FreedomWorks Tea Party

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FreedomWorks Tea Party

10.19.2010

FreedomWorks LogoAt a Glance

Headquarters: Washington D.C.

Website: freedomworks.org

Online members: 15,044

Notable: Chaired by former House Majority Leader Dick Armey.

 

 


 

 

{jb_dropcap}A{/jb_dropcap}fter the 2008 election, FreedomWorks worked to develop an insurgency that would separate conservatives from the legacy of the failed Bush administration. It sought alternatives to the grass roots organizing previously done by Democratic Party activists. The emergence of the Tea Parties proved to be just what FreedomWorks needed.

Although FreedomWorks Tea Party has fewer enrolled members than several of the other national factions, it has the largest structure of support. The FreedomWorks corporate complex includes both a foundation and a c(4) membership organization. In 2008, the c(4) raised and spent more than four million dollars. The foundation took in more than three million dollars that year, and spent about $100,000 more than it received. As of February 2010, FreedomWorks boasted a staff of thirteen professionals, including state directors in North Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey chairs FreedomWorks. He received $300,000 in compensation from the foundation in 2008, and another $250,000 from the related membership organization that year, according to documents filed with the IRS.[14]

FreedomWorks was born out of one of the organizational splinters from a 2003 disagreement within a conservative think-tank known as Citizens for a Sound Economy (CSE). One side of this conflict formed Americans for Prosperity. When CSE’s remaining remnants merged with a group called Empower America in 2004, FreedomWorks was created.

In the past, FreedomWorks has supported: Social Security privatization, tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, caps on lawsuit damages, deregulation and free trade. It has opposed efforts to address global climate change, and it has received sizable industry funding.

Commentators such as Paul Krugman have cited the presence of FreedomWorks inside the Tea Parties as proof that the Tea Parties are an “astroturf” phenomenon– a sleight-of-hand effort manufactured by inside-the-Beltway organizations to concoct the appearance of grassroots support.[15] This suspicion is not completely unfounded. In 2004, for example, when President George W. Bush was pushing for Social Security privatization, the administration heaped praise upon someone described as a “regular single mom.” This person turned out to be the FreedomWorks Iowa state director, according to the New York Times investigative story on the incident.[16] Similarly, FreedomWorks' role in 2008 in creating the grassroots-looking angryrenter.com website, that campaigned against federal insurance to help refinance troubled mortgages, was exposed by The Wall Street Journal.[17]

Nevertheless, it would be an analytical mistake of the first order to conflate FreedomWorks' corporate machinations with the grass roots insurgency of the Tea Parties. In fact, FreedomWorks Tea Party membership is the second smallest of the national factions. It had 15,044 online members, as of August 1, 2010.[18] These are concentrated in the Northeast, particularly the corridor from Boston to New York City to Washington DC. Other clusters are in Texas and Florida. The top ten cities for FreedomWorks Tea Party membership include: Jacksonville, Florida; Washington DC; New York, New York; Houston, Texas; San Antonio, Texas; Tampa, Florida; Richmond, Virginia; Las Vegas, Nevada; Alexandria, Virginia; and Fort Lauderdale, Florida.[19]The FreedomWorks Tea Party online membership is 40% male, 36% female, with 24% choosing to not self-identify.[20]

According to Dick Armey, “Frustrated Americans began taking their grievances to the streets and the tea party movement was born. Just as the original Boston Tea Party was a grass-roots rebellion against overbearing government, tea party participants are reacting to government that has grown too large.”[21]

At a March 9, 2009 training of the Macon County, North Carolina chapter of FreedomWorks, Director of Federal and State Campaigns Brendan Steinhauser described the Tea Parties origins in terms that flattered his organization. “Basically, FreedomWorks was already asking people to take to the streets before the Stimulus passed...”

After the initial burst of nascent activity, described in the Introduction, FreedomWorks created a website containing ideas for slogans on signs, a sample press release, and a map of local events.[22] In a video interview, Steinhauser described FreedomWorks’ role with local Tea Party groups, “Usually what happens is an organizer from anywhere in the country will contact me and say I’d like to organize a Tea Party and do something in my city, so what we do is we help resource them with ideas for signs, locations, for media outreach, and we try to give them this list of things to do so that they can make sure their event is successful. A lot of that just entails paying attention to details, like signing up people when they come, and sending email reminders, and following up with phone calls and things like that. And we’ve seen a lot of success. There are a lot of people out there that have never done this before but they are having successful events by sort of following this recipe."[23]

In fact, FreedomWorks played an important role from the beginning, coordinating Tea Party efforts, as well as offering training and technical support for new Tea Party organizations. They provided online and phone consultations on how to organize a local group, hold rallies, and protest at town hall meetings.[24] FreedomWorks also facilitated intra-movement communication. They sponsored a weekly Tea Party conference call with activists from around the country, where activists got to know one another.[25] FreedomWorks staff even provided technical support to other national Tea Party factions.[26]

At this early stage, in anticipation of battles to come, FreedomWorks provided organizers with information on health care and climate change legislation.[27] By August 2009, even before the heat of the town halls, Dick Armey announced that “his organization’s members are ready to sabotage immigration reform, a cap-and-trade proposal and other Democratic legislative priorities that are likely to stir the conservative base.”[28] On August 18, FreedomWorks joined with the Our Country Deserves Better PAC and six other organizations to launch a 16-day national Tea Party bus tour which would become the Tea Party Express.[29] The tour began in Sacramento, CA on August 28 and ended with the 9-12 rally in Washington DC.

FreedomWorks then turned the organization’s attention to a planned September 12, 2009 march in Washington.[30] Before the big rally the group offered a two-day grass roots training session that attracted more than 2,000 local activists. That number was up ten times from the two hundred that had attended a similar session the year before.[31]

Attendance numbers for the September 12, 2009 Tea Party rally in Washington D.C. remain in dispute. Estimates range between 60,000 to over one million, depending on who is doing the counting. There is no disagreement over the importance of the rally, nor over the range of organizations that supported it. While FreedomWorks hosted the event, sponsors included Tea Party Express, (aka Our Country Deserves Better PAC), ResistNet (Grassfire.org), Tea Party Nation, and Tea Party Patriots. ResistNet’s Darla Dawald claimed to be one of three national coordinators.[32] Notably, she also had a FreedomWorks Tea Party membership listed on its website.[33]

Also sponsoring this march were established D.C. lobbies such as Club for Growth, Americans for Tax Reform, and National Taxpayers Union. Other organizations and websites with one foot inside the Tea Parties supported the demonstration: Campaign for Liberty with forty thousand plus online members, the website Smart Girl Politics which had fewer than 15,000 enrolled supporters at the time, Leadership Institute, Free Republic, and Eric Odom’s American Liberty Alliance.

In January 2010, FreedomWorks began focusing their Tea Party activism on the 2010 elections. Dubbed as “the first leadership summit of the Tea Party era,” more than sixty leaders from two dozen states gathered in D.C. under its auspices. The meeting developed 2010 midterm election plans, and gave FreedomWorks the opportunity to roll out their list of 65 targeted congressional races. A workshop taught effective television techniques and mastering social media. Another session was entitled “what you can and can’t say: how to stay out of jail this year.”[34] FreedomWorks announced plans to fund opposition research, mail, door-to-door and get-out-the-vote efforts with the hope of electing “ideologically pure conservatives,” according to one of its staff personnel.[35]

FreedomWorks has had a particularly close working relationship with Tea Party Patriots, which sports the FreedomWorks logo as one of several organizations promoted on its website’s frontpage. FreedomWorks staffer Tom Gaitens runs the Tea Party Patriots listserv.[36] And Tea Party Patriots board member Diana Reimer has also been listed as a FreedomWorks volunteer.[37] Tea Party Patriots participated in the January 2010 sessions in DC, and the two organization’s have collaborated on local events, such as the April 15, 2010 Atlanta Tax Day Tea Party.[38]

After the January summit, several Tea Party groups released the Declaration of Tea Party Independence (though the spokespeople refused to release the initial organizations involved in crafting the document).[39] The five page manifesto declared war against “the Democrat party” and moderate Republicans. And it announced that “We are the Tea Party Movement of America and we believe in American Exceptionalism.”[40]  The document tried to define culture war issues out of the Tea Party Doctrine. The only three points of unity in the declaration were “Fiscal Responsibility, Constitutionally Limited Government and Free Markets.” According to this declaration, “This threefold purpose is the source of our unity in the Tea Party Movement.”[41]

As this report will demonstrate, more than limited government and fiscal responsibility is at stake for the Tea Partiers.

Last modified on 09.09.2011
Devin Burghart and Leonard Zeskind

Leonard Zeskind is president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Devin Burghart is IREHR vice president.

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