A leading Tea Party group that prides itself on its grassroots authenticity is teaming up with a top corporate public-relations pro to help spread its anti-establishment message.
The Tea Party Patriots, an umbrella organization for hundreds of local Tea Party groups, is working with Randy Lewis of Fitzpatrick & Lewis, a heavy-hitting Atlanta-based PR firm whose clients have included Coca-Cola, Kodak, Georgia Natural Gas, and the defense-contracting giant Raytheon.
Lewis helped organize the event at Washington's National Press Club last week, at which Tea Party Patriots leaders announced a $1 million donation from an anonymous donor. He also acted as a spokesman and contact for reporters.
Lewis was a communications staffer in the Jimmy Carter White House, before working as a top aide in the Florida state legislature and government. The firm's website touts his "excellent relationships with Georgia's political and business leadership."
On one level, Lewis's involvement offers further evidence that a formerly rag-tag movement is becoming increasingly effective at making its voice heard in a coordinated and effective fashion.
But the Tea Party Patriots—more so than any other major Tea Party group—have long touted their grassroots credentials, and for some rank-and-file Tea Partiers, Lewis' background as a savvy corporate and political pro undercuts that image. "It's just another example of how Tea Party Patriots has moved away from giving ordinary citizens a voice, and is now more focused on working with political insiders," one longtime activist told The Daily Beast.
Lewis told The Daily Beast that his firm receives no compensation for its work on behalf of Tea Party Patriots. He said he's supportive of the Tea Party's "public policy" goals, and has been involved on a volunteer basis almost since the movement began in February 2009, after being put in touch with Jenny Beth Martin, the Georgia-based Tea Party Patriots leader. But that involvement appears to have become more active of late. In July, his name appeared on a Patriots press release that trumpeted declining poll numbers for congressional Democrats, before he helped to put together last week's press conference. (It’s not clear how the firm’s blue-chip clients feel about Lewis’s Tea Party moonlighting.)
"It's just another example of how Tea Party Patriots has moved away from giving ordinary citizens a voice."
At Tuesday's press conference, Patriots leader Mark Meckler questioned the grassroots credentials of a rival group, the Tea Party Express. "They try to portray themselves as some sort of grassroots movement, but they are a classic example of what those on the left would call Astroturf," said Meckler. "They are fake, they're not from the grassroots."
Working with Lewis isn't the only recent development that some fear is shifting the Patriots away from their citizen-powered roots. An intense distrust of Washington's lobbying culture was a key facet in the rise of the Tea Party movement last year. But the Patriots announced last week that former GOP Rep. Ernest Istook, whose office enjoyed a notably cozy relationship with Jack Abramoff, would join the group's board.
Istook received $29,000 in campaign contributions from Abramoff and his clients, and in 2003 used Abramoff's skybox to host a fundraiser at a Washington Redskins game, then later asked the lobbyist what his clients would like to see in an upcoming transportation bill the lawmaker was drafting, according to court documents filed in the case of John Albaugh, Istook's former chief of staff who in 2008 pleaded guilty to corruption charges. (After Abramoff himself pleaded guilty in 2006, Istook donated the campaign contributions to charity. He has denied acting improperly, saying at that time: "I never worked with [Abramoff] on any issue or any project and I'm appalled at what he has done.")
In reference to Istook's appointment, Martin, the Patriots' national coordinator, told the Beast that the board "made the decision that we needed to bring in a few people who could help us who have a little bit more experience navigating the political waters." ( Gary Aldrich, the former FBI agent and Clinton critic, also was named to the board last week.) "The board still has a majority of grassroots members, and all of our major decisions continue to be made by the local coordinators on our weekly call," Martin added.
Although as a matter of policy, the Patriots don't endorse or support specific candidates, the group has quietly set up a political action committee, run by a former Bush White House staffer, in case it reconsiders and decides to get into electoral politics more directly by supporting specific candidates—though campaign filings indicate the PAC hasn't yet raised any money. Should it go that route, the Patriots' transition—and maybe even that of the Tea Party movement as a whole—from a grassroots citizens' movement that distrusts the political establishment, to a politically astute and well-organized field army for the GOP, would perhaps be complete.
Zachary Roth was until May a reporter for Talking Points Memo, and is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon, among other outlets.