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Behind the Tea Party Effort: $20K, Four Staff and a Volunteer Intern

John on April 17, 2009 at 4:42 pm

I wrote earlier about the Democrats “astroturfing” charge. This line of attack apparently spread from Think Progress to the NY Times to Talking Points Memo, to the Financial Times and CNN. The organization blamed for this nefarious activity by all these sources is Richard Armey’s Freedom Works.

This afternoon I spoke to Brendan Steinhauser who is the Director of State and Federal Campaigns for Freedom Works. I asked him to respond to some of the charges leveled against Freedom Works by the liberal press.

Brendan started by sharing a bit of his background. He was a student activist at the University of Texas who, learned many of his preferred techniques from the left-wingers on his own campus. Upon graduation, he published a book titled The Conservative Revolution: How to Win the Battle for College Campuses. He joined Freedom Works, which was one of a handful of Republican organizations that opposed the TARP funds last year, even though President Bush supported it.

At Freedom Works, he has a large Rolodex of thousands of like minded people around the country, some of whom he has personally trained in protest methods. One of the individuals he trained is a woman named Mary Rakovich of Ft. Myers, Florida. He called her on Feb. 9th and asked if she’d heard that President Obama would be in town the next day for a townhall meeting about the stimulus plan. She had and they discussed the possibility of organizing a protest.

Contrary to the conspiratorial tone of blogs like Think Progress, this was not a secret.Contrary to the conspiratorial tone of blogs like Think Progress, this was not a secret. In fact, Brendan posted an announcement of the protest, along with his name and phone number, on the Freedom Works website that same day. He posted notice on Free Republic as well under his name, with Mary’s name and number as the contact. He sent notice to Michelle Malkin who made a brief mention of it on her blog. This is what is usually called getting the word out. In my experience, it would be difficult to hold a rally of any kind without this sort of thing.

People came out and the idea of protesting the stimulus caught on around the country. But it wasn’t until Rick Santelli gave his spontaneous “rant” on television, calling for a new tea party, that the idea of holding Tea Parties came into focus. Brendan spoke to some of his key people in various states and found that all of them were eager to make Santelli’s idea a reality. It was that spontaneous.

In the end, Brendan says there were four staff (himself, a web designer, press person, press assistant plus one unpaid intern) who worked to organize the events. He was receiving hundreds of calls and e-mails from people who’d heard about the idea and wanted to do something in their town. He did his best to respond to everyone but, as he described it, the traffic was overwhelming. He noted that he did in fact return Brian Beutler’s call (author of the TPM piece) the same day, but Brian never returned his call.

It’s true that Steve Forbes is a billionaire and sits on the Freedom Works board. But Brendan estimates that, apart from the time of the four staffers, Freedom Works invested a total of $20K in the effort, a significant portion of which was for printing T-shirts. To his knowledge, the $20K didn’t come from Forbes.

My inside political experience is limited, but I know from the event planning I’ve done in the past that $20K and four staff is about what it takes to put on a decent block party for say 1,500-2,000 people. It certainly is not the budget to organize a nationwide day of protest involving hundreds of thousands of people. In other words, there’s no way the numbers add up unless this was genuine grass roots activity.

I suspect Paul Krugman earns more in a month than the entire budget Freedom Works devoted to this effort.In fact, it’s hard to imagine how something this big could have been less centrally organized or less well funded than it was. I suspect Paul Krugman earns more in a month than the entire budget Freedom Works devoted to this effort. Of course there were many other groups and individuals involved in promoting the Tea Parties, but that’s really the point. This was not a case of astroturfing. This was a case of like minded people (i.e. anti-tax, anti-bailout people) recognizing the disaffection of millions of Americans with the spending priorities of Capitol Hill and trying to do something about it.  To call it “astroturfing” is quite simply a fabrication.

Finally, Brendan wanted to invite any of the press/blog outlets who’ve been accusing him and Freedom Works of astroturfing to call and talk about it with him directly. He offered to put reporters in touch with individuals from any state of their choosing. That way they can feel free to ask those who organized these events what motivated them to do so and who was really behind the effort. No secrets. No plots to deceive. Just call and ask. I already linked Brendan’s number above. What are you waiting for?

Don’t hold your breath, Brendan.

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