Floridians debate – and sue – to determine who’s a real Tea Partier

Alex Pappas Political Reporter
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Randy Wilkinson is running for Congress as a third party candidate on the Florida Tea Party ticket — but don’t be fooled, some Tea Partiers in the state say, because that political party is a sham.

Since The Daily Caller wrote a feature on Wilkinson, e-mails have poured in from angry Floridians involved in the movement who say they — not Wilkinson and others affiliated with the Florida third party — are the real Tea Party activists.

Some have even filed suit against three men involved with the Florida Tea Party, alleging the men hijacked the movement’s name.

“Sorry, but the Tea Party political party you are writing about is not a part of the authentic Tea Party movement,” said Michael R. Caputo, who runs a public relations firm in Florida in an e-mail to The Daily Caller. “The party is a sham; you were duped.”

Fred O’Neal, founder of the Florida Tea Party, said he is now filing suit on Wednesday against the activists who are suing him. Caputo, he said, is one of a number of Republicans who are trying to “drive a wedge between us and other Tea Party groups.”

Caputo said grassroots activists in Florida are more powerful than the third party and “will work against this fake Tea Party candidate in the Polk election,” referencing Polk County, where Wilkinson resides.

Wilkinson, in an interview with The Daily Caller, says he’s the real deal and “there’s nobody really in charge of the Tea Party” to tell him otherwise. He’s conservative, he said, and those who don’t believe him “need to check my history.”

“I’ve never been the favorite son of the Republican establishment,” he acknowledged.

Tim McClellan, a political strategist involved with the South Florida Tea Party, said the third party is a diabolical plot to confuse Tea Partiers so they do not know who to vote for or who is real. “That they would take advantage of the unsavvy political people who got involved in politics since Obama got elected to try to pull something like this on them is nothing short of wrong,” he said during a phone interview.

Asked about Wilkinson, McClellan said, “He’s a pawn that got caught up in it.”

Wilkinson, running for Florida’s 12th District seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Adam Putnam, said conservatives against his candidacy are just Republican operatives who “have an axe to grind” and who “want legitimacy and credit.”

“The Republicans have clearly failed,” said Wilkinson, a county commissioner in Florida’s Polk County, who paused during a phone interview because he said a contributor to his campaign knocked on his door to deliver $100. He switched his party affiliation from Republican to Florida Tea Party last week before the candidate filing deadline.

Wilkinson said he’s a Southern Baptist who “became a Republican because of Ronald Reagan” and who has attended and even spoken at several Tea Party gatherings.

Critics of Wilkinson’s political party say the party’s founders — O’Neal, Doug Guetzloe and Nick Egoroff — “want revenge,” according to McClellan. Guetzloe, he said, is a political consultant who was banned from the GOP with a history of political trickery who saw the Tea Party movement as an opportunity to perhaps make money.

McClellan leads a group of about 33 plaintiffs who are suing the Florida Tea Party over their usage of the name. He said that since the third party was registered, local grassroots groups were told not to use the phrase “Tea Party” without the political party’s permission. On December 6, that trial is set to begin in U.S. District Court in West Palm Beach.

O’Neal said he never said the local groups could no longer use the Tea Party name: “We never made that kind of threat, but they got it out there, so everyone thinks we’re the bad guys.”

O’Neal’s soon-to-be filed complaint, obtained by The Daily Caller, lists Guetzloe as the plaintiff. Defendants listed are Cheryl Matchett, Everett Wilkinson, Michael Cuputo and Tim McClellan. The suit alleges Guetzloe suffered emotional distress, defamation and loss of income over the Tea Party fiasco. O’Neal said the suit “pretty well ties up the motivations of why they’re criticizing us.”

“We’re fighting back,” he said.

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