Nashville is about to host what's billed as the first-ever national tea party convention with Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann and our very own Marsha Blackburn in the starring roles. But tea party activists are all over the Internet denouncing the convention as a sham to trick salt-of-the-earth patriots out of their hard-earned cash. It's raising questions about whether the event could turn into an embarrassment for Palin and the conservative movement.
Tea Party Nation, the for-profit company putting on the convention next month at Gaylord Opryland Hotel, is charging delegates $549 a pop for the privilege of attending. Politico reports organizers are asking a whopping $50,000 for corporate sponsorships. According to one insider who's talked to Pith, Tea Party Nation hopes to clear $300,000--and he says that's after paying Palin's hefty $120,000 speaking fee. She doesn't come cheap.
"Sarah Palin should cancel," says Tony Shreeve, an activist from Dandridge who quit the convention steering committee in November to protest the high ticket prices. "She thinks she's coming to promote the tea party people there. But in reality, there won't be tea party people there. The tea party is made up of grassroots people, middle-class, normal, ordinary Americans. They can't afford this."
Shreeve tells Pith, "I'm just being honest with you. This is not a tea party event. It's a fundraiser."
Another activist, Mark Meckler, calls the convention the "usurpation of a grassroots movement." He tells Talking Points Memo "most people in our movement can't afford anything like that."
We tried to ask Tea Party Nation president Judson Phillips, a Williamson County DUI lawyer, about all this, but he refuses to talk to Pith. We thought it was something personal at first, then we noticed he doesn't seem to have much to say to anybody in the media.
Back in November, before he clammed up, Phillips told Politico that Tea Party Nation wanted to turn a profit on the convention so that it could "funnel money back into conservative causes." Shreeve questions the group's motives. According to him, Tea Party Nation hasn't yet set up a political action committee or nonprofit group to accept the cash, "so where's that money going?"
"The tea party movement is not a business," Shreeve says. "I understand if you want to make some money by selling 'Don't Tread on Me' flags or whatever. But when you start taking advantage of concerned Americans, that's wrong."
Maybe the risk of negative media coverage explains why organizers are basically closing the convention to reporters. The Minneapolis Star Tribune has been denied a media pass but apparently did manage to speak to the elusive Phillips:
If the secrecy sounds a little, well, un-American, Phillips has this explanation: It's not a political convention, but a "working convention." It appears that sometimes the right of the people to peaceably assemble is best conducted out of view.