Tea Party Talk: Racism, Palin, and the Hostile Takeover of the Republican Party

Sunday, July 18 was going to be wrap day for the Las Vegas Tea Party Convention, with speakers from Newt Gingrich to Sharron Angle, the Tea Party Express candidate who triumphed over a gaggle of Republicans for the privilege of taking on Nevada Senator Harry Reid in November. Instead, yesterday was excommunication day for the Tea Party Express and one of its leaders, Mark Williams, the guy who, among other things continuing this summer's run of social media implosions, posted on his blog an imaginary but all-too hateful and racist "letter" from "Coloreds" to Abraham Lincoln. (But then if you are reading HuffPost, you probably already know about that.) And so instead of gettin' down together in Vegas the the National Tea Party Federation expelled Mark Williams and Tea Party Express.

On Friday, Mark Skoda, one of the founders of the National Tea Party Federation, wrote on Facebook: "After reading the entirety of the [Williams] blog, I have come to the conclusion that a call for rebuke and removal is necessary. This is not the first time that Mark Williams has taken this approach. And while I can appreciate sarcasm, this "letter" is beyond the pale and reignites an issue that we were winning. I have already issued a press release from the Memphis TEA Party calling for his removal. As a leader he can either lead, or as an entertainer, entertain but he should not do both. This matter is too serious to let lie in such an incendiary environment."

Over the weekend, the federation held a conference call and decided to boot Williams and Tea Party Express.

Oh, the ironies here. First of all, this was to have been the weekend that showcased Sharron Angle for the Tea Party-at-large. But now it is difficult not to conclude that, as the Tea Party Express candidate, she has been crippled instead. In an email yesterday, Mark Skoda assured me, "I don't think this will hurt Angle, however, she won't want to associate herself with TPE after the controversy. At least that's what I would divine from the status of things. Reid has done a good job of beating her up while she has been raising money. This will be a race to watch!"

I agree with Mark Skoda that Angle v. Reid is prime time, but I am much less sanguine about her prospects now.

A further irony -- sort of a double twist -- is that the Tea Party was starting to become yesterday's news until last week in Kansas City when NAACP convention delegates, at play in the field of unintended consequences, gave the movement a boost with their resolution condemning the Tea Party for harboring "racist elements." A war of words spread as fast as a Kansas prairie fire. Mark Williams to the NAACP: You "make more money off of race than any slave trader, ever." Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), also to the NAACP: "All those who wore sheets a long time ago have now lifted them off and started wearing clothing with a name, say, I am part of the tea party."

Let me say straight off that I love Sheila Jackson Lee, although I do think that meeting her up close and personal is a requirement for appreciating her style, which is an acquired taste. I followed her around for a bit when she was campaigning for Hillary Clinton and learned to laugh off her larger flamboyances. Clearly, Mark Williams had not my advantage when he penned his penny-dreadful blog post. And now he and his TPE are pariahs.

But the larger Tea Party is back in the news. Even starchy George Will is defending the Teas against charges of racism. There was no need to gather in Las Vegas for renewed commitment, after all. And here's the irony. The Las Vegas convention was canceled because not enough people had signed up to go. Mark Skoda told me, "It's a long drive for a lot of people." I did not find that to be a completely satisfactory explanation. The hard slog for candidates had set in, and the sunshine patriots had fallen by the wayside. Among those who remained, who had the time or the money or the desire to trek to Las Vegas? So thank you, NAACP, for bringing us back together again, the Teas are saying.

Three weeks ago, I sat down in Memphis with Mark Skoda, who in addition to being a founder of the National Tea Party Federation is a local radio talk show host and multilingual businessman, to talk about a variety of tea party issues, including racism. Mark and I became acquainted last February when I convinced him in Nashville to grant me a press pass for the Tea Party Convention there. It did not take me (or any other reporter) long to figure out that Memphian Mark Skoda and not Nashville attorney Judson Phillips (the convention was his baby) was running things. Also, for a reasoned conversation about the Tea Party movement and politics, Mark is your guy. And so I sought him out for a second, longer conversation. Given Mark Skoda's role in the expulsion of Mark Williams and the Tea Party Express from the national federation, and given Skoda's comments to me about racism and the party, this is a timely moment to share some of that interview. Coincidentally, I began where the current NAACP Tea Party troubles began: in a disagreement over what happened when a few members of the Congressional Black Caucus walked through a Tea Party rally in Washington, D.C. last March:

Mark, if I understood some of your emails correctly, you were at the health care protest in D.C. at the end of March where John Lewis claims that he was dissed by Tea Partiers.

Yes, that's right. In fact I was one of the organizers of the Code Red Rally during the week and also took the town halls to Washington and of course joined in the major rally, which was held on the Capitol Steps--actually was there when they [members of the Congressional Black Caucus] sort of walked the walk--and observed that. Was a bit confounded by it, because clearly it was an attempt to create a situation. I had been to the National Capitol Building often times from the House; and obviously you always do that underground, with a high level of security. So there was a clear sense there that there was an attempt to create an event. Yeah.

So exactly what happened?

As you probably know, I'm also one of the co-founders of the National Tea Party Federation. And we actually did some investigation, along with BigGovernment.com. And Andrew Breitbart's organization produced a number of videos, which refute not only the allegations but call into question the veracity of the charges being made. Not by Congressman Lewis per se, although I think he was sort of used, in particular. We subsequently sent a letter to the Congressional Black Caucus calling for any evidentiary documents and or videos.

I saw that letter.

And what we got was, as the Christian Science Monitor reported and actually called the Congressional Black Caucus. What they found is not only were they [the Caucus] angered by the letter and their inability to produce any documentation but also they [the Monitor] began to question some of the videos. And as it subsequently came out, there was no evidence of any--

You mean the Christian Science Monitor questioned the veracity of the videos--

Correct. Yes. The videos of the charges. Because they also saw the videos, and it was also clear that there was at least two political staff who were actually filming during the entirety of that event, walking in line with Congressman Lewis actually. And so it was clear that it simply did not happen.

And they never released those videos that the staff made.

No. They did not.

We understood very clearly what was attempted there. And as was presented by a number of videos, on [the] BigGovernment site and other Breitbart sites in particular, which had been submitted not only by people who were there but [from] numerous angles and [with] very good audio and in one case high-def video--there was simply no indication of any altercations whatsoever. And particularly of any suggestion that anyone used the N-word.

So that brings me to racism in the Tea Party in general. I notice at the convention in Las Vegas there is going to be a session on how to deal with charges of racism.

You know I think -- I would tell you that there is an attempt -- I mean, after the Washington event there was a whole flurry of activity by various people including our own [TN] District 9 Congressman Steve Cohen to raise the racism charge, and to raise, quote unquote, the militia charge. But the racism charge is particularly problematic because there was no objective evidence of that, and I think there was an attempt, albeit now feebly, to project that. I think the truth of the matter is that when you look at what's happened, the only racial hate crime that's occurred was with SEIU representatives who beat a black conservative in the St. Louis rally that took place earlier this year.

So my sense right now is that, to be sure, there were voice mails that we heard and suggestions that, quote unquote, people made these allegations and used slanderous terms for various nationalities, ethnicities -- but I think the ability to associate those to the Tea Party people just wasn't obvious to me. One of the things we've done, and particularly in formation of the National Tea Party Federation, was specifically to require that for membership the various groups have to refute any racism and any acts of violence, any charges of birtherism and or truthers, because quite frankly this is a responsible, patriotic movement.

Can we eradicate anybody who has any feelings perhaps against a particular culture or ethnicity? No. But the truth of the matter is America is bound by its racial diversity and is also encumbered by that racial diversity, inasmuch as people's differences sometimes are inappropriately associated with various hate crimes and/or simply derogatory comments. Which frankly have no place in my view in the public dialogue. We have been very clear about this.

You bring up the birthers. And I notice that Joseph Farah's coming to Las Vegas.

That's right. And he's going to speak strictly on the issue of unity. I think Judson Phillips [organizer of the Nashville Tea Party convention] has done a good job in talking to him about that. We don't really want to have any discussions around the legitimacy of this birthright [sic], etc. Frankly it's irrelevant to the discussion. He's our President. I can find plenty to disagree with him on, on his administrative actions and his policies--

You're talking about President Obama.

That's correct. Which obviously -- look, one has to get beyond that at this point, to have a serious dialogue. There is so much to challenge in this administration's policies that we really don't need to go back to that question.

I was surprised that Joseph Farah is coming to the Tea Party Convention in Las Vegas, because I remember that you in particular were dismayed by his birther comments at the convention in Nashville.

Yeah. I made my voice known to Judson. He's actually a friend of Judson's, and Judson Phillips, who is the organizer, has made his point to Joseph Farah, as well. I think, practically speaking, you're going to hear a very reasoned dialogue from Joseph Farah.

Okay. We'll see how that works out.


So changing the topic a little bit, how do you square--there was a New York Times poll in April that got a huge amount of secondary press showing that members of the Tea Party are wealthier and more educated than average Americans.

It's interesting -- when you look at the Tea Party demographics 55% are women, and as we know there is a great deal of wealth in the female population of America. I think that the sort of cartoonish association of Tea Partiers as being old white males, Southern, illiterate--

Which you still read--

Which we still read, is simply untrue first of all. I think the obvious nature of the activism in such a short period of time speaks to, I think, the organizational skills of the Tea Party movement and the leadership and indeed the ability to embrace technology, to embrace organization, which are obviously skills that don't come out of lack of education, lack of intelligence. The reality is that the Tea Party is making a major change. We are seeing that in election after election -- not a hundred percent -- but as Reagan said, "If you are with me 80% of the time, I'm with you."

And I think that -- the experience I've had certainly -- is that there are people that are involved in this movement [who] came out of -- not what I call a disaffected population but a group of people who heretofore worked every day, paid their taxes, sent their kids to school, went to church and did it all over again the next week. And now they recognize that it's no longer sufficient to expect their legislative representatives to act on their behalf. In fact, they are antagonistic to them. So as a result, they are now in the streets, if you will, organized and making a difference on a local level, statewide and then nationally.

Why do you think in the press, even this week, you still read most Tea Party members are male?

Yeah, I think it's again, the narrative doesn't fit the reality. Right? And if you want to have an antagonistic approach, you cannot have it against women, right? It's the idea you don't hit a woman. And the reality is that the Tea Party movement is so overwhelmingly led by women, and so positioned as a majority by women that if they recognized that, then all these antagonistic and derogatory comments are essentially focused on those women. And it will in fact diminish their own credibility. They cannot admit the truth--this is the problem with so many liberal policies -- if you look at the facts, and the facts don't align with your narrative, then you simply ignore the facts. And -- look -- the Tea Party doesn't commission these studies -- we don't commission the fact that 13% of the Tea Party is Democratic, roughly 37% are independents, the rest are Republicans. That fact also doesn't get out in the news. And 55% of them are women doesn't get out in the news. And the fact that they're wealthier and smarter on average, more educated I should say, on average doesn't get out in the news, 'cause it doesn't fit with the narrative of the derogatory, dumb Southern hick mentality racist -- which is essential to their [liberals] ability to disparage the movement, and diminish its effectiveness -- which is obviously not happening because we're seeing too many successes. . . .

You mentioned "Reagan and the 80%." About the fact that the Tea Party is losing supporters that the Tea Party has had, as there has been a recent Washington Post poll showing .

That's a very cheap poll. Actually, I worked with Michael Leahy on analyzing that poll, and it was disproportionately Democrat sampling. I forget the exact number, but it was almost 60% Democrat sampling. So you had a skewing of the data once again, and the Washington Post, which has been no friend of the Tea Party I believe, was not clear about that skewing. I think, I've read other polls which still see a very strong support. I think what is happening, it will agree, is that those who are typically independent perhaps may see -- may see -- that the non-partisan nature of the Tea Party, which frankly is a conservative movement, is trending Republican largely because you're not going to vote for a third party. This is not a third party movement. So as that evidence becomes apparent, those who were perhaps left-of-center leaning may feel that way. But in general I think it is frankly a testament to the use of statistics, as I say, "figures lie and liars figure. . . ."

In a strange way that brings me around to another question. The relationship of Sarah Palin to the Tea Party movement.

It's interesting, I had a long interview with AP on this very issue. AP Alaska was talking to me, and I think that when we look at Sarah Palin, she's sorta been called the Queen of the Tea Party, I think that Sarah Palin is a good voice which resonates with the Tea Party. I don't think that she is a representative politician of the Tea Party. I think that at the end of the day she is a practical conservative. She's pragmatic. She has judiciously used her skills to endorse certain candidates --

Not all Tea Party candidates -- not in California, not in Texas --

That is correct. Which is perfectly fine. Again, I actually believe in democracy. A democratic republic. Therefore, 80% with me is with me. So I think that what she does -- the interesting thing about Sarah Palin now I think, with Haley, is that we're beginning to see some extraordinary conservative women. I mean Meg Whitman, of course. And Carly Fiorina. And Sharron Angle. And we're seeing these extraordinary conservative women -- what I'm excited about -- and quite frankly incensed that the MEN in our Senate and Congress have shown little to no leadership skills--save for perhaps a Jim DeMint. And yet these conservative women are coming forward, who are extraordinary, who are charismatic, who have their skills and their background. And interestingly, they are coming forward at a time when the Tea Party itself is maturing, in terms of its political clout, to a degree. And one almost sees that this 55% number that I spoke about earlier is being reflected in the general election demographic as well, because women are seeing the necessity to step up and to lead where they have gotten tired of men who have longed played the "old boy" game.

So I must say that's what I find encouraging. And Sarah Palin, to a large degree I believe, broke that barrier, and created that opportunity for conservative women to step forward. That's where I think she has been a true change agent in the political environment.

So you would say she had the moment, the charisma that, say, a longtime politico like Kay Bailey Hutchison didn't.

It was Grandma versus the girl next door. That's right. She is the next generation. I think, having been able to sit with her at the convention, --

Palin --

There was this great -- as I observed her -- there was this great sense of fragility in her demeanor. She is so, how do I want to say this, seems so vulnerable, but yet she is so very strong. And she has a spiritual element about her -- her conviction is evident -- and when she gets up, she is extraordinary in her absolute certainty about who and what she believes. And therefore, I think that, as we said, the moment of her selection, her having campaigned and what I think now is a continuing crafting of her skills which we're seeing, not as far as she needs to go, but she's got plenty of time if she wants to run for president. But she's crafting those skills and getting better at sort of addressing the issues. Her experience on a national level is improving. I think it's a very positive result. But that is why I believe it has opened the door for so many people to run in this particular cycle -- so many women I should say.

One of the things I thought was interesting at the Tea Party convention in Nashville was--I observed a nuanced relationship between the conventioneers who were there and Sarah Palin. So many of the conventioneers left before the night she appeared and spoke. Partly for financial reasons -- not everybody wanted to spend the money. But also when I interviewed people, not everybody who came to the convention and wanted to learn better ways of running their local tea party -- not all of them were huge Palin supporters.

I even pointed out to the AP interviewer, I said, you know, from my own view I would like to see Sarah Palin get into the secondary and the tertiary levels of discussion. She tends to run a risk of becoming too cliched. She's on these what I call "quick hits" -- whether it 's a pundit on Fox or her interviews. I would like to see her more on a "Meet the Press." I would like to see her get into those secondary and tertiary levels of discussion on policies, whether it's the Gulf oil spill, which she should have great insights into, given her relationship with the oil industry, and be able to discuss what was problematic. Not that Obama screwed up, but here is what I would have done had I been president. You know, those are the things I think that if she is to be a credible presidential candidate, she is not by any stretch of the imagination a lightweight intellectual, but she is in my opinion put in positions that do not allow her to generate the kind of, what I call, weighty analysis --


Gravitas, yes. I think that's so important for the next president, because we are not going to trust hopey and changey things anymore. We're gonna ask for the bona fides. And you better be able to back it up.

Well, if you see Sarah Palin again, Mark, you can tell her that Jake Tapper wants her on his Sunday morning talk show. He tweeted her supporters to ask her to come be on. Just for that reason. . . .

But seriously at the end of the day, the Tea Party holds people like [TN Senator] Corker and [TN Governor] Alexander accountable for their actions. And so in that sense I think what we're saying is that the movement says, 'Look, Republican Party, we have no illusions about trying to create a third party. That is basically a stupid idea. On the other hand, we're not going to take over the Democratic Party because it's too ingrained in this liberalism. In fact, it's been co-opted by the Marxists, okay? And the far left progressives. So, if we look at the Republican Party, it is, as I referred to, the infrastructure and the associated power positions to help that and to support, to promote various candidates.

So you might as well do a hostile takeover of the Republican Party, by getting people into these seats. Utah did it. Where a large majority of the Utah Republican Party representatives are now Tea Party members. We are beginning to do that here in Tennessee. You are going to see more and more of that, where the Tea Party people are coming in to contend for these seats. So that we can vet candidates, support candidates that are more aligned with those three key goals that we have as a movement.

You can say I'm aligned with the Republicans. I agree. The Tea Party movement must be aligned with the party in order to win -- that's how you win elections. So are you gonna align with the Republicans or with the Democrats? Nothing over there in the Democrat Party that I embrace, so I'm gonna align with the Republicans. But it's gonna be aligned with responsible Republican leadership that actually insures it is responsive to the people which we have not seen thus far, on either side of the House, and the Senate. And it's gonna be aligned with core values: smaller government, less taxation, less spending, free markets.

When we see people like Corker and others, even Richard Shelby, trying to figure out compromise on this financial re-regulation, which we know is going to be detrimental. Which we see the kinds of efforts that are being undertaken with respect to accommodating through cap and trade as South Carolina Senator, um --

Lindsey Graham--

Lindsey Graham. I mean these people! Right now this party should not have been the "Party of No," it should have been the "Party of Hell, No!" In fact, pass nothing until after 2010 elections, and then let's see where we're at. Let's see what the ballots look like and then begin to work a compromise. Because today there is no compromise in the House and Senate. There is no compromise from the Left. This is the most partisan White House and administration ever. They do not include the Republicans in any form or fashion of governance. In that sense, you have to object to everything then, hold your ground, let the cavalry come in and then figure out what you have to have a more balanced compromise possible. Compromise takes both sides. Right now the Left sees this as their progressive nirvana. My view is it's build a firewall and hold them off. . . .

The truth of the matter is it wouldn't change my attitudes about what I'm trying to do. There's a conviction, I can make the case. I'm not going to attack you as a person. That was why I was so against the "birther" notion. I'm not attacking Obama as a human being. On my radio show, I'll do sarcastic commentary, you know, but that's sort of entertainment. But I will not attack him in terms of my role as a Tea Party leader. I will attack his policies, because I think they're wrong for America. And they are wrong because they increase debt. And they restrict my freedoms. Or they err, in my view at least up until the Supreme Court reviews [them as] constitutional. And I think things like abrogating bondholder and shareholder rights in the takeover of Chrysler and General Motors was problematic. . . .

We have to get people who listen and are willing to work to take the hard decisions. That's a challenge. That's a multi-election-cycle effort, to be sure. It's not gonna happen in 2010, or 2012. But we have to start. If we were to throw up our hands and say "reform is dead, walk away," then we would be foolish. . . .

It's this whole issue -- when I looked at how the Los Angeles school district was penalizing Arizona -- supposedly, right? I found it amusing because at the end of the day California gets so much of its energy from the state of Arizona. . . .

This is the problem whenever you try to balkanize relationships -- this is why I'm anti-boycott. You have to realize you have a pile of dollars, and they are not your dollars, federal and state government, they are our dollars. And I agree we have to pay a certain level of taxation because we are enabled by federal and state and local agencies to have good quality libraries and schools and public infrastructure and all. I don't disagree that those are things that are necessary and desirable. But I also believe when that is dealt with in a reasonable fashion, those same governmental agencies have to recognize "there is no more. . . ."

Just one final question. What would be a scenario where you think -- you talk about the need to get around balkanization -- a Tea Party group of leaders could come together and talk with a group of Daily Kos or MoveOn? Is that too pie in the sky?

I think that right now we're trying to fix the conservative movement, right? What I have found from my own experience is, when I was discussing things with the New York Times and several other more liberal papers -- one thing I was very clear about, and I felt I was treated very fairly in the interviews, the reflection of my comments in those interviews. One thing I didn't do was attack them or their institutions. I didn't have to, I didn't want to. I can disagree with you, but I can disagree graciously. And what I found was, in that opening, which I was very clear about in any interviews I took, is that people respected me for that -- I think. At least, were willing to have the dialogue. And reflect fairly my comments without making me to look like a cartoonish figure.

I believe that ultimately that is something that needs to happen. I think we are so polarized right now, it's going to have to happen later. It's going to have to happen under a different president. Because this president has very effectively balkanized this nation. Very effectively. In a way I don't think we've ever seen a more divisive figure. To go from what was "hope and change" with a lot of folks voting for him, 62 million folks voting for him, to where he stands today. Without having simply misled that group of people. And when you have imbued that level of emotion, and that level of expectation in an individual and that individual fails you, you -- I know a lot of people that were of that ilk -- they are hurt, they are unwilling to talk about it, they are unwilling to admit the problem. And until you get to that point, it is hard to have those dialogues. I would love to have a chance to talk, but just not right now. I think it would be good to have that dialogue -- not on the record, but to have that dialogue.

We talk about it here -- you and I had lunch in this city -- we have a very demographically bifurcated -- a very large African-American population here, and in South Memphis, and a very white population in the suburbs, although a number of suburbs like Cordova and Bartlett are not. It takes an effort to make those connections, to work together. It's something that we do on a local basis, that I do on a local basis. And so why wouldn't I want to do it on a political basis? But right now I have so much work to do in my quote unquote own party and the efforts I am undertaking, I don't know if I have enough energy or time for that today.

We are in a battle of hearts and minds, and I would like to say that the battle can be had in a way that is respectful but tough, very tough -- and we'll see how it turns out in 2010.

Three days after my talk with Mark Skoda, the Tea Party Convention in Las Vegas was officially canceled -- or rather, postponed until October. But I will be surprised if it takes place. For some reason, most of the media bought the official explanation that it was determined to be too hot in Las Vegas in July for a convention. (Tell that to Netroots Nation.) I have yet to figure this out.

The full interview will be online later today at mayhillfowler.com. Mark Skoda holds forth on Sarah Palin's future, Sharron Angle, Angela McGlowan's defeat in Mississippi, the Memphis races, Glenn Beck, California and (surprise) the need to raise the Social Security tax to the level of all earned income.