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

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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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.

Mark Meckler and Jenny Beth Martin of the Tea Party Patriots

Meckler and Martin oversee the thousands of Tea Party Patriots groups in the country, but insist they are servants to the grassroots activists.

The group — in conjunction with FreedomWorks and others — most recently organized the drafting efforts of “A Contract from America,” a Newt Gingrich-style document of 10 Tea Party specific legislative priorities. The final document will be presented to congressional candidates to sign.

Both Meckler and Martin have been the face of the organization, which boasts more than 1,000 local coordinators of Tea Party Patriots groups. During a press conference at CPAC, Ryan Hecker, who developed the “Contract from America,” called Meckler “one of the central forces” of the movement and said Martin “has been central to building grassroots” across the country.

Martin, at CPAC Thursday, also contested the idea that the movement lacks leadership, saying: “We have 1,500 to 15 million leaders. A lot.”

In an e-mail, she explained, “The people who are most influential in the movement are all the local coordinators around the country who have planned protests, made phone calls, answered questions, kept the grassroots focused on our core values (fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government and free markets), secured permits, and committed their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to this movement and our country.”

While some activists tell The Daily Caller that they find groups like FreedomWorks and Tea Party Patriots reprehensible, others say they provide good ideas and help lay groundwork for rallies — like Glenn Beck’s 912 March on Washington.

Mark Skoda of Ensuring Liberty PAC and the National Tea Party Convention

He took the stage at the National Tea Party Convention like he was running for leader of the movement, firing up the crowd with quips like “Barack Obama was indeed our Pearl Harbor for the conservative movement,” and “What we need now are another 40 Scott Browns.”

Surrounded by nearly 100 national and international members of the media, Skoda announced at the Nashville convention plans to operate Ensuring Liberty PAC, which will not only fund conservative candidates, but also make sure they are running good campaigns.

His 15 minutes of fame may be up, but the PAC has a crowd of ardent Tea Party activists behind the effort including Missouri State Sen. John Loudon of the St. Louis Tea Party, Steve McQueen and Brad Ehmen of the Quincy, Illinois Tea Party, Bill Hennessy of the St Louis Tea Party and Rose Corona, who is involved in California Tea Party groups.

Skoda’s role as leader of the movement is not universally accepted. Many Tea Party groups across the country did not participate in the convention because of the high ticket prices. Some accused Skoda and convention organizer Judson Phillips of trying to use the convention to elevate themselves as leaders of the movement.

“In fact, of the over 100 leaders that I know, not one attended the so-called Tea Party Convention in Nashville,” Stahl said.

Glenn Beck of Fox News

Beck used the airwaves to promote his 912 Project, named for the day after the September 11, 2001 attacks when Americans were united, and sponsor the Taxpayer March on Washington in 2009.

Stahl said Beck is the most influential person to the movement, saying, “There would be a very small movement without him.”

“The most often repeated phrase I hear among rank and file and leaders is, ‘Thank God for Glenn Beck.’ I cannot personally give him enough credit. There are some who decry his tactics, but none can deny the influence.”

Other Tea Party activists argue that other than promoting the 912 Project, Beck hasn’t been involved in other day-to-day efforts of the movement.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin

William Temple, an activist who travels to events across the country dressed in revolutionary garb, said while the movement is leaderless, he thinks someone will eventually take charge.

Without a doubt, he said, the former governor of Alaska could end up the de-facto leader of the movement. Earlier this month in Nashville at the National Tea Party Convention Palin made clear that she’s gunning to be the leader of the movement, even chiding the media in her keynote speech for being fixated on who the movement’s leader is.

But with state elections garnering attention, some activists say that perhaps Palin’s competition as de facto leader is a former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio.

Speaking at CPAC, Rubio sounded the part, riling up the crowd by saying, “The people want leaders who will come here to Washington, D.C., and stand up to the big government agenda, not be co-opted by it. After all, the U.S. Senate already has one Arlen Specter too many.”

Jon Ward contributed to this report