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.

The Tea Party's 2012 Hit List

| Fri Apr. 15, 2011 3:01 AM EDT

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.

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Can Judson Phillips Really "Primary Boehner"?

| Tue Apr. 12, 2011 6:01 AM EDT

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 1:16 PM EDT

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.

The Tea Party vs. "Media Marxism"

| Thu Apr. 7, 2011 10:46 AM EDT

For the past year, tea party groups have been rallying their members to oppose "net neutrality," the rules outlined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that ensure a level playing field on the Internet. The rules prevent big corporate Internet providers like Comcast from discriminating against different types of content and applications, or from trying to force website operators to pay more for their content to be accessible online. That way, Internet providers can't limit users' access to preferred sites (i.e., the ones who pay more). The rules, in effect, ensure that even the smallest, poorest tea party group has the potential to reach a large audience through its website, unimpeded by Comcast and other big companies.

Yet tea partiers inexplicably equate net neutrality with Marxism. Last fall, when activists were organizing around the issue, Jamie Radtke from Virginia Tea Party Patriot Federation and a current Senate candidate, said of net neutrality: "I think the clearest thing is it’s an affront to free speech and free markets." This week, ahead of today's House vote on a measure that would roll back the FCC's net neutrality rules, Tea Party Patriots blasted an urgent alert to activists urging them to call on lawmaker to vote in favor of the move:

Net neutrality is an innocuous sounding term for what is really media Marxism. This is an ideological attempt by those on the left to control the greatest means for the distribution of information ever devised. It provides a playing field which the government does not control, and this is immensely troubling to those on the left.

The tea party's position on net neutrality has seemed counterintuitive, given just how badly conservative activists could be screwed by the big cable and phone companies should net neutrality rules be repealed. The whole movement has been organized online, making the Internet's level playing field a crucial element to its success. Yet tea partiers claim that net neutrality is just another sign of government overreach. They don't seem to recognize that they are effectively advocating against their own interests—and Comcast is more than happy to have their help in doing so.

A New York Times story this weekend helps to explain the tea party's odd net neutrality fixation. The story focused on a conservative Astroturf group that has cozied up to the tea party movement to advance political causes for various corporate interests, everything from protecting Asian paper companies from US tariffs to—you guessed it—fighting net neutrality.

The Institute for Liberty, as the group is known, is headed by Andrew Langer, a former executive at the National Federation of Independent Business, a lobbying organization that claims to represent small businesses but often walks in lockstep with the US Chamber of Commerce. The Institute has been a regular presence at tea party events for the better part of two years. Langer himself spoke at the Tea Party Patriots "continuing revolution" protest in DC last week. He freely admitted to the Times that various interest groups have given him money to push activists on pet issues (though he declined to disclose the donors):

In a recent interview, he explained how the institute pitched its services to opponents of the Obama health care plan, resulting in a $1 million advertising blitz. "A donor gave us some money, and we went out on the ground in five states in the space of like six weeks," he said.

In a classic Astroturf move, the Times also discovered that the Institute had used the names of dead people on a "grassroots" petition it sent to the US Department of Agriculture supporting efforts by the chemical giant Monsanto to relax restrictions on its pesticide-resistant alfalfa. The paper credits Langer with getting tea partiers to oppose net neutrality. Given just how contrary the tea party position on net neutrality is to the movement's own best interests, Langer should be congratulated on his PR coup.

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