At a Glance
Headquarters: Franklin, Tennessee
Online members: 31,402
Notable: The group has provided a Tea Party platform to Christian nationalists, nativists and birthers.
Tea Party Nation (TPN) was organized by Judson Phillips, a Nashville attorney, and his wife Sherry Phillips. He is a local Republican activist and former assistant district attorney. His private practice, in 2010, specialized in drunk driving and personal-injury cases. Judson Phillips had filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy in 1999, according to public records. During the past decade he has had three federal tax liens against him, totaling more than $22,000. He claims the tax liens have been paid off.
TPN describes itself as a “user-driven group of like-minded people who desire our God given Individual Freedoms which were written out by the Founding Fathers. We believe in Limited Government, Free Speech, the 2nd Amendment, our Military, Secure Borders and our Country!”
“I’m not trying [to] attract moderates. Moderates are just those who have no core beliefs,” explained Judson Phillips.
The birth of Tea Party Nation mirrors that of several of the other factions. Phillips helped organize a Tea Party rally in Nashville on February 27, 2009. That event attracted several hundred people. Several became volunteers in the operation. On April 6, he registered the TeaPartyNation.com domain name. Phillips and his volunteers organized April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests in Nashville, where about 10,000 attended, and in nearby Franklin, Tennessee, with an additional 4,000. The success provided the impetus to officially go national.
Tea Party Nation is now third largest national Tea Party network, with 31,402 online members, as of August 1, 2010. Geographically, the largest concentration of members is in group’s home state of Tennessee. There are also sizable membership clusters in the Northeast, in Texas, Florida, Illinois, California, and Nevada. Tea Party Nation’s top ten member cities are: Nashville, Tennessee; Las Vegas, Nevada; Houston, Texas; Franklin, Tennessee; Murfreesboro, Tennessee; New York, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Denver Colorado, Washington DC; and San Diego, California. A breakdown by gender of the online membership was not available.
Two early disputes revealed a fault line within the Tea Party over money-handling and the movement’s relationship to Republican Party structures. According to Kevin Smith, a volunteer who served as the group’s founding webmaster, Phillips gave the impression that the newly formed organization was going to be a non-profit effort. Nevertheless, on April 21, 2009, Phillips formally filed records with the Tennessee Secretary of State registering Tea Party Nation, Inc. as a for-profit corporation.
This action led to the first internal clash, and webmaster Smith resigned in protest on April 24, 2009. In an email sent to donors, Smith apologized for participating in a deception and chastised Phillips: “I certainly take strong exception with building a corporation using the altruistic contributions of hundreds of volunteers, donors, corporate sponsors, and vocal, public champions of the tea party movement. I believe that you gave generously of your time and money because you assumed, like I did, that this was a non-profit effort meant to plan and pay for rallies and advance the goals of the tea party. For this very reason, I cannot continue to be involved with Tea Party Nation.”
Smith also attacked the direction the organization was heading, writing, “It’s become clear to me that Judson and his for-profit Tea Party Nation Corporation are at the forefront of the GOP’s process of hijacking the tea party movement. What began as cries for true liberty and a public showing of frustration with the big government policies of both Democrats and Republicans has now been co-opted by mainstream Republican demagogues determined to use this as their 2010 election platform.”
(Dave Kasold, of Bothell, Washington, later replaced Smith as “technical director.” Kasold had helped form a group called the Eastside Tea Party. Kasold also runs HandsofLiberty.com, a for-profit company that sells playing cards featuring caricatures of Democratic leaders. Kasold is also a member of the ResistNet social networking site.)
Others, including steering committee members, soon followed Smith out of the organization. During the fall months of 2009, as Phillips and Tea Party Nation began planning a convention set for the following February, a second set of disputes began. Several of the remaining steering committee members opposed the proposed $550 registration fee. And a number of supporters quit after a contentious November 7 meeting at a Golden Corral restaurant.
Instead of looking for ways to satisfy the concerns of the steering committee or conference planning volunteers, Phillips excluded both groups from the planning process, replacing them with a group of seven: Sherry Phillips, Judson Phillips, his sister-in-law Pam Farnsworth, Bruce Donnelly, president of the Chicago-based Surge USA Bruce Donnelly, Bill Hemrick, the founder of Upper Deck sports cards, and Hemrick’s business partner Jason Lukowitz. By year’s end, this smaller planning committee seemed to have the convention back on track.
Summer 2009 Alter Calls
Throughout the summer 2009, TPN held a number of events in Nashville, including Revival Rally on July 6 and an Altar Call on July 31. The group was also an official sponsor of the big 9-12 March on DC.
At a July 31, 2009 “Altar Call” at the Cornerstone Church in Nashville, Tennessee, six hundred Christian conservatives gathered for a “call to arms.” Phillips exhorted the crowd to action. “You must get involved. The time for sitting on the sidelines is over,” he said. He urged the crowd to fight what he called the “Obama-Pelosi-Reid axis of evil,” which he believes threatens the American way of life. “Tonight we are doing a different kind of altar call,” Phillips said. “Tonight’s altar call is not for God. It’s for country."
The main attraction of that altar call was Ralph Bristol, a local talk show host. Bristol wore a green Army jacket and a baseball cap adorned with the American flag on stage and played a character he called “Sergeant Bristol.” Some of the audience wore similar uniforms and brought their guns. Bristol gave his audience marching orders to slay the socialist monster.
Planning a Convention
As Tea Party Nation continued planning its convention, problems persisted. In January 2010, one of the largest convention sponsors, the American Liberty Alliance (ALA), announced that it would “pass on being involved with the Nashville event.” The way money was being handled was the problem for ALA. “The controversy surrounding the event involves conversations about the infrastructure of the Tea Party Nation and the way its finances are channeled through private bank accounts and paypal accounts,” ALA director Eric Odom declared.
The National Precinct Alliance, a group seeking to take over the GOP by filling the local ranks of the party, also stated that they would no longer participate. “We are very concerned about the appearance of T.P.N. profiteering and exploitation of the grass-roots movement,” the organization’s national director, Philip Glass, said in a statement.” Glass also expressed dismay about the role in the convention of groups like Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks. He called them “Republican National Committee-related groups,” and added, “At best, it creates the appearance of an R.N.C. hijacking; at worst, it is one.”
Then, on January 11, Erick Erickson, the editor of the influential right wing blog RedState.com, joined in and said, “I think this national tea party convention smells scammy.”
The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), one the leading nativist anti-immigration organizations, initially signed up an official “bronze” sponsor of the convention. It was included in a January 4 press release by Tea Party Nation announcing the conference. The FAIR logo appeared on the conference website, and a workshop on “Operation Amnesty Shield” was scheduled. FAIR abandoned the convention, however, during the second week of January over concern that the for-profit status of the Tea Party Nation could jeopardize FAIR’s 501c3 non-profit status. FAIR staff also reportedly expressed anxiety about the possibility of funds from the convention being funneled to political candidates.
FreedomWorks also did not support the Tea Party Nation Convention, although Tea Party Nation had been one of the sponsors of the September 12, 2009 rally in D.C. As FreedomWorks staff person Adam Brandon explained, “A number of people in Nashville might be focused on social issues, like being anti-gay, or being anti-immigration and that is not a good way of building a movement. We want to focus on what we have in common, which is opposition to big government and taxes.” Despite this criticism, the two Tea Party factions have worked together at other points.
Although Tea Party Patriots had a significant number of members in Tennessee and could have helped the convention, Mark Meckler, one of the Tea Party Patriots co-founders, described the coming Nashville event as the “usurpation of a grassroots movement." Commenting on the exorbitant price of the conference, Meckler stated, “most people in our movement can’t afford anything like that.” In fact, the high cost of registration and Palin’s speaking fee was later cited as one of the reasons why a second convention was soon organized in Tennessee by an alternative coalition of Tea Party groups. [See Tea Party Patriots section].
Convention in Nashville February 2010
Despite all of these pre-conference difficulties, the convention in Nashville was well attended. Sarah Palin spoke there, generating discussion about her speaking fee, rumored to be over $100,000. Underneath the hoopla attending Palin’s appearance, the convention highlighted the place of Christian conservatives, indeed Christian nationalism, inside this movement generally, and in Judson’s Tea Party Nation specifically. The convention also built bridges to nativists and so-called birthers. There was a marked shift away from a supposed focus on bailouts and budget deficits towards a culture war.
This connection was apparent in the workshop of about 215 people led held Dr. Rick Scarborough, a former Southern Baptist pastor from Pearland, Texas. Scarborough heads up a constellation of corporations that includes Vision America, Vision America Action and the Judeo-Christian Council for Constitutional Restoration. A fixture on the Christian Right for many years, the Rev. Jerry Falwell published his first book.
After showing an eight minute video cataloguing his many television appearances, Scarborough told the room that the gap between “fiscal and social conservatives has got to cease.” In addition to attacking the Obama administration for its commitment to including attacks on gays and lesbians into federal hate crimes protections, Scarborough warned that we are moving towards a “collectivist” society. We have a Godly duty to defend “American exceptionalism,” he said.
Scarborough used much of his speech to launch a new campaign, called the Mandate to Save America, a project of the S.T.O.P. Obama Tyranny National Coalition. He worked up the crowd in the room, and got a standing ovation when he demanded, “enough is enough!” When he finished, an older woman in the front row stood up and stated, “What we need is revival and revolt!” which brought cheers from the audience.
The theme continued when Judge Roy S. Moore gave the convention’s lunchtime keynote speech. Once an Alabama Supreme Court justice, Moore was impeached from office after he refused to enforce a court order to remove a statue of the Ten Commandments from within his courthouse. At the time of the convention, Moore was running in the Republican primaries for Alabama governor.
During his speech, Moore proclaimed that “we must fight,” and that “the war is inevitable.” He was not talking about Iraq or Afghanistan. “The battle is here in America. We must preserve the Republic and our faith in God, or have it taken from us,” he said. Moore received some of the loudest applause of the entire convention when he spoke about “spiritual warfare,” and declared that “it’s time for Christians to take a stand.”
Also at the Tea Party Nation Convention in Nashville, a noted conservative figure who is black, Bishop E.W. Jackson, spoke briefly and prayed for Tea Party conventioneers. Jackson declared, “I have not found Nazis here or racists here. I have found Americans who love their country and are prepared to stand up for the values we believe in.” Jackson urged African-Americans to join the Tea Party movement.
In 2009, Jackson created the group Staying True to America’s National Destiny (STAND), which claims to be “a national grassroots organization of Americans dedicated to preserving our Judeo-Christian History and Values; saving the unborn from the slaughter of abortion; maintaining marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman; reversing our country’s slide into secular atheism, anti-Semitism and anti-Christian bigotry; continuing to be the world’s strongest military power; protecting Israel’s right to exist and be secure within its borders; supporting political leaders who uphold these values and opposing those who do not; and promoting a vision of America as one nation under God, without regard to ethnicity." He was also at a rally against hate crime legislation, where he blasted the legislation as the result of a “virulent strain of anti-Christian bigotry and hatred.”
Jackson also created the STAND AMERICA PAC through which he is “declaring political war on the Democrat Party and the liberal Congressional Black Caucus.” According to Jackson, “The Democrat Party’s commitment to abortion, homosexuality and moral relativism is an affront to the values of the black Christian community. It is a ‘Coalition of the godless.’ Black Christians do not belong in a ‘coalition of the godless,’ and should not vote for those who are.” The PAC had about $13,000 in revenue at the time this report was being written, however, not enough to go to war with anybody.
Joseph Farah, of the website WorldNetDaily, gave the convention’s Friday evening keynote speech. Farah spent nearly half his time cooking up a Biblical basis for his obsession with Obama’s birth certificate. Some of the convention leading figures did not like this kind of “birther” conspiracy talk, however. Andrew Breitbart, for example, privately criticized him for it. Nevertheless, the issue of whether or not President Barack Obama is a natural-born American continued to percolate in Nashville. For example, Miki Booth, an Hawaiian-born woman who’s also a member of the Route 66 Tea Party, announced her candidacy for the Oklahoma 2nd District Congressional seat from the convention floor. Holding up a copy of Obama’s birth certificate, she said “this piece of junk is what you get when you don’t have one of these,” she finished, holding up a copy of her birth certificate, to raucous applause. When Orly Taitz, the California resident who has pressed the birth certificate issue the most loudly, made an appearance at the convention, she was warmly welcomed and continually stopped for autographs.
Although the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) pulled out of the convention as discussed earlier, several of FAIR’s allies still addressed the Tea Party Nation crowd. Phil Valentine, a Nashville radio talk-show host that has featured FAIR on his radio program numerous times, spoke at the convention. During a 2006 town hall meeting broadcast with FAIR staffer Susan Tully, Valentine advised Border Patrol Agents to “shoot” undocumented immigrants.
Further, former Republican Congressmen from Colorado, Tom Tancredo, opened the convention with a fiery speech attacking President Obama and “the cult of multiculturalism.” Commenting on the 2008 election, Tancredo declared, “People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.” Tancredo also said Obama won because “we do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote.” Tancredo, who founded the so-called House Immigration Reform Caucus, appeared to have missed the irony in his rant. Immigrants are required to take a civics test to as part of the process to become citizens and earn the right to vote, while people born here, like those in the crowd, do not. He also seemed to conveniently skirt over the use of literacy tests to keep African-Americans away from the polls under Jim Crow segregation. The Tea Party crowd on hand in the ballroom enthusiastically responded to Tancredo’s racially-charged remarks.
Tancredo also joined NumbersUSA head Roy Beck for a workshop focused on generating anti-immigrant activity. Beck is one of the anti-immigrant movement’s most active spokespersons, speaking at a meeting of the white nationalist Council of Conservative Citizens, as well as testifying before a Senate hearing.
Before that workshop formally began, Beck chatted with attendees about the issue of “anchor babies” and the birthright citizenship portion of the Fourteenth Amendment. He noted that it was on the NumbersUSA agenda, but given the current Democratic Congress they were going to focus on legislation targeting immigrant workers. During the workshop, Beck introduced Chad MacDonald, NumbersUSA director of social media marketing. MacDonald told the group that his organization’s planned to have an “immigration expert” in each local tea party group around the country. And he admitted to being no stranger to the Tea Parties. After all, he spoke at an “anti-amnesty” Tea Party rally in Pasadena, California in the fall of 2009.
As this report was being written, Tea Party Nation was planning a “unity” convention in Las Vegas, Nevada during the month of October 2010.
Leonard Zeskind is president of the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights. Devin Burghart is IREHR vice president.
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