multi-million funder of Citizens for a Sound Economy for many years, prior to2005. Since then, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation has funded a variety of conservative support organizations that the Washington Post says have helped Tea Party gatherings with obtaining speakers and permits. 

The Koch family does show up as a major funder of another of the national Tea Party infrastructure, Americans for Prosperity

Grantmaker Name Grantmaker State Grant Amount
Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation Kansas $4,176,500
John William Pope Foundation North Carolina $1,395,000
David H. Koch Charitable Foundation Kansas $1,000,000
The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, Inc. Wisconsin $200,000
Sarah Scaife Foundation, Inc. Pennsylvania $175,000
Searle Freedom Trust District of Columbia $125,000
Nagel Foundation Colorado $115,000
The Community Foundation Serving Richmond & Central Virginia Virginia $100,000
J. P. Humphreys Foundation Missouri $100,000
Cortopassi Institute California $80,000
E. L. Wiegand Foundation Nevada $75,000
Arthur & Carlyse Ciocca Charitable Foundation California $60,000
The Sharp Foundation Virginia $51,000
The Anschutz Foundation Colorado $50,000
Bachman Foundation Ohio $50,000
Briggs & Stratton Corporation Foundation, Inc. Wisconsin $50,000
The E. L. Craig Foundation Missouri $50,000
Lovett & Ruth Peters Foundation Ohio $50,000
Rudd Foundation Kansas $50,000
The Smart Family Foundation, Inc. Connecticut $50,000
E. A. Morris Charitable Foundation North Carolina $47,500
The Armstrong Foundation Mississippi $30,000
The Kern Family Foundation, Inc. Wisconsin $30,000
Michael L. Keiser and Rosalind C. Keiser Charitable Trust Illinois $26,000
Philip M. Friedmann Family Charitable Trust Illinois $25,000
F. M. Kirby Foundation, Inc. New Jersey $25,000
The San Francisco Foundation California $25,000
John Templeton Foundation Pennsylvania $25,000
Tykeson Family Charitable Trust Oregon $22,500
The Stephen F. and Camilla T. Brauer Charitable Trust Missouri $20,000
The Gordon and Mary Cain Foundation Texas $20,000
Michael L. and Nancy A. Hansen Family Foundation, Inc. Florida $20,000
The Foundation Directory Online

The charitable arm of David Koch, the more overtly and actively libertarian brother of Charles Koch of Koch Industries, the largest privately held energy company in the nation, shows up as a significant funder of Americans for Prosperity, though the number here understates its importance to the organization. David Koch was among the founders of the organization and one of his chief Capitol Hill lobbyists served as the organization’s executive director for some years. However, the largest foundation funder of AFP, the Claude R. Lambe Foundation, is a Koch-controlled entity.

Like FreedomWorks, AFP has a (c)(3) arm (revenues of $7.47 million) and (c)(4) arm ($7.04 million), though pays its executives low-six figure salaries for regular workweeks compared to the quarter of a million dollars that FreedomWorks pays Dick Armey as its 18-hour-a-week chairman. 

A year or more ago, AFP was seen as one of the central organizers of Tea Party events, but that mantle seems to have shifted to FreedomWorks. At AFP’s “Redefining the American Dream” summit held as a lead-in to Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally at the Lincoln Memorial, there was only one 45-minute breakout session on the agenda with an explicit Tea Party theme (“How Tea Party & 9-12 Activists are Changing America”). The same impression of lower visibility applies to Americans for Limited Government, which played a very active organizing and support role to Tea Party groups early on, but seems to have a lower profile recently, though still actively blogging in support of the movement. ALG is a conservative activist group with (c)(3) and (c)(4) arms, founded by New York real estate developer Howard Rich, the conservative money behind many conservative ballot propositions on property rights and term limits around the nation. 

Fox News personality Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project could also be easily added to the national infrastructure list, expressing limited government values and a national celebrity’s profile, neither in conflict with the principals of the Tea Party. But Beck is cautious about identifying himself as a Tea Party acolyte, perhaps so that he can stand back and make his own criticisms as warranted. Whatever the 9/12 Project turns out to be, it is much like Beck’s approach emphasizing personal redemption, intended to result in a book—a 100-year plan—“that will provide specific policies, principles and, most importantly, action steps that each of us can take to play a role” in returning the U.S. to the values of its founders. 

Like the Tea Party intermediaries, Beck offers his own statement of twelve values and nine principles animating his project, the principles all drawn from statements by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Beck apparently differentiates those founders that he likes from others like Alexander Hamilton, whose contributions to the Federalist Papers emphasized the importance of a strong central government. Important for nonprofits is principle seven: “I work hard for what I have and I will share it with who I want to. Government cannot force me to be charitable,” as though the government incentives for charitable giving are compulsory. 

Although he might sidestep any explicit affiliation with the Tea Party movement, Beck’s events draw well from Partiers, much like former Alaska Governer Sarah Palin. Her own political apparatus could be added to the Tea Party roster, given her extraordinary position as one of the movement’s favorite politicians and most sought after conference speakers. 

Tea Party Dollars for Elections: Political Action Committees
Sarah Palin’s political apparatus is a political action committee called Sarah-PAC, far more focused on advancing Palin’s professional and political objectives than promoting the Tea Party movement’s. For example, Sarah-PAC gave equal $5,000 donations to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and her Tea Party-favored opponent Joe Miller, even though Palin was rumored to be antagonistic to Murkowski. Her list of recipients contains not onlyTea Party favorites, such as $3,500 for Michele Bachmann (who just created her own first-name PAC as well as the Tea Party Caucus in the Capitol), but also many mainstream Republican candidates, the largest being $7,500 to Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley. 

No one owns the Tea Party brand, so many candidates for political office can run claiming to possess Tea Party ideology and values against “establishment” opponents in the Republican primaries and the upcoming November 2 general elections. Although an occasional sparsely funded candidate can succeed against well-heeled machine operations, electoral campaigns are expensive and they require organization and money in order to field an army of volunteers. It should be no surprise that various elements of the Tea Party movement are creating or already have created Political Action Committees:

What is a PAC? TheFreeDictionary.com defines it as agroup not endorsed by a candidate or political party but organized to engage in political election activities, especially the raising and spending of money for "campaigning…[including] to help defeat a candidate deemed undesirable by the group.

The Tea Party Express created a PAC in 2008 called, Our Country Deserves Better, which reportedly pumped $350,000 into successful campaign of Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts for the late Ted Kennedy’s seat and $500,000 toward the primary victory of Sharron Angle in Nevada (The PAC was renamed Our Country Deserves Better PAC—TeaPartyExpress.org in 2009.) Its recent success was in spending $550,000 since July 12 in support of Joe Miller’s candidacy in Alaska, including $314,000 in the final week before the August 24 primary election. Joe Miller pulled off a stunning upset over incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Republican primaries.

In February, the head of the Memphis Tea Party, Mark Skoda, announced the creation of the Ensuring Liberty PAC as an offshoot of the 501(c)(4) Ensuring Liberty, which he apparently runs. And someone named Kimberly Curtis created the Tea Party PAC of the USA. OpenSecrets.org credits Skoda or Curtis with having formed state-level federal PACs including the Memphis Tea Party PAC, the Tea Party PAC of New York City, Tea Party PAC Inc. (Virginia), Tea Party Patriots PAC Inc. (Virginia), Independence Hall Tea Party PAC (Pennsylvania), and Tea Party Coalition (New York). The Federal Elections Commission website lists 16 Tea Party-named PACs in 11 states with financial reports for the 2009-2010 election cycle, none with more than $15,000 in their coffers. 

In the nation’s largest state there is the California Tea Party PAC, which has been energized by its opposition to the tax burdens imposed by President Obama and Governor Schwarzenegger. New Orleanshas the Tea Party Political Action Committee, but the Greater New Orleans Tea Party rejects any linkage with the PAC. And Utah has the Independence Caucus 527 PAC. 

Tea Party-named 527 committees include the Cincinnati Tea Party and the Tea Party of Louisiana, both relatively small, and both have financial records reported on the Center for Responsive Politics website. On the IRS website listing of political organizations, 38 organizations with “Tea Party” in their names have filed a Form 8871 identifying themselves as 527 organizations and 12 have filed a Form 8872 with disclosures of actual fundraising and expenditures (another dozen 527s have “liberty” in their names and another 36 filers of 8871s have “patriot” in their names, some of which are affiliated with groups in the Tea Party movement). They are all small, some with only token funding amounts, but it shows a burgeoning Tea Party electoral infrastructure.


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Among the newer PACs is the Liberty First PAC, set up oddly by the for-profit American Liberty Alliance and ultimately absorbing the ALA. According to information on the Center for Responsive Politics website, its campaign contributions total all of $500 to Florida Senatorial candidate Marco Rubio. Both the ALA and the PAC that absorbed it were established by Eric Odom, someone it appears who knows how to protect himself and his favored Tea Party candidates from IRS investigators. Despite relatively minimal fundraising, the PAC made a $6,000 payment for online and e-mail marketing services to another entity called Vector Solutions—also owned by Odom. It took the conservative magazine Human Events to flush out the details of Odom’s activities and to question Odom’s effectiveness as the PAC’s “front person.”

With the exception probably of Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks PAC, these Tea Party PACs are generally new to the game of campaign fundraising. The FreedomWorks PAC is of course much larger than the run-of-the-mill Tea Party PACs, reporting $206,000 in receipts for the 2009-2010 election cycle. If the Tea Party organizations do not splinter too finely, they may wield some influence in the 2010 elections, but more from the volunteer energies of their members than the money they might raise for campaigning. By 2012, with a Palin or Bachmann at the top of a national ticket, the infrastructure of Tea Party PACs might have sufficient seasoning to play a role in generating campaign dollars for their preferred Republican and, or Libertarian candidates. 

Networking the Tea Party Grassroots
Can’t tell these various groups apart without a scorecard? At times it’s hard for the Tea Partiers themselves also to figure out which group claiming to be a supportive network, linking groups in the movement, actually speaks with Tea Party credibility. With questions of which national body represents or speaks for or validates the legitimacy of Tea Party organizations around the nation, the internecine battles feel a little like the divides between the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks arguing over who was more responsibility for leading the revolution against Tsar Nicholas. 

If you remember that the Tea Party movement is only a little more than a year old, it shouldn’t be surprising that there is a feeling of confusion and chaos to the array of Tea Party network groups. According to Robin Katcher, the deputy director and a senior consultant at Management Assistance Group writing for Nonprofit Quarterly, networks play important roles in social or political networks: “link(ing) independent organizations and activists to one another and through a central hub organization; intentionally contribute(ing) to a broader social movement; focus(ing) on the long term . . . to advance interests that extend beyond a single-issue campaign; and hav(ing) more flexible boundaries than a formal franchise structure.”

Does the Tea Party movement have an infrastructure of network organizations linking what appear to be a couple of thousand potential Tea Party organizations with each other, building a shared political frame, and nurturing emerging leaders? How connected are these grassroots Tea Party groups to their national intermediaries and to network-building organizations? In Part III, we will explore what the Tea Party movement looks like on the ground and how the local groups fit into emerging national network structures.

All of the mapping of the Tea Party structure in Part I of this series, here in Part II, and later in Part III shows a very fluid, very young movement. Although some suspect that Santelli’s tirade wasn’t quite as spontaneous as it appeared mapping the Tea Party movement only a few months after Santelli’s rant would have yielded only some of the same intermediaries, little of the political financing apparatus, and only the skeleton of network organizations that we find now. The movement was simply too young, too new. 

It is still a young social or political movement, but the infrastructure is developing and, at the moment still somewhat vibrant. Tea Party groups rise and fall, split and multiply, much like a starfish who when injures a limb will generate a new one in its place. What the mapping of the Tea Party cannot do is predict whether this movement will live much longer into the future. The 2010 election results are beginning to reveal some Tea Party winners and some losers, as well as the divisive debates about the political future of Tea Party stars such as Palin, Bachmann, and Beck. 

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1. The Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1988 was Ron Paul, whose son Rand Paul is the Republican candidate for Senator from Kentucky, running with vigorous Tea Party support. Twenty years later, the Libertarians’ presidential candidate was former Republican Congressman Bob Barr, who despite strong right wing credentials, works with the ACLU on civil rights protections.

2. The breathtaking “satire” Williams penned as a letter from “the Colored People” included the following: "Mr. Lincoln, you were the greatest racist ever. We had a great gig. Three squares, room and board, all our decisions made by the massa in the house . . . We Coloreds have taken a vote and decided that we don't cotton to that whole emancipation thing. Freedom means having to work for real, think for ourselves, and take consequences along with the rewards. That is just far too much to ask of us Colored People and we demand that it stop! . . . [H]ow will we Colored People ever get a wide screen TV in every room if non-coloreds get to keep what they earn?"

3. Anarchists Berkman and Goldman left Russia less than two years after meeting with Lenin, discovering him to be less than supportive of their ideals, and Trotsky gradually lost influence to that young up-and-comer, Josef Stalin, who took over after Lenin’s death and eventually forced Trotsky into exile.