The Tea Party Patriots, one of the nation's largest tea party umbrella organizations, prides itself on its "leaderless" organizational structure, low overhead, and grassroots integrity. These things have distinguished the group from say, ordinary Republican political machines. But as the group matures, it's looking more and more like those top-heavy, insider and fundraiser-driven political organizations its members claim to despise.
Earlier this month, TPP sent out an appeal to its members offering them a chance to join "The 300," an exclusive group of donors who would help underwrite the group's big rallies planned for DC, Sacramento and St. Louis on Sept. 12. Joining "The 300" confers many benefits on its members—namely front row seats to the events (an enticing offering to aging tea party members who aren't used to being on their feet for hours at a time), a chance to schmooze with celebs and other rally headliners, and of course, their names in big letters on banners at the events. All this can be had for the low, low price of $1,000. The leaders of the leaderless organization emphasize that this won't be a club for the riff-raff; membership will be strictly limited. They write:
There are only 300 slots available for each group. After those spots are filled, we will be grateful to accept your donation, and it will be put to good use, but you will not receive the benefits listed above. So time is of the essence. Join now!
Thousand-dollar donations to join exclusive networking groups sound a lot more K Street than tea party, but then again, tea partying isn't cheap. There are all those Porta-Potties to rent, first aid tents to staff, security to hire and permits to be procured. Somebody has to pay for it all. TPP isn't the only conservative grassroots group discovering the hard way that exercising free speech isn't always free.
Earlier this month, Unite in Action, the coalition of "patriot groups" behind another big convention and march planned in DC on Sept. 11, sent out a desperate appeal for cash, saying it needed to raise $40,000 in the next few days to underwrite the event. Unlike TPP, though, Unite in Action was only asking for five bucks a person. Organizers Lynn Roberts and Stephani Scruggs wrote:
We come to you now asking for your urgently needed help. We had two major corporations lined up to underwrite our event. At the last moment, they backed out, because they were "AFRAID OF WHAT THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION WOULD DO TO THEM" if they openly supported this movement! God help us, the USA is now governed by fear. WE MUST STOP THIS!
So, all we are asking is five for freedom, just $5 to help us get tools in the hands of the people. ..."Give freely today, for liberty tomorrow."
The money needed to host all these big demonstrations and rallies doesn't always sit well with tea party activists on the ground, many of whom would rather see the funds go towards electing local conservative candidates. As Butch Porter, chairman of the American Conservative Party and a tea party activist in Northern Virginia, told me recently, "We had 1.7 million people here [in DC] on 9/12 2009, and what did that accomplish?"