If We’re Going to Discuss the ‘Tea Party,’ Let’s Start Right Here

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Matt Kibbee speaks to his FreedomWorks disciples

Welcome to Politics 2012. FreedomWorks Matt Kibbee (shown here with some of his disciples) was marched out of the building by Dick Armey and an armed guard, only to be saved by a wealthy benefactor’s $8 million. Some of the rest of us made signs and marched — and we’re the dangerous ones?

Some people assert that the Tea Party — and especially its leading institutional proponent, FreedomWorks — is an astroturf (aka “artificial grassroots) movement devoted to doing the bidding of its extremely wealthy contributors.

Is that fair?  Let’s start the discussion with this data point from an article in the Washington Post, which you really ought to read.

Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.

The coup lasted all of six days. By Sept. 10, Armey was gone — with a promise of $8 million — and the five ousted employees were back. The force behind their return was Richard J. Stephenson, a reclusive Illinois millionaire who has exerted increasing control over one of Washington’s most influential conservative grass-roots organizations.

The episode illustrates the growing role of wealthy donors in swaying the direction of FreedomWorks and other political groups, which increasingly rely on unlimited contributions from corporations and financiers for their financial livelihood. Such gifts are often sent through corporate shells or nonprofit groups that do not have to disclose their donors, making it impossible for the public to know who is funding them.

In the weeks before the election, more than $12 million in donations was funneled through two Tennessee corporations to the FreedomWorks super PAC after negotiations with Stephenson over a preelection gift of the same size, according to three current and former employees with knowledge of the arrangement. The origin of the money has not previously been reported.

I’d just like you to take a moment and imagine such a story of “lawyers, guns, and money” happening in any liberal — or even moderate, or even mainstream conservative — organization.  First, you’d be hearing a lot more about it — incessantly, most likely.  Second — it just wouldn’t.

This sort of banana republicanism is one reason that voters have become turned off to lobbyists, guns, and big money in politics.  And just think — Occupy is the group that got investigated by the FBI for violence and disrespect for the law.  (A story on that will be upcoming.)  To paraphrase the guy in the Old Spice commercial: “look at FreedomWorks, look at Occupy.”  Do you get the sense that maybe the Feds are simply afraid to mess with the likes of these people who can (at least try to) buy and sell politicians — and so they prey on the comparatively gentle and unarmed?

About Greg Diamond

Prolix worker's rights and government accountability attorney. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Runs for office sometimes, so far to offer a challenge to someone nasty who would otherwise have run unopposed. Someday he might pick a fight intending to win it rather than just to dent someone. You'll know it when you see it. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level. A family member works part-time as a campaign treasurer. He doesn't directly profit from that relatively small compensation and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he hated. He does advise some local campaigns informally and generally without compensation. If that changes, he will declare the interest. He also runs a less frequently published blog called "The Brean," for his chosen hometown, where he is now fighting with its wealthiest and most avaricious citizen-donors. This just seems to be his way.