Whose Tea Party Is It? Nashville Convention Stirs Debate

As opponents of big government converge on what has been billed as the first national Tea Party convention starting Feb. 4 in Nashville, Tenn., organizers hope the event will "galvanize" the populist movement and help it gather momentum after a string of recent conservative electoral victories.

But some wonder what gives organizers the right to hold the event in the first place, never mind to charge hundreds of dollars for admission.

"Nobody really is entitled to stand up and say, 'This is the National Tea Party anything,'" conservative blogger Dan Riehl said of the three-day convention, being put on by a Nashville-based defense attorney Judson Phillips and his wife.

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Organizers say some 600 attendees have paid $549 for access to two full days of events that culminate Saturday evening in a keynote speech by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin at a banquet that will reportedly feature a lobster and steak dinner.

While the convention itself has sold out, tickets to the banquet alone were still on sale late Wednesday for $349. So far, organizers say more than 500 banquet-only tickets have been sold.

The high price of entry to an event that celebrates grassroots, open-air activism has offended many in the Tea Party tent.

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In a mid-January post on his blog, "Riehl World View," Riehl questioned whether Phillips "wants to be a tea party millionaire."

"[Tea party activists] generally are not the type of people who would gravitate to some very expensive hotel to dine on lobster and steak and listen to someone speak," Riehl said in an interview Wednesday.

Convention spokesman Mark Skoda acknowledged Wednesday that Phillips and his wife Sherry Phillips, founders of the for-profit Tea Party Nation Inc., will "make a few bucks" on the event at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center. But Skoda questioned why that should be anyone's concern.

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"Have we gone so far in the Obama-socialist view of the nation that 'profit' is a bad word? In particular, if we're using it to advance the conservative cause?" Skoda asked.

Who Owns This Weekend's The Tea Party Convention?

The spokesman said the proceeds would be used to fund upcoming Tea Party nation events.

Politico reported last month that the former Alaska governor would receive as much as $100,000 to address the convention.

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But Palin wrote in a USA Today op-ed Wednesday that she would "not benefit financially" from the event, pledging to throw any compensation she would receive "right back to the cause."

As she no longer serves in office, Palin is free to accept the speaking fee without encountering any legal issues, but two sitting members of congress, Rep. Michelle Bachman R-Minn., and Rep. Marsha Blackburn R-Tenn., pulled out of the event late last month citing concern over House ethics rules.

While initially restricting access to the convention to a select number of news organizations, like Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and World Net Daily, organizers announced this week that Palin's speech would be aired on cable and the Internet, allowing a broader audience to hear the former governor's address.

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"We will have transparency that, frankly, is surprising to many people," Skoda said.

Palin addressed the controversy surrounding the convention in her USA Today piece.

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