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Leaders of the leaderless movement: Who are behind the Tea Parties?

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Alex Pappas
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      Alex Pappas

      Alex Pappas is a Washington D.C.-based political reporter for The Daily Caller. He has also written for The Washington Examiner and the Mobile Press-Register. Pappas is a graduate of The University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., where he was editor-in-chief of The Sewanee Purple. While in college, he did internships at NBC's Meet the Press and the White House. He grew up in Mobile, Ala., where he graduated from St. Paul's Episcopal School. He and his wife live on Capitol Hill.

Who’s running the Tea Party? As with most questions debated by its activists, there is no consensus. Members of the cross-country network of conservative grassroots groups will say only that they shun formal leadership.

Yet as the cause gains national attention and momentum, influential characters are emerging from a shifting sea of figureheads, local organizers and pontificators. Whether by organizing events and rallies, holding training seminars for group leaders or serving as voices for the movement in the media, Washington types like Dick Armey, political celebrities like Sarah Palin and local leaders like Mark Skoda are aiming to harness the enger and enthusiasm of Tea Party activists to elect candidates and change legislation.

“The question everyone is asking or at least should be [is], ‘Who’s in charge?’” activist John Stahl, chairman of the Berks Tea Party in Reading, Penn., insisted. “The answer is that no one is in charge. We are unfunded, grassroots and detest leadership.”

Bob MacGuffie, a grassroots libertarian activist in Connecticut who was labeled a national leader of the Tea Party movement last summer when a memo he wrote about how to disrupt health-care town hall meetings came to the attention of national media outlets, said, “There’s a mind meld among us and we’re out there doing it. A leader right now would just be attacked by the media and by the left, and by the Democrats, the liberals, and that would only do us harm.

But here are several activists who arguably are gaining power in the movement.

Former Republican Leader Rep. Dick Armey

Armey, the chairman of FreedomWorks, oversees a well-oiled machine that plans rallies, trains Tea Party organizers and targets congressional races with its political action committee.

The group, co-run by Chief Executive Matt Kibbe, held a Liberty Leadership Summit strategy meeting last month for Tea Party leaders to develop a plan for electing conservative candidates in 2010. They want results — and back “champions of freedom” like Republican Senate candidates Marco Rubio in Florida and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania.

Armey, asked to identify the Tea Party leaders by The Daily Caller during an interview at the Conservative Political Action Conference, only said activists “respect” a number of people, including Sen. Jim Demint of South Carolina, Fox News host Glenn Beck and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Armey said he thinks — and hopes — that he, too, is respected by the Tea Party. The others have influence, he said, because they don’t tell activists “what they should be or what to do.”

Though Armey denies he is a leader of the movement, his organization is influential because it provides services and expertise to organizers of marches and rallies and local group leaders. Critics have accused Armey’s organization of “astroturfing” the grassroots protests, using its resources to project the movement as grassroots when it is inching toward mainstream.

A similar group is Americans for Prosperity, which is run by Tim Phillips and, like FreedomWorks, split off from the Citizens for a Sound Economy campaign in 2004.

Americans for Prosperity employs full-time staff in 26 states who conduct town hall meetings, most recently on health-care and cap and trade issues. Phillips dismissed the notion that he is a leader of the movement, preferring the word “facilitator.” Phillips said the group is “continuing the health-care battle” on Feb. 25, the same day the White House is doing their health-care summit, by holding its own summit of 400 Tea Party activists.

Phillips said AFP has worked with other umbrella groups like Joe Wierzbicki’s Tea Party Express that takes bus tours across the country, visiting 42 cities this year.