Tea Party teamwork: money and foot soldiers

A Tea Party member had a question for the moderator of a recent meeting. “Can’t we get rid of all these lobbyists?” he asked. Why can’t we outlaw them, he wondered, run them out of the state capitol and break the backs of these powerful special interests?

For the man at the podium, it was an awkward moment. As executive director of the Americans for Prosperity-Michigan, Scott Hagerstrom is a lobbyist, and Americans for Prosperity is a powerful special interest. This was his meeting, an opportunity to strengthen the bond between Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party.

“It’s a basic right, freedom of speech,” Hagerstrom answered. “You’re not going to shut it down.”

While Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party movement have combined to form a new and effective lobbying machine in Lansing, the incident illustrates that the two don’t always agree. This tenuous alliance is built on some common concerns about what Hagerstrom calls “economic liberty and limited government.”

It’s a symbiotic relationship. Americans for Prosperity, funded by industrialists Charles and David Koch, as well as others, has the money. The Tea Party provides the foot soldiers.

Democrats have claimed that the Tea Party is not a true grassroots movement but is “Astroturf,” a front for the moneyed interests behind Americans for Prosperity. Tea Party members scoff at that charge.

“I wish it were true,” said Wes Nakagiri, a Tea Party activist who recently announced he plans to run for lieutenant governor against Republican incumbent Brian Calley. “We could use more money.”

Tracking where Americans for Prosperity gets its money and how it spends it is nearly impossible, said Rich Robinson, executive director of the nonprofit and nonpartisan Michigan Campaign Finance Network, which studies political spending.

By gathering records from the state’s broadcasters, the Campaign Finance Network concluded that Americans for Prosperity spent more than $2.7 million on television advertising in Michigan during the 2012 statewide elections. That same year, the Americans for Prosperity Michigan Ballot Committee raised more than $1.5 million in a failed effort to pass a constitutional amendment that would have required a legislative supermajority or a vote of the people to raise any state tax.

Beyond that, it’s difficult to say who donated how much money or how it was spent. Since 2004, the Michigan Secretary of State has held that only communications explicitly urging a vote for or against a candidate are campaign expenditures subject to reporting. All others, such as those by Americans for Prosperity, are considered to be issue advocacy and are exempt from disclosure.

“There’s an awful lot of money for which there is no accounting in state campaigns,” Robinson said. “Where it’s coming from is a mystery.”

Americans for Prosperity has more than 3,000 donors in Michigan and more than 90,000 nationwide, Hagerstrom said, but he declined to name any. He denied the organization financially supports the Tea Party, other than paying for a table now and then at a Tea Party meeting.

Many Tea Party leaders also deny receiving money from Americans for Prosperity, and most claim to operate on a very thin shoestring. Much of the support likely comes in kind, rather than cash.

A Lansing-area Tea Party called Grassroots in Michigan, for example, has no budget, founder Joan Fabiano said, but when she needed to buy bumper stickers and campaign signs opposing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly called Obamacare, someone else – she declined to say who – paid the printer directly.

The Tea Party and Americans for Prosperity both oppose any effort to implement Obamacare in Michigan. They lost a key round in late August when the state Senate narrowly voted to expand Medicaid under Obamacare.

In a thinly veiled threat, Hagerstrom released a statement vowing to “dedicate significant resources to educating citizens on how their senators voted on this issue.” Tea partiers likely will spread that message.

Americans for Prosperity does not have members, but it maintains a list of 87,000 email addresses in Michigan, Hagerstrom said, many of them tea partiers. Last December, as the Legislature prepared to vote on a bill making Michigan a right-to-work state, Hagerstrom sent out a mass email, and hundreds of tea partiers arrived at the capital to counteract pro-union demonstrators.

In opposing the Medicaid expansion, Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party faced off against some of the most powerful special interests in Lansing, including labor unions, health care providers and business groups, such as the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Small Business Association of Michigan.

While slowing Medicaid expansion, Americans for Prosperity and the Tea Party also have fought against Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposal to raise the gasoline tax and vehicle registration fees for transportation improvements.

The two groups part company on most social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage.

While Americans for Prosperity encourages the Tea Party, it has to avoid dictating the terms of their courtship, said Ken Sikkema, a former Republican state senate leader.

“They (Tea Party members) are fiercely independent,” he said. “Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works” – a related interest group backed by the Koch brothers – “they simply have to realize these small Tea Party groups are very wary of being co-opted. Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Works, in some ways they’re capitalizing on this Tea Party movement, but they didn’t start it.”

Several tea partiers attending a recent Americans for Prosperity meeting in Lansing wore pins opposing the Common Core Curriculum, a movement to raise public school standards. Some believe it is being imposed by the Obama Administration, when it was written by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Some claim it is part of a United Nations conspiracy, an effort to brainwash children in a liberal philosophy, and a move toward a one-world government.

A Tea Party member from Kalamazoo said her issue is passage of the Parental Rights Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, a bill originally sponsored by former U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R-Holland, which would allow parents to raise their children without interference from the government or the United Nations Convention on the Child.

Many tea partiers oppose any form of gun control.

Americans for Prosperity has taken no position on those issues, but built its partnership with the Tea Party on the willingness of social conservatives to embrace an economic agenda.

“Certainly if you want to work on issues, you form coalitions with any group that is interested in that issue,” Hagerstrom said. The rise of the Tea Party has given a forum to ordinary conservatives who in the past were ignored, he said.

“I think their voices are being heard now,” he said, “where 20 years ago, they were being dismissed out of hand.”

Hagerstrom often attends Tea Party meetings, updating them on issues. When Americans for Prosperity needs help manning a call center, it seeks volunteers from the Tea Party. Bob Murphy, a Tea Party organizer from Lapeer, said his group received a $1,200 check from Americans for Prosperity after working at a call center.

“We’ve learned politicians respond to two things: money and power,” Murphy said. “We don’t have a lot of money. Our power is in our vote.”

At the recent Americans for Prosperity meeting, a parade of conservative leaders took to the podium, urging the Tea Party members to continue the fight.

“It’s about time we said ‘no’ to Obamacare,” state Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, told them, and outlined a free market alternative.

Obamacare is “about money,” Jack McHugh, a senior legislative analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, told the tea partiers. “It’s about delivering the booty to the hospitals.”

Chris Faulkner, a political consultant flown in from Washington by Americans for Prosperity, advised them on how to organize. “Grassroots does not mean broke,” he said. “I’m not saying you have to have a million dollars, but if there’s enough passion, people with your ideology are going to get behind you. Organizations like Americans for Prosperity are great, but all they can do is help people like you at the grassroots level.”

Hagerstrom exhorted the Tea Party members to keep pressuring Republican lawmakers to support their causes.

“They have to hear from us,” he said. Term limits, he said have “made them scared of their own shadows. I’m used to being on the losing side. Now we’re starting to have an effect on what’s going on in this town, and people don’t like it.”

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Tue, 09/10/2013 - 11:57am
It's always so easy to be against something. No access to health care for all, no decent roads in Michigan, no, no, no. The Koch Brothers only have one goal, to pay as few taxes as possible. The "Tea Party" will become a real party when they put forward serious WORKABLE ideas. Passing the cost of running a State/Country off to your children and grandchildren, by deferring everything isn't a solution, it's selfish. Get the government out of my life but keep your hands off MY ________________.
Sat, 09/14/2013 - 8:04am
Blufox you have it all wrong. If you did some research rather than rely on liberal rags you would know that the tea party is for access to healthcare - that's the problem with the misnamed ACA, it reduces access, raises costs, removes choice, and puts govt bureaucrats between you and your doctor. It will also reduce employment, lower benefits, put small business out of business, and increase the cost of goods as larger companies pass on the higher cost to their employees. You also twist the record on the tea party stance on roads. It's absurd to even make the claim the tea party says no to improving roads. Of course we want better roads. We also know we need to live within our means. It's a matter of priorities - yes, fix the roads by re prioritizing spending. Just how much in taxes should each individual be required to hand over to the govt? Liberals are great for claiming everyone should 'pay their fair share' and then refuse to say what that share is AND it's someone else's share, never theirs. The only ones passing the cost of govt on to our children and grandchildren are the irresponsible legislators and administrators who insist on spending and borrowing more than what is available. And the greedy selfish liberals who want to raise everyone elses taxes but theirs. The tea party seems to be the only adult in the room by recognizing we must prioritize our spending and we can't keep increasing taxes on the hard working men and women of MI. Families must live within our means, so must govt. There are common sense solutions but special interests easily drown those out. I'm grateful we have 'lobbyists' like AFP who lobby on behalf of the taxpayer! Now our workable solutions have a better chance of being heard! If you take your blinders off and get involved with the tea party you would know the truth rather than the propaganda spun by the liberal media as evidenced by your il informed comments.
Mon, 09/23/2013 - 8:50am
So what is the Tea Party's PLAN for healthcare? Continue on as is? Everyone recognizes that the current system is broken. So far, all I have heard from Tea Partiers is "lower taxes" which won't do a thing for the poor who are the most likely to need the help. You make all of these unfounded claims against the ACA without offering an alternative, Therefore you have once again shown that BluFox is right, you are against the ACA, against the "liberal rags" yet you have no alternative to offer. The fact is that the ACA is based on the system in MA which is working. Early on in the discussion on healthcare proposals were made that would create a healthcare system similar to that in Germany, which is spectacularly successful, but this was opposed (of course) by the Tea Party. So what "facts" are you basing your claims on that the ACA won't work? Please do not quote Fox News or you will convince no one outside of your echo chamber.
Sat, 10/26/2013 - 9:57pm
There was an offer on the table called Ryancare. It was the 'shared price' plan. Do you remember that one? Currently the ACA is a 'price fixing' economic principle plan. Do you know the difference? Well let me take you back to Econ 101 for a minute. Price fixing reduces quality of the service or product over time. ALWAYS! There are thousands of economic examples to pull from. 'Price sharing' does NOT reduce quality of the service or product. Ryan care opened up the markets across states to reduce the costs to people. Why? Because an open market will always take care of itself with competition. I bet you think we have an open market now? No! We don't that are so many regulations it's not even close. In fact when gov started to regulate is when costs increased. Also did you know that the insurance companies are the ones who did NOT want an open market? You know why? Because they wanted to restrict the consumers offers so they could charge more. Now the system is more broke than it was and the quality of care will reduce itself over a period of time. As far as your liberal rags...yeah, get away from them and read the source. You are a smart man and you can make a good decsion. Read the bill and then make an educated decision. Go to the source because IF you don't you will end up being conditioned to think a certain way if you are not already conditioned. Which is quite possible since you are here condemning the tea party web site. Your alternative is to go directly to the source and read the bill yourself do NOT rely on anyone to make your decision for you! Question everything! THAT is your alternative! One more thing.....MA healthcare is 'price sharing' NOT 'price fixed'. ACA is 'price fixed'! MA healthcare was a model BUT it is NOT the exact same healthcare law. So stop boasting you know more than FOX news because you don't!
Tue, 09/10/2013 - 12:38pm
The disconnect between reality and the tea party is amazing!
Sat, 09/14/2013 - 8:11am
Barbara, really? Just what specifically do you think is the disconnect? It seems you are the one disconnected from reality when you make such a statement. Get involved with the tea party and see how connected we ARE to reality. We deal in facts, not slogans.
Tue, 10/22/2013 - 6:58am
All we have to do is watch the actions of the people claiming to be part of the tea party and it's obvious they are not for the people. They are the party of destruction. Dismantle health insurance, dismantle medicare and social security, dismantle the dept of education. The Koch brothers are controlling the Tea Party. Interesting piece of trivia. A couple of years ago Koch foods got busted for having 161 aliens in it's Koch Foods company. One more piece of trivia. My sis and her husband have Kaiser Health. They've been paying $1,500 a month. They're not quite old enough for Medicare. With ObamaCare, they are getting the same basic policy for $198 a month. If Obamacare really is such a disaster, they would let it run and enjoy it when the Dems project fails. They are rabid to get rid of it because they know how good it will be for many people. Deb, if the Tea Party is for healthcare, why haven't they suggesting anything to take it's place. And not even the suggestion of keeping the law about pre-existing conditions. Don't let them food you. They are not interested in us. They are doing what the Koch Brothers want in exchange for money. It used to be called corruption, buying votes, bribes and now they call it Lobbying. I'm hoping people aren't that dumb.
Sat, 10/26/2013 - 9:39pm
Melodi, They have made suggestions for healthcare but you were to busy listening to people demonize them so you wouldn't hear the offers. You have been so conditioned to just ignore what they say. Also about Koch brothers...sorry to rain on your parade but I would rather be the party of Koch than the party of Soros any day of the week. You are backing a man who is funding the transformation of America FROM freedom and if you knew anything about the TP you would know freedom is the backbone of the people behind it. Let me guess, you are against corporations as well. I bet you have no idea that a free market has nothing to do with corporations. I bet you think corporations are the base of capitalism...correct? Wrong! Also did you know that ACA uses the most basic economic principle of 'price fixing'? If you have taken Econ 101 you will know that 'price fixing' ANY service or product REDUCES the quality over time. Every single time price fixing reduces quality. Now instead of blindly following the party of Soros and condemning those you don't understand try to look at the issue from every angle. I have and the best quality, low cost care we could have gotten would have been from OPEN markets...completely OPEN markets. Who doesn't want completely open markets?? The insurance companies, they like this law because they are getting more cash from the govt and the people. They will make a crap load of cash and it's not because it's a corporation, it's because the govt made a law to help 30 million people pay insurance companies, I bet your representatives will make a mint from the stock markets from knowing the insides of this law...how's that for your koch controls corporations theory?