Inside the Tea Party

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The loose conglomeration of conservative activists known as the Tea Party has rocked the political landscape in recent months, appealing to voters disenchanted with the big-spending policies of the Bush and Obama administrations. They say they're mad as hell, though some pundits see them as simply mad. After shocking upsets in GOP primary races in Alaska, New York, and Delaware, among others, no one's dismissing them anymore. Still, nailing down exactly what the Tea Party stands for and who runs it isn't easy. Sarah Palin's and Glenn Beck's tweets and teary theatrics serve as valuable spiritual fodder, but in a decentralized movement that has been compared to a starfish, here are 10 movers and shakers you should know about, some in the public eye, some in the shadows.

In February 2009, long-simmering conservative frustrations got the outlet they needed in the form of a televised rant on CNBC. Commentator Rick Santelli started frothing at the mouth on the trading floor at the mention of the financial bailout, yelling, "How many of you people want to pay for your neighbor's mortgage?" When young and disgruntled social networkers got wind of the rant, the Web went wild. Santelli, who still broadcasts, galvanized a movement that continues to change the face of American politics.

The former House majority leader currently heads up FreedomWorks, a D.C.-based conservative nonprofit involved in grassroots organizing. With a reported $7 million budget and a membership that now tops 600,000, the group was a key player in mobilizing turnout for last year's rowdy health-care town-hall meetings and the recent 9/12 Taxpayer March on Washington. Armey himself has written Give Us Liberty: A Tea Party Manifesto, which has helped him become one of the movement's most recognizable leaders. With the territory comes controversy--critics have characterized FreedomWorks as an example of "astroturfing" and a front for Armey's corporate and lobbying interests. Even conservative blogger Michelle Malkin calls Armey a "blowhard-y Beltway dinosaur" and an "amnesty stooge" who is trying to steer the Tea Party away from issues like illegal immigration because a crackdown would irk big business.

The couple behind Tea Party Nation, the group that organized February's inaugural National Tea Party Convention, has garnered its fair share of negative press over the past year. According to Politico, they paid $100,000 to lure Sarah Palin to speak and aimed to turn a profit from the event. Unlike many big-time political spenders, neither of them came from money, and they've also been accused of some funny financial dealings. Judson Phillips also accused a former co-worker, Kevin Smith, of having "an ax to grind" when Smith revealed that one of the Tea Party Nation merchandise accounts was linked directly to Sherry's PayPal account.

The convention was also criticized for its $549 ticket price and expensive sponsorships, but the Phillipses have defended all their decisions to the hilt.

This has been a year of stunning political upsets, with Scott Brown grabbing the Massachusetts U.S. Senate seat and outsiders Joe Miller, Sharron Angle, and Christine O'Donnell shocking establishment GOP candidates in Alaska, Nevada, and Delaware, respectively. Much credit for the giant-slaying must go to Tea Party Express, a California group co-founded by longtime GOP operative Sal Russo and currently headed by Kremer, a self-described "true Southern belle" and former Delta Airlines flight attendant whose interest in politics was awakened by the 2008 election. Tapping a donor list of more than 400,000, the Tea Party Express pumped big money and organizational support into all the contests ($600,000 to promote Miller may not sound like much, but that sum goes a long way in Alaska's media market). Kremer recently told Karl Rove to "stay out of it" after the GOP mastermind made a well-publicized attack on O'Donnell. "This isn't about sending Republicans to Washington," she said. "It's about sending conservatives to Washington."

At just 29, this conservative blogger and self-proclaimed "eActivist" is one of the movement's new-media whiz kids. Odom got his start as founder of DontGo (now the American Liberty Alliance), organizing support for offshore drilling, and he is currently a partner in the online media firm Strategic Action, which operates the Tax Day Tea Party Web site. He was also instrumental in helping to mobilize some of the earliest Tea Party protests against the stimulus and health-care bills. Odom has not been afraid to get his hands dirty, pulling out of the National Tea Party Convention because of the questionable for-profit status of the group behind it. This past spring, he moved to Nevada with his fiancée to set up a headquarters for Defeat Harry Reid, an organization aimed at deposing one of the Tea Party's biggest targets.

Despite claims of being "a very private person," Meckler, a founder of the group Tea Party Patriots, has made himself one of the movement's more recognizable faces by pulling media stunts and granting numerous interviews. In July 2010, he wrote an op-ed piece for Politico with Tea Party Patriots co-founder and CEO Jenny Beth Martin, rebutting accusations of systemic racism within the Tea Party made by the NAACP. "It seems that anyone who disagrees with the far left, socialist policies of Barack Obama and the current administration is subject to the heavy hand of the race card," they wrote. In September 2010, Tea Party Patriots announced an anonymous donation of $1 million, which the group said would be used to fund midterm-election ground-game efforts, but not to endorse specific candidates.

The most prominent African-American Tea Party member is probably David Webb, a conservative talk-radio host and co-founder of the New York branch organization Tea Party 365. In 2010, Webb created a stir by accusing the NAACP of "selective racism" by refusing to distance itself from fringe groups such as the Black Panthers. Webb has talked of getting more African-Americans involved because "this isn't a black-white thing." And his reaction to pundits who have commented on the lack of racial diversity at Tea Party events? "Pathetic and sad ... I didn't realize there was a minimum requirement of black people at a rally to legitimize it."

Virginia's attorney general has rapidly gained a reputation as an avid Tea Party crusader since winning office early in 2010. His No. 1 target has been President Obama's health-care reforms, and especially the constitutionality of the individual insurance mandate (Cuccinelli filed suit against the federal government the day the bill was signed into law). At a September 2010 event on the National Mall, Cuccinelli railed against Obama, accusing him of respecting citizens' liberty less than King George III and the British Parliament in the lead-up to the War of Independence. He's also mused that Obama's being born in Kenya "doesn't seem beyond the realm of possibility," before walking the statement back. Cuccinelli has also challenged the Environmental Protection Agency's capacity to regulate greenhouse gases and has advised colleges that they lack the authority to ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

This head of the Memphis Tea Party, founder of the National Tea Party Federation, and figurehead for Tea Party fundraising, through the Ensuring Liberty Corp. and its corresponding political-action committee, has made no buts about the fact that he wants to raise money. Lots of money. Organizations like his are tax-exempt, but can raise as much money as they want. They are also allowed to lobby and campaign. Skoda insists, however, that the PAC will operate "with transparency that is obviously lacking in too much of the political process today."

Williams is not such a Tea Party mover and shaker these days, but he's remembered nonetheless for his involvement in what is arguably the Tea Party's biggest scandal. As chair of the Tea Party Express, Williams gained infamy in 2010 by writing a supposedly satirical letter praising slavery that was addressed to President Lincoln and written from the point of view of "the Colored people." (He has also described Obama as an "Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug.") The slavery letter resulted in Williams's resignation as head of the Tea Party Express, and spotlighted the issue of racism among some members of the movement. Later in 2010, Williams agitated against the construction of the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero.