Tea Party Travel Agents Duke It out for Protest Business
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Tea Party marches on Washington have gotten so big and unwieldy that the grassroots conservative movement has spawned its own travel agents. And the business is cutthroat -- sparking a clash between tea party entrepreneurs replete with allegations of slander, backstabbing, and threats of legal action.
This saga got its start back in the fall of 2008, when Rhode Island travel agent Joanne Griffing lost her job in the recession. At risk of losing her house, she grew desperate. She signed up to take in foster children. She prayed a lot. Her prayers were answered in April 2009, when she got a call from Brendan Steinhauser, a staffer from the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks, which was organizing a taxpayers' march in Washington on September 12. They were expecting about 1,000 people. Could Griffing help coordinate their travel arrangements?
Griffing agreed, not realizing that the little march was about to turn into a major political spectacle, with tens of thousands of people flocking to D.C. from all over the country. She booked hotel rooms for the activists, arranged rides from the airport, and created teapartyplanning.com to market her services. She says she worked like a dog and ended up netting $29,000, enough to pay her mortgage for the year. Since then, she has decided that arranging Tea Party travel is her calling in life. Currently, she's busily working to book rooms in D.C. for this year's 9/12 march as FreedomWorks' official unofficial travel planner. But Griffing isn't alone in the field, and neither, this year, is FreedomWorks, which has some competition of its own from another organization that's also planning to host a rally that weekend in DC.
Last year, as it became clear that the 9/12 march was going to be bigger than anyone imagined, Florida event promoter Christine Drawdy also joined in, selling hotel rooms, arranging bus trips, and so on. Initially, she started out just helping her local Florida 9/12 group, which had formed in response to Glenn Beck's call to put conservative principles into action. But eventually she began advertising blocks of hotel rooms on Tea Party forums and ResistNet, a social networking site for "patriots" and tea party activists. "She came in saying, 'I'm taking over,'" says Griffing, who was not happy to have the competition.
Both women ended up complaining bitterly about each other to various organizers, each accusing the other of spreading rumors and maligning the other's credentials. In July 2009, Griffing sent an e-mail to Steinhauser and ResistNet's Darla Dawald complaining about Drawdy, saying, "I have word from sources in D.C. that she is spreading horrible rumors about me. She's been contacting every person in D.C. The convention bureau, every hotel driving basically everyone nuts...I have not said one bad word about this girl even while I sit here and am being told she's trying to slander me."
The acrimony -- and all the e-mails -- forced Steinhauser to intervene in an email saying that, while Griffing would be promoted on FreedomWorks' march Web site, Drawdy's company was free to bring people to DC and to promote her services through ResistNet, which by then was co-sponsoring the march. "This is really the last time I want to discuss this issue between Christine and you, as I need to focus on logistics and working with Capitol Police," he wrote.
Last year, there was plenty of business to go around, so the rivalry didn't amount to much more than online sniping. This year, however, is a different story by an order of magnitude.
In a move of inspired entrepreneurialism, the Monday after the 2009 march, Drawdy went to the US Park Service and applied for a permit to hold rallies and marches on large swaths of the National Mall for the entire weekend of September 12, 2010 -- a day or two before FreedomWorks got there to cement its spot for its repeat march performance. According to Griffing, Drawdy started booking hotel rooms almost immediately. "I wasn't even home from last year's event, when I got a call [from a hotel] saying Christine's on the other line booking rooms for next year," she says.