Monday, January 25, 2010

The Other Tea Party Convention: Activists Meet In DC

While the first-ever Tea Party convention, planned for next week in Nashville, has caused some in-fighting and ruffled feathers within the movement, another group of Tea Partiers came to Washington, DC this past weekend to do, essentially, what the Nashville convention hopes to provide: exchange ideas and goals for the future.

60 Tea Party organizers from across the country came to DC for the weekend meeting, organized by FreedomWorks, the Dick Armey-led, DC-based conservative grassroots group that has associated itself with the Tea Partiers since their April 15 national coming-out party that saw hundreds of protests and millions of protesters take to the streets for tax day.

The organizers came from different local Tea Party groups; FreedomWorks says it has worked with them before and contacted them about coming to DC for the weekend.

In attendance were Jenny Beth Martin--one of 22 participants in an activists conference call that, she says, spawned the Tea Party movement as we know it last February--and Mark Meckler, co-founders and national co-coordinators of the group Tea Party Patriots, a group that claims 15 million members and over 1,000 local or state affiliates.

"We are building a sustainable community of people that believe in freedom 365 days a year," FreedomWorks President and CEO Matt Kibbe said today at a briefing with reporters and about 25 of the activists.

Activists said they discussed ideas about the movement and where it will go from here--a future that, from the point of view of activists and FreedomWorks staffers in attendance, will certainly include a heavy role in the 2010 midterm elections.

"We expect to have a major impact on what happens in the 2010 elections," Meckler said. FreedomWorks distributed its target list of House and Senate races in which it expects to be involved, and Meckler said that he doesn't think "any race is off the list" for the Tea Party movement as a whole.

The organizers of the weekend meeting are not affiliated with the Nashville convention; in fact, they don't seem to like what's going on in Nashville.

Ticket prices for that convention ($550) and the fact that Sarah Palin, who charges $100,000 for speaking appearances, is being paid to deliver the keynote speech have led some activists to look down on that event. Politico's Kenneth Vogel reported on the discord last week. FreedomWorks is noticeably absent from the sponsors list; the convention is being organized by a for-profit group called Tea Party Nation.

The Nashville event has been planned around speakers such as Palin and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), plus organizer training.

"We're not involved" in the Nashville convention, FreedomWorks' Kibbe said today. "From our point of view, it's a different model from what we have pursued...[we] try to avoid these high-dollar pricetags," though he added: "I say let a thousand flowers bloom."

Martin, of Tea Party Patriots, said her group had been asked if it wanted to participate in the Nashville convention, but declined. The movement "self-selects," Martin said, referencing the Nashville convention's rejection by other activists.

"Everybody is free to do whatever they want. From our perspective, we really are a grassroots organization," Meckler said in a phone interview. With "tickets over $500, travel to Nashville and food, I just don't know any grassroots folks who can afford to participate in something like this."

The activists and organizers at the DC meeting did not attempt to draft any kind of doctrine, though one activist in attendance, Ryan Hecker, is working on a document that will state Tea Party principles. He plans to take thousands of suggestions, posed by Tea Partiers themselves, and let activists vote on them online--open-sourcing a loose sort of Tea Party platform, in effect.

"The goal is to create a grassroots, bottom-up contract with America," Hecker told the reporters and activists in attendance.

Meckler said his organization doesn't make any top-down decisions without the feedback of his members.

We "discuss things then we go back and tell the broader movement, and hopefully they buy in, because we don't tell them what we do, we just tell them this is a plan we're thinking about," Meckler said.

Tea Party organizers came from across the country to the event, one from as far as Washington. Organizers from Florida and Arkansas spoke at the briefing.

Attendees ranged in age and background, but most were middle-aged or older and had professional backgrounds in business. At least one faith leader was in attendance, and an activist from Virginia stressed that, where she comes from, the Tea Party movement is made up of people from many backgrounds--from the church community to air plane pilots to retired military.

One activist suggested that the professional demography of Tea Party organizers makes sense: they support free-market principles and have leadership skills. "We're the ones who are working," she said.

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