Sal Russo: Republican Operative Transforms Into Tea Party Strategist

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The Tea Party Express is one of the most visible factions of the national movement that has taken on the appearance of a grassroots groundswell of anger against the federal government.

The organization has led two national bus tours and will begin a third this weekend with a rally against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in his hometown in Nevada.

But the man behind the organization is anything but a fresh-faced activist. The architect of the Tea Party Express, Sal Russo, is a California political operative who has spent nearly half a century campaigning for Republican candidates.

The Sacramento-based political action committee that funds Tea Party Express activities, Our Country Deserves Better, has taken in more than $4.5 million since forming in 2008 to help John McCain's presidential campaign. That includes major contributions from corporate executives and other bedrock supporters of conservative candidates, such as actor Chuck Norris.

The organization is elevating its profile this week as it rallies against Reid, who has become a poster child for what is wrong with Washington in the eyes of conservatives as he runs for re-election.

The event will feature a speech by Sarah Palin and launch a 42-city bus tour culminating with a tax day rally in Washington.

That the Tea Party Express is led by operatives such as Russo has caused some resentment among others in the tea party movement. They believe the group has blurred the line between what they see as a nonpartisan effort and the GOP establishment.

Mark Meckler, a Northern California attorney who is a national co-founder of a separate group, Tea Party Patriots, seeks to distance his organization from the Tea Party Express and its leaders.

The Patriots group is a nonprofit umbrella organization for more than 1,200 tea party chapters around the country. Meckler said the activities of the Tea Party Express undermine the tea party's claims of nonpartisanship and run against its founding ideals.

"When you have people who've associated with the GOP for their entire lives claiming to be anti-establishment and then appearing at the Republican convention, that's a pretty interesting picture," said Meckler, who lives in the former Gold Rush town of Nevada City near Sacramento.

Earlier this month, the fire-engine red Tea Party Express bus rolled up outside the California Republican Party's annual convention in Santa Clara.

Russo is unfazed by criticism that the group is too closely aligned with the GOP.

"Before we can take back America, we've got to take back one of the major parties," Russo said in an interview. "And we have a shorter distance to go with the Republican Party."

The general tea party movement first gained widespread attention in April 2009, when the newly formed Tea Party Patriots joined with various Web-based conservative groups to stage tax day protests across the country. About 1.2 million people took part in more 850 protests nationwide on April 15, Meckler said.

Tea Party Express did not formally exist at the time. As the movement started to take shape throughout the spring of 2009, Russo recognized a political opportunity waiting to be seized.

He and others involved in the political action committee, including a former Republican California state lawmaker, decided to branch out and created the Our Country Deserves Better PAC Tea Party Express.

Tea Party Express launched its first national tour last August to speak out against "the out-of-control tax-and-spend policies of Congress." The second bus tour took place in late October, kicking off the one-year countdown to the November 2010 elections.

Next up: this weekend's kickoff of Tea Party Express III, whose slogan is "Just Vote Them Out."

Russo and the Tea Party Express team are attempting to raise between $500,000 and $1 million to fund the tour, rallies and campaign ads that will air as the bus makes its way from Nevada to Washington, D.C., over the next few weeks, Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell said.

Russo's political action committee already has spent $207,000 on its campaign to defeat Reid, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Over a two-week period in January, the PAC contributed nearly $350,000 to Republican Scott Brown in his successful bid for the Massachusetts Senate seat once held by Democrat Edward M. Kennedy.

The association with GOP causes and candidates disturbs those involved with the Tea Party Patriots who say they are working against the perception that the movement is merely a raucous arm of the GOP.

"Our biggest problem right now has been that the Republican Party is trying to make us part of them," said Dawn Wildman of San Diego, the California co-coordinator for Tea Party Patriots. "We're not all Republicans, and that notion is insulting to even those of us like myself who are Republicans."

Few represent the GOP establishment better than Russo, 63, whose resume lists a who's who of Republican politicians and kingmakers.

He got his start in 1966 as a volunteer on Ronald Reagan's California gubernatorial campaign and then served two years as the governor's special assistant.

In the mid-1980s, Russo teamed up with former Reagan presidential campaign director Ed Rollins to run a political consulting firm. Its clients included Russo's close friend Jack Kemp, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.

Russo's various firms also have helped elect Republican governors George Deukmejian of California and George Pataki of New York, among other GOP lawmakers.

In addition to helping organize Tea Party Express events, Russo spends his time opposing Democrats up for re-election and attacking the health care plan that President Barack Obama signed this week.

He said the Tea Party Express will hold candidates to the standards of its mission statement, which is printed in large letters on the side of its bus: "End the bailouts; reduce the size and intrusiveness of government; stop out-of-control spending; no government-run health care; and stop raising our taxes."

He acknowledged that President George W. Bush and many Republicans in Congress presided over a period of record national debt and deficit spending, and approved the $700 billion bank bailout.

"One thing that spurred our whole movement is complete disenchantment with what Republicans in Congress did," Russo said. "The anger is with both parties."

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