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Tea party activists have long criticized President Barack Obama’s jobs agenda, and in doing so, they may have inadvertently created one of their own.
Several tea party leaders have found paid jobs for themselves in the movement as it evolves from an amateur grass-roots wave into a professional lobby.
Tennessee lawyer Judson Phillips became the latest to make the jump when he announced last week that he was devoting himself full time to Tea Party Nation, a change that means drawing a salary he would only describe as “under six figures.”
The controversial leader with a knack for getting media coverage runs a for-profit group best known for hosting a national convention last year that featured former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R). While Phillips has organized few grass-roots events since, he has been mentioned in the press more than 650 times in the past two years.
Recently, Phillips has been soliciting anonymous contributions to pay himself for his efforts to play a leading role in the upcoming debt ceiling debate and in the 2012 elections.
“The way politics is today, if you’re not capable of getting out there and putting some boots on the ground full time, you cannot be a key player,” Phillips told Roll Call.
His counterparts in the million-dollar Tea Party Express and Tea Party Patriots organizations have already made the leap by paying their lead activists to organize rallies, speak publicly and lobby Congressional staff.
Former flight attendant Amy Kremer said she has been earning $4,000 per month as chairwoman of Tea Party Express, a political action committee known for its nationwide bus tours promoting conservative candidates such as failed Senate contenders Sharron Angle in Nevada and Joe Miller in Alaska.
Jenny Beth Martin, who worked as a housekeeper and Home Depot manager before joining the movement, reportedly receives $6,000 per month as national coordinator for Tea Party Patriots, a nonprofit coalition group. Martin is one of six such coordinators, four of whom are paid.
Both organizations have hired numerous staffers and consultants to promote the tea party principles of small government, free markets and individual liberties.
In doing so, the major tea party groups have started to resemble the professional special interest groups that tea party leaders openly criticize.
Tea Party Express, the PAC backed by Republican strategist Sal Russo, spent more than $450,000 on staff and consultants in the past two years, according to the group’s federal filings. More than half of the $7.6 million that the group collected went to operating expenditures including wages, fundraising and advertising.
In the months leading up to the midterm elections, the group had more than 40 consultants on its payroll.
“The tea party has prided itself on its decentralization, on its grass-roots nature, on sort of being a ground spring of popular discontent. And the Tea Party Express, in contrast, is a very professionalized, organized group that is populated by a lot of experienced political operatives,” said David Levinthal, editor of OpenSecrets.org, a project of the Center for Responsive Politics.
Rival group Tea Party Patriots has also spent significant sums on paying individuals, according to financial data obtained by Roll Call. Half of the group’s spending in its first year of operation went to compensation and travel, with nearly $150,000, or 22 percent, paid out to consultants and staff.
The group has since received a $1 million contribution from an undisclosed donor and expanded its staff to eight full-time employees and two part-time assistants.
The leaders contend that grass-roots organizing, particularly in a movement that is spread across the country, requires high amounts of labor and travel. But several tea partyers have raised questions about whether the money raised could be better spent.
Rob Gaudet, a former Tea Party Patriots employee who is embroiled in a lawsuit with the group over compensation, said he worked for free for months while others were getting paid.
The group’s tax forms show he received $23,500 in the group’s first year of operations to provide technological support. Gaudet said his actual contribution amounted to much more.
“We spent money that we did not need to spend. There was no effort to temper what we spent money on with the recognition that this was donated money,” he said. “This is about building something that supports the leaders. ... There are other motives going on besides doing good for the country.”
Martin denied the charge, saying Tea Party Patriots members supported the hiring of paid staff as a way to sustain the movement. She said a board of directors approves and reviews salaries.
“We always say that contributions sustain the organization and go to the salaries of the core people and the equipment and the travel,” she said. “We need people who we can hold accountable and review their work. It’s hard to do that with just volunteers.”
Kremer cited similar reasons for drawing a salary from the Tea Party Express, and she pointed out that many nonprofit leaders make more than she does.
“I would love to be able to do it on a volunteer basis, but at the same time, you have to put food on the table,” she said, adding, “There have been periods of time that I have not taken any pay. If Tea Party Express were to say right now that we can no longer afford to pay you, I would keep on doing what I’m doing because I believe in the cause.”
David Meyer, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine, who studies grass-roots movements, said the tea party faces a “common dilemma” for activists.
“In order for a grass-roots movement to continue, you need paid staff in it — somebody who gets up in the morning and doesn’t have to think about anything else than how well the tea party is going,” he said.
Movements on both ends of the political spectrum, from environmentalists to anti-abortion activists, have relied on professional staff to lobby lawmakers and keep grass-roots fervor up.
“The obvious danger is that they can become more interested in keeping the organization going than in the cause,” he added. “The people they are hiring are thinking about the movement for sure, but they are also thinking, ‘This is my job.’ They know if this movement goes belly up, they’ve got to do something else, which may be another job in Washington.”
Clarification: May 9, 2011
While the Tea Party Patriots received a $1 million anonymous contribution before the midterm elections, the group’s leaders say all but $18,000 of that money went directly from the donor to local tea parties in a program administered by the Tea Party Patriots.