Stephanie Mencimer

Stephanie Mencimer

Reporter

Stephanie works in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. A Utah native and graduate of a crappy public university not worth mentioning, she has spent the last year hanging out with angry white people who occasionally don tricorne hats and come to lunch meetings heavily armed.

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Stephanie covers legal affairs and domestic policy in Mother Jones' Washington bureau. She is the author of Blocking the Courthouse Door: How the Republican Party and Its Corporate Allies Are Taking Away Your Right to Sue. A contributing editor of the Washington Monthly, a former investigative reporter at the Washington Post, and a senior writer at the Washington City Paper, she was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 2004 for a Washington Monthly article about myths surrounding the medical malpractice system. In 2000, she won the Harry Chapin Media award for reporting on poverty and hunger, and her 2010 story in Mother Jones of the collapse of the welfare system in Georgia and elsewhere won a Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

"Not Bad for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!"

| Mon May. 2, 2011 12:51 PM PDT

After nearly two years of relentlessly bashing President Obama, the tea party movement has been strangely quiet in the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden. It seems that Obama's powerful show of military force has done what none of his other policy moves have been able to do, which is shut them up, however briefly. And not only are they not taking to the airwaves to bash him, some are even grudgingly admitting respect for his administration’s success.

Robin Stublen, a tea party organizer in Florida who’s no fan of Obama's, says, "I think it's wonderful. He did exactly what a president’s supposed to do."

Stublen says that many of his fellow activists feel the same way, and that most of the chatter he's hearing from grassroots conservatives is pretty positive. "We realize a bad guy’s been killed," he says. The nearly overnight change in the tea party's focus was apparent Sunday night at the White House, where spontaneous celebrations broke out after the news of Bin Laden's death spread. Among the many Obama campaign signs were enough Gadsden flags to give the celebration the look of a tea party rally.

Kellen Giuda is the founder of the NYC Tea Party and is already working to help defeat Obama in 2012 through a new PAC. Yet he was among the tea partiers at the White House, cheering the death of Bin Laden. He later posted online photos and video of the scene, which included the "Don't Tread on Me" flags so ubiquitous at tea party rallies. He wrote:

Last night I, my girlfriend and a friend went down to the White House to celebrate the death of Osama Bin Laden. Being a Tea Party organizer I was happy to see some Gadsden flags and didn't care at all when I saw some Obama campaign posters. 98% of the celebration was non-partisan and it was wonderful.

It was crazy with people climbing light poles, songs (someone brought a drum set), singing our national anthem, people climbing in all the trees right outside the White House, chants of USA, USA, USA, and just a great celebration with Americans for justice and freedom.

Even the cantankerous Judson Phillips, head of Tea Party Nation, was briefly forced to acknowledge that the Obama administration had sent Bin Laden "to Hell." Even so, like other tea partiers, he was reluctant to give Obama much credit for the kill, writing:

Obama is taking credit for this. He did give the order. Did he really have a choice? If word leaked out that he had solid intelligence on where Bin Laden was and did not act, it would have killed any chance he had at reelection.

For much of Monday morning, there was serious radio silence from one of the most outspoken tea party groups even as the Internet was ablaze with the news about Bin Laden. The website for Tea Party Patriots, one of the largest tea party umbrella groups in the country, was still focused on the debt ceiling and $4 gasoline. Eventually, national coordinator Mark Meckler commented on the big news, telling National Journal that Obama didn’t deserve any recognition for the military operation in Pakistan. "Taking such credit would be an insult to the courageous men and women in our armed forces who voluntarily put themselves in harm's way," he said. "Any credit given is due to them."

But more the more common sentiment was expressed by a commenter on the Tea Party Patriots website who wrote, "Obamma [sic] killed Osama bin Laden - pretty good for a Kenyan Muslim Communist!!!"

Still, as the euphoria over the initial news wears off, the tea partiers will no doubt find more reasons to be critical of the administration. Within hours of the late-night news, some of them were already starting the cries of "show me the body," after learning that bin Laden’s body had been buried at sea—a sentiment fueled by Andrew Breitbart.

Stublen thinks this bit of conspiracy theorism about Bin Laden is on the margins of the movement. "You’ll have to really look to find some loons to find someone" who really disagrees with what Obama did or doesn't believe it really happened, he says. Stublen recognizes, though, that "pitching his ass out there in the ocean" is going to create some lingering suspicions about whether Bin Laden is really dead that it could be a problem going forward. "I hope they got a lot of pictures. That’s the only way we’re going to convince people," Stublen says. "They’re going to have to release the pictures."

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The Tea Party's 2012 Hit List

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 12:01 AM PDT

Ever since lawmakers hammered out a budget compromise at the zero hour last week, furious tea party leaders have been working the media circuit and threatening to "primary" the Republican traitors who voted for the deal. But is it all talk?

Last week, Tea Party Nation's Judson Phillips claimed activists will try to pick off House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio). And Mark Meckler, a national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots, tells The Hill that activists are already recruiting candidates to challenge sitting GOP House members who voted to keep the government open for business:

"I'm literally getting emails by the hour from people talking about primary challenges," Meckler told The Ballot Box, adding that opposition to the deal among grassroots conservatives has been building all week...

"I'm hearing it from just about every district where someone voted yes [on the deal]," he said of the potential targets. "It's a pretty easy list, actually. All you have to do is look at the roll call."

Based on these parameters the tea party will ostensibly be gunning for some of the very people they worked so hard to put into office in November. That includes Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.), who spoke at a Tea Party Patriots "continuing revolution" protest on Capitol Hill just a few days before the budget vote, and voted for the deal.

What about budget hawk and man of the hour Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.)? He voted for the deal. Will tea partiers try to primary the lawmaker who put the deficit on the congressional map this year? Then there's tea party favorite Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), an arch conservative who many conservative activists consider an ideal presidential contendor. He, too, voted for the budget compromise, along with other conservative luminaries including Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), tea party upstart Rep. Vicky Hartlzer (R-Mo.), and Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.), the tea party's favorite doctor in the House during the health care fight.

Meckler also didn't say whether he would be organizing a primary challenge to his own home district congressman, Rep. Tom McClintock, who is probably the most right-wing member of the California delegation. Meckler is reportedly tight with McClintock, a frequent speaker at local tea party rallies in Nevada County, California, where Meckler lives. Yep, McClintock also voted for the budget bill.

For tea partiers, making good on their primary threats will require attacking many of the congressional lawmakers who actually listen to them. In doing so, conservative activists risk losing what little ground they've gained in Washington. 

Ultimately, the primary threats seem as much about publicity as political activism. Threats to target Boehner got Tea Party Nation's Phillips on Glenn Beck's show this week, even though he would be hard pressed to organize a well-attended rally much less a primary challenge. Despite Meckler's claims that tea partiers are enraged by the recent budget deal, that anger largely seems to be manifesting itself during Meckler's cable appearances. When his group held a protest over the budget bills in DC at the end of March, only a handful of tea partiers showed up. The event paled in comparison to the mega-rallies organized during the health care debate

The lack of visible signs of mass anger is no surprise. After all, the budget deal struck last week was a huge win for the tea party, and one that came on the heels of significant electoral successes during the midterm election. But if tea party leaders actually declared victory and dialed down the outrage, they might find their movement on the path to irrelevance. So perhaps their strategy is just to keep on shouting and issuing threats, even if they're empty ones.

Can Judson Phillips Really "Primary Boehner"?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 3:01 AM PDT

Last week, in the wee hours of Friday night, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pulled off a major coup by forcing Democrats to agree to billions of dollars of spending cuts in the 2011 budget to prevent a government shutdown. Commentators gave the tea party movement heaps of credit for this state of affairs, acknowledging that the conservative activists had helped put deficit reduction on the table in Congress and had held newly elected House members to their promises of smaller government. The size of the budget cuts was indeed unprecedented, especially in the middle of a bad economy. Naturally, though, it wasn't good enough for the tea party. The movement's leaders took to the cable airwaves and twittershpere to decry the deal as insufficiently ruthless. Amidst the negotiations Friday, Judson Phillips, the leader of the Tennessee-based Tea Party Nation, tweeted, "Boehner is selling us out tonight. We will primary Boehner next year."

On Monday, he elaborated his disgust with the GOP leadership in a blog post:

The course Boehner and the GOP chose was timidity not bold and courageous. Had they been willing to be bold, with major objectives; had Boehner done what we suggested at TPN, demanding hundreds of billions in cuts by eliminating waste, he could have been hailed as a hero. Had he held firm for bold and decisive action and shut the government down, we would have had his back. Had he stood firm and called for Tea Party support, we would have flooded the Capitol to support him and the GOP.

Phillips may be good at spewing venom on Twitter, but could he really help oust Boehner? That seems unlikely for a guy who might have trouble getting 20 people to show up at a tea party in his hometown. Phillips is not well liked among the established tea party activists in Tennessee, who don't work with him in large part because they see him as someone hoping to get rich off the movement. (Tea Party Nation, despite its frequent pleas for "donations," is a for-profit operation.) And Phillips' track record as a national mobilizing force is hardly something to crow about. The only reason Phillips, a once-bankrupt DUI attorney by day, has catapulted onto the national scene is that he convinced a local investor to help him snag Sarah Palin as a keynote speaker for a convention he held in Nashville last year, for which the investor put up $50,000 to front Palin's exorbitant speaking fee.

Internal documents Mother Jones obtained at the time showed that Phillips hoped to net a tidy profit by charging tea partiers nearly $600 to attend the convention and Palin's speech. Bill Hemrick, who gave Phillips the money for Palin's speech, thought Tea Party Nation was a nonprofit group and told me he didn't know Phillips intended to make money off the event. (Phillips ultimately refused to let Hemrick attend the speech; Hemrick is now suing him.)

Without Palin, Phillips has tried to organize a national tea party "unity" convention in Las Vegas last summer. It was postponed and then canceled at the last minute for lack of interest. None of this has kept reporters and others from continuing to cover Phillips. (He went on Glenn Beck's show Monday night.) But the media megaphone likely overstates his real influence on politics. Take, for instance, his endorsement last fall of Lynne Torgerson, an independent congressional candidate in Minnesota, who ran against Democratic Rep. Keith Ellison. Phillips rallied his (undefined) supporters to vote for Torgerson primarily because Ellison is a Muslim, and Torgerson made his religion her signature issue in the campaign. She won 4 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, Ellison was reelected in a landslide. Closer to home, Phillips also endorsed a former state GOP official, Robin Smith, in a hotly contested GOP primary last fall for a Tennessee congressional seat. She lost.

Given Phillips' track record, Boehner should probably rest easy. While the tea party movement might pose some headaches for him, primary threats from a DUI lawyer in Franklin, Tennessee, should be the least of his worries.

Hospitals: Way More Dangerous Than You Thought

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 10:16 AM PDT

Under the guise of trying to make health care more affordable, House Republicans this week have been debating a measure that would make it much harder for people injured by the health care system to sue doctors or hospitals. Their timing hasn't been great. A day after a hearing on the medical malpractice bill, the journal Health Affairs released the findings of a new study that found that medical errors are way, way more common than anyone thought.

Ten years ago, the Institute of Medicine reported that preventable medical errors killed 98,000 people a year. But Health Affairs reports that the number is likely far higher, in large part because the data on those errors was collected through a voluntary reporting system. And as anyone who's ever looked at malpractice lawsuits knows, no one in the health care system ever wants to voluntarily admit to making a mistake.

So the researchers started tracking errors at three hospitals themselves. As a result, they found that voluntary reporting missed 90 percent of the errors that took place in those hospitals. The study found that 1 in every 3 hospital admissions resulted in an adverse event, a figure that should make everyone shudder. A mere 10 types of errors made up nearly two-thirds of all the adverse events, conditions that included pressure sores and post-op infections—things that don't take rocket science to prevent. The cost of all these errors is high: as much as $17 billion every year, all from hospital screw ups that could be prevented. Perhaps Republicans looking to reduce health care spending should try going after medical errors rather than the people who suffer because of them.

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