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 several years 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.

Tea Party Roundup: Birthers, Slaves and Super PACs

The tea party movement has been keeping a pretty low profile lately, but that doesn't mean it has disappeared. Tea partiers are still fighting political battles at the local level and gearing up for the presidential election. Here's a brief roundup of recent tea party news you may have missed:

Rewriting US history to white-out slavery: Tennessee tea party activists have asked the state legislature to introduce a bill that would force the state to rewrite school textbooks to excise references to the Founding Fathers that might tarnish the image tea partiers would like to have of them. They don't want school kids to know the founders' uglier side, things like, for example, some of the founders owned slaves, had sex with them, and fathered children with them. In a press conference in mid-January, according to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the activists handed out materials that said:

Neglect and outright ill will have distorted the teaching of the history and character of the United States. We seek to compel the teaching of students in Tennessee the truth regarding the history of our nation and the nature of its government.”

Fayette County attorney Hal Rounds, the group’s lead spokesman during the news conference, said the group wants to address “an awful lot of made-up criticism about, for instance, the founders intruding on the Indians or having slaves or being hypocrites in one way or another.

“The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at,” said Rounds, whose website identifies him as a Vietnam War veteran of the Air Force and FedEx retiree who became a lawyer in 1995.

Keeping the birther movement alive: Tea Party Nation leader Judson Phillips may be bankrupt and thousands of dollars in debt to conservative billionaire and Las Vegas hotel magnate Sheldon Adelson, but that hasn't stopped him from going to Florida this week on a Tea Party Express "get out the vote" tour before the GOP primary. Along with his speaking events on the campaign trail, Phillips is doing his part to defeat Obama by supporting a lawsuit filed in Georgia by birther queen Orly Taitz challenging Obama's qualifications to be on the ballot there. Conceding that similar suits in other states have been dismissed, Phillips remains hopeful that they are the key to defeating Obama in November. "These are must win states for Obama. If he were excluded from one or more of these states, it would become almost impossible for Obama to win reelection," writes Phillips. 

Still Raising Big Money: For all the talk of the tea party movement being "grassroots," they are certainly taking on some of the trappings of the establishment, namely by starting super-PACs. Two big tea party groups, Tea Party Express and FreedomWorks, have both started super PACs that can accept unlimited contributions to use in independent expenditure campaigns during this year's election. FreedomWorks is hoping to raise $5 million to push its free-market agenda through "street-level politicking."

Of course, whether these two organizations really qualify as the tea party movement is an open question. Tea Party Express was started by GOP political consultants in California who were already been attacking Obama in 2008 with outside expenditures, and FreedomWorks is a spin-off of the oil-rich Koch brothers' Citizens for a Sound Economy, a corporate front group that helped the tobacco and other big industry fight regulation and taxes. They're not purely grassroots organizations.

Tea party activists have long disputed liberal charges that their movement is simply the product of a corporate Astroturf campaign designed to attack President Obama. For the most part, they've been right. But a new effort to recruit members and gather voter data by Americans for Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by the Koch brothers, may serve to revive those old claims.

In recent weeks, according to the Florida-based conservative news outlet Sunshine State News, AFP has been quietly hiring tea party leaders to serve as "field coordinators" in Florida, leading up to Tuesday's GOP primary and beyond, reportedly paying them $30,000 each to help beef up AFP's membership. AFP has also offered tea party groups $2 for every new AFP member their volunteers sign up at Florida polling stations on Tuesday. An email from the West Orlando Tea Party organizers to its members explains:

Americans For Prosperity has offered many local tea party groups an opportunity to collect a few dollar$ for our cause and it revolves around the January 31st primary. Anyone who volunteers from our group will net our WOTP group $2 for every person they "sign up" for AFP which involves getting the name, address, and email of local voters at local polling stations that day. They will provide us with T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other handouts to recruit like minded conservatives.

(The person answering the contact phone number for the West Orlando Tea Party hung up when I called Monday to inquire about the AFP offer.)

The AFP effort in Florida is being spearheaded by Slade O'Brien, AFP's Florida director. O'Brien is a political consultant whose former* firm, Florida Strategies Group, specialized in Astroturf campaigns and "grass-tops lobbying." His clients have included big drug companies, Home Depot, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, and other big business groups. O'Brien's ties to the Kochs go back to at least the late 1990s, when he served as the Florida director for Citizens for a Sound Economy, a forerunner to Americans for Prosperity.

The bounty-hunting aspect of AFP's membership drive and its focus on recruiting tea party activists to do the groundwork has rankled some of the state's grassroots conservative activists, who tend to prize their independence. Activists have expressed concerns about what AFP plans to do with the information it collects, which they believe may be sold to political campaigns for years to come. AFP's membership drive certainly looks like a concrete expression of the Koch brothers stated intention to steer more than $200 million to conservative groups ahead of the fall presidential election. And the oil company magnates have been working for nearly two years on creating a massive conservative voter database dubbed "Themis" to help influence elections and get out the conservative vote in various campaigns. The Florida AFP membership drive would definitely fit with those plans.

O'Brien deferred questions about Themis to the AFP national office, which didn't return a call for comment. But O'Brien defended the tea party outreach effort. He says it's simply an effort to bolster AFP's membership rolls, and one that will mutually benefit like-minded "patriot" groups and also "puts money back into heart and soul of the movement." O'Brien says that none of the voter data collected by the volunteers will be sold.

Even so, the tea partiers on the ground may not be so amenable to serving as AFP's foot soldiers. Even the former Florida field coordinator for AFP, Apryl Marie Fogel, has criticized the initiative. "Incentivizing people with money is no different than what ACORN or other groups are doing,"  she told Sunshine State Newscomparing the process to "Astroturf." "This is the opposite of what AFP stands for." 

O'Brien disagrees. "There’s not a single tea party leader who has approached me and said, 'I think this is a bad idea.'"

* Correction: O'Brien left his firm when he became AFP's Florida director. The original version of this post indicated he was still with the company. We regret the error.

Another Reason To Be Glad Rick Perry Won't Be President

Texas governor Rick Perry.

Woe is the injured consumer or medical patient in Texas who brings a lawsuit against a big corporation or the government. A new report out from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Watch has taken a hard look at more than 600 decisions by the Texas Supreme Court over the past decade and found that consumers and plaintiffs are routinely taking it on the chin. And consumers are losing far more often in the court than they were before short-lived GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry became governor.

Since 2005, consumers have lost nearly 80 percent of Texas Supreme Court cases in which a consumer was pitted against a big corporation or the government. Most of the time, the consumer plaintiffs had already prevailed before a jury—the high court overturned jury verdicts in 74 percent of consumer cases, with very little dissent.

Texas Watch attributes the massive scale-tilting to the fact that the court is now dominated by judges who were appointed by Perry starting in 2000. Six of the nine judges on the all-Republican court were initially appointed by Perry. In Texas, the judges are elected, but when a vacancy occurs, a governor can appoint a judge to fill out the remaining term, a move that all but guarantees the judge will prevail in the general election. And in Texas, Republican judges who've wanted to retire have often done so mid-term, allowing Perry to appoint their replacements.

Plaintiffs never did all that well in Texas courts compared with the big companies they were suing, but once Perry took office, the little guy's odds got even worse. See this:

Texas WatchTexas WatchThe trend doesn't help the case of those who suggest the solution to the influence of money in judicial elections is to have appointed judges. The data also don't reflect the fact that since 2003, simply getting a plaintiff's case into court in Texas has become far more difficult, especially in medical malpractice cases. Changes in state tort laws have kept thousands of consumers and injured patients out of court all together. According to the most recent data from the National Center on State Courts, in 2008 (the most recent year available), there were 10,000 fewer tort cases filed in Texas than in 1999. Those numbers fell even though the population of Texas jumped 20 percent over the past decade. 

The decisions made by the Texas Supreme Court in individual consumer cases have wide reach. In one case highlighted by Texas Watch, the court essentially ruled that the state does not have the authority to pass laws creating stricter consumer protections than those that exist at the federal level—a remarkable opinion in a state that is openly hostile to the federal government's rule of law.

The trend doesn't look to end any time soon, Texas Watch notes gloomily:

Justices that Governor Perry has appointed to the bench, and who were subsequently elected, have relentlessly and recklessly pursued an activist ideological agenda focused on immunity for corporate and state wrongdoers, subverting the rule of law from within and effectively turning the granite walls of the court into a mausoleum for plaintiffs.

Herman Cain Returns!

After dropping out of the presidential race in November amidst an avalanche of sexual harassment allegations, Herman Cain has reemerged from his self-imposed exile. On Friday, he appeared on Bill Maher's HBO show, giving one of the first TV interviews since suspending his campaign. (Cain told Maher that Americans need to "lighten up.") He recently announced that he was planning to tour the country in support for his "9-9-9" tax plan. And now, Cain is scheduled to headline a "grassroots" rally on January 28 for congressional candidate and conservative talk show host Martha Zoller, who's running for a seat in Georgia's 9th district. In a press release announcing Cain's appearance, Zoller said:

We are thrilled to have Herman Cain join us in Gainesville for this important and timely rally. Like Herman, I believe that we need to completely transform the U.S. Tax Code, restore common sense and accountability in government, and end 'business as usual' in Washington. It is an honor to have Herman support my campaign for Congress and I look forward to sharing the stage with such a remarkable leader again.

Cain's resurrection is another sign that sex scandals need not be a career-ender. (See Eliot Spitzer, Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Sen. "Diaper Dave" Vitter (R-La.), and...well, OK, maybe not former Idaho senator Larry Craig.) But Cain's timing is exceptionally good. His return to the political spotlight comes just as comedian Steven Colbert's SuperPac has started running ads urging voters to cast ballots for Cain in South Carolina's GOP primary. (Despite suspending his candidacy, Cain is still on the South Carolina primary ballot.) The Colbert ads may be a spoof, but as Zoller's embrace of Cain indicates, he still has some extremely loyal followers, many of whom refuse to believe any of the stories about his alleged sexual improprieties. Who knows? Maybe Colbert will manage to fully rehabilitate Cain by boosting his prospects in a primary he's not really even trying to win. You can watch the Colbert ad here:

 

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