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.


"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.

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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.

"As with all grassroots efforts, the nature of this movement means that sometimes the debates are loud and the organization is messier than that of a polished, controlled machine," she wrote, saying she "thought long and hard about my participation," before deciding to honor her commitment to attend.

Ahead of Palin's speech, several breakout sessions are planned for Friday, under titles such as "Technology in the Tea Party Movement," "Defeating Liberalism via the Primary Process" and "Why Christians Must Engage."

"This convention is a way to galvanize the conservative movement in a way that the general rallies do not,"

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Skoda said. "We have seen a maturing of the movement to the point of moving protests into activism. And that activism is starting to drive results in elections."

On Saturday morning, Skoda will take part in a panel discussion entitled, "Where the Tea Party Movement Goes from Here."

That title poses a good question. Despite the fact that the Phillipses are hosting an event that nominally claims to be "the" national Tea Party convention, there is still no national organization, nor any head of the movement. It claims to have several founders.

Dale Robertson, for instance, said he's been leading the Tea Party effort "longer than anybody else," having created the Web site teaparty.org a year before the first anti-stimulus Tea Parties began in 2009.

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Still, he doesn't begrudge the Phillips for claiming that his Nashville event is a national affair.

"I mean, a name is just a name. It's just a marketing thing," Robertson said Wednesday from his home in East Texas.

The out-of-work engineer won't be attending the convention this weekend. He said he simply can't make the trip, but he will be there in spirit.

Robertson does, however, have a major problem with the keynote speaker.

"She hasn't been a part of this movement at all and she doesn't seem to be suffering at all, as many of these patriots who've been donating their time, their money and their resources."

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To Palin's claim that she'll be returning any money she receives "to the cause," the founder of teaparty.org, who eschews the political establishment, scoffed.

"But she's giving money back to the machine, right? Republicans."