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5 Professional Tea Partiers: Who's Sucking the Most Money From the Movement?

These five Tea Party leaders are nicely compensated for leading the allegedly leaderless movement.
 
 
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It was supposed to be the most low-to-the-ground of grassroots movements, a spontaneous uprising, the story goes, of ordinary, fed-up Americans who, on their own time and with nothing more than a Google Groups listserv put together a national political juggernaut. Whatever the grassroots bona fides of local Tea Party groups, the national movement is in many ways the creation of well-compensated Republican political operatives and consultants. This week, they added one more to their ranks, when Judson Phillips, who founded Tea Party Nation, announced he would leave his law practice and draw a salary instead from his Tea Party group, as Roll Call reported.

When we looked at leaders of the best-known Tea Party groups, we found most making a rather handsome living off the ostensibly salt-of-the-earth movement. And despite the Tea Party mantra that women run the movement, we found that two of the best-known female faces of the movement -- Amy Kremer of Tea Party Express and Jenny Beth Martin of Tea Party Patriots -- earn rather modest salaries in comparison with their male colleagues. While Sal Russo, principal of Tea Party Express, raked in more than $800,000 during the 2010 election cycle from Tea Party Express for his public relations and media companies, Amy Kremer, the Express' director of grassroots and coalitions, earned a mere $49,000 during the same period, despite the fact that she often represents Tea Party Express at rallies and in the media. Meanwhile, Jenny Beth Martin, national coordinator of Tea Party Patriots, the successful organization founded by FreedomWorks, takes in $72,000 a year, a middling level of compensation when compared with the six-figure salaries reaped by FreedomWorks' male leaders.

Below, a look at the leaders of some of the best-known Tea Party-branded organizations, and the slick political backgrounds of the men who lead them -- guys more likely to be donning finely tailored suits than tricorn hats.

Dick Armey, chairman, FreedomWorks and FreedomWorks Foundation. Thanks in part to his status as former House Majority Leader, Armey is living the good life at the helm of these two Tea Party-rallying non-profits. According to the FreedomWorks Foundation's IRS filings for 2009 (the most recent year available), Armey earns a total of $500,000 per year for his work on behalf of both organizations, which, for the most part, share the same staff. (When I attended a FreedomWorks event last September, Armey arrived in a chauffered limousine.)

FreedomWorks, together with Americans for Prosperity (see Tim Phillips, below), was instrumental in ginning up opposition to President Barack Obama's health-care legislation, including the orchestration of disruptive attendees at congressional town-hall meetings. Both FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity stem from a single, now defunct, organization, Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded by the billionaire David Koch.

During the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks allied closely with the picks of the Senate Conservatives Fund, spearheaded by Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., seeking to create a "power center" of Tea Party-allied senators around DeMint, according to FreedomWorks spokesman Adam Brandon. FreedomWorks is now conducting a campaign to make Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Tenn., appoint DeMint to the powerful Senate Finance Committee, now that the disgraced Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., has left the body in an effort to avoid further scrutiny by the Ethics Committee for an affair he had with a staffer, and his role in an apparent pay-off to the staffer's family.

In the Tennessee Republican primary for U.S. Senate, Armey backed Rand Paul -- who opposes some of the desegregation provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- against McConnell's pick, Trey Grayson, leaving McConnell significantly weakened in the face of DeMint's growing power by the time Paul won the seat.

Matt Kibbe, president, FreedomWorks and Freedom Works Foundation.
 Kibbe's combined compensation for his positions at FreedomWorks and its foundation -- and "affiliated groups" -- added up to $308,097, according to the foundation's 2009 tax filings.

Kibbe's roots as a Republican strategist and wonk run deep; he served as chief of staff for Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., and as Miller's associate on the House Budget Committee. But it was at Lee Atwater's feet that Kibbe may have learned his most important political lessons; he served as the Republican National Committee's senior economist during Atwater's tenure as RNC chairman, a post Atwater won after successfully using a race-baiting strategy to secure the presidency for George H.W. Bush in 1988. As Bush's campaign chairman, Atwater commissioned the notorious "Willie Horton" ad against Democrat Michael Dukakis. The ad used the image of a dark-skinned black man who committed murder while on a weekend release program to alienate white voters from Dukasis, and to paint him as soft on crime.

The Koch brothers have also long played a role in Kibbe's career. After serving as managing editor of Market Process, a journal published by the Koch-funded Center for Market Process (now folded into the Koch-funded Mercatus Institute) at George Mason University, Kibbe went on to join Citizens for a Sound Economy, which led to his current position at FreedomWorks.

Tim Phillips, president, Americans for Prosperity and Americans for Prosperity Foundation.
  With an annual compensation of $252,918, according to 2009 tax filings by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, veteran political operative Tim Phillips may not be riding quite as high as Armey and Kibbe, but he's not exactly sweating the mortgage.

After serving as campaign manager and chief of staff to Rep. Bob Goodlatte of Virginia from 1992-96, Phillips joined former Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed in forming Century Strategies, the political consulting firm implicated in the Jack Abramoff bribery scandal. At Century Strategies, Phillips conducted organizing efforts for the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush.

Like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity was born of the crack-up of Citizens for a Sound Economy. One major difference between the two organizations is that FreedomWorks claims not to receive any money from the Koch brothers, while the AFP Foundation is chaired by David Koch, the major funder of both AFP and its foundation.

Sal Russo, principal, Tea Party Express. Russo is an old political hand, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, "cut his first political ad in 1969 as a 23-year-old aide to then-Gov. Ronald Reagan, dispatched to California's Salinas Valley to help a local apricot farmer win a state Assembly seat."

Russo went on to become a force in California politics, working for Gov. George Deukmejian. In the 2008 presidential campaign, he launched the Our Country Deserves Better Political Action Committee, launching ads against Barack Obama that questioned the Democrat's patriotism. When the fires of the Tea Party movement took off, Russo morphed Our Country Deserves Better into the Tea Party Express.

Though best known for its election-season bus tours featuring Tea Party figures who boost Tea Party-allied candidates (including the execrable Carl Paladino, the racist who ran against Andrew Cuomo in New York's gubernatorial race), the power of Tea Party Express stems from its status as a PAC, as seen in the 2010 midterm elections. Almost single-handedly, Tea Party Express ensured the primary successes of U.S. Senate candidates Christine O'Donnell, Del.; Joe Miller, Alaska; and Sharron Angle, Nev. (All went on to lose the general elections, but their primary victories nonetheless pushed the GOP further to the right.) During the primary season, according to the L.A. Times, "the PAC dropped nearly $600,000 in Alaska on ads that boosted Joe Miller over Sen. Lisa Murkowski, and racked up $944,000 in advertising in Nevada backing Sharron Angle."

But what's good for Tea Party Express is also very good for Sal Russo's own pockets. As a principal in Russo Marsh & Associates and King Media, Russo is able to use Tea Party Express to contract his own for-profit entities, and to pay them out of TPE donations -- and he does.

In the 2010 election cycle, businesses in which Russo has a financial interest reaped at least $845,000, according to my back-of-the-envelope estimate, which is drawn from a list of Tea Party Express expenditures at OpenSecrets.org. (This includes payments to staff and/or principals of Russo Marsh.)

Judson Phillips, founder and principal, Tea Party Nation.
 Defense attorney and former Tennessee District Attorney Judson Phillips just announced that he is leaving his day job as a defense attorney for clients charged with drunk driving in order to work full-time for his controversial for-profit Tea Party Nation corporation. Phillips told Roll Call that he'll draw a salary that is "under six figures," but for all we know, that could be $99,999. Never mind that Phillips stiffed Tea Partiers who paid to attend a planned "Tea Party Unity" convention in Las Vegas that never came off last October. (In an April 16 e-mail to those who paid for convention tickets, Phillips wrote, "As we have been generating revenue, we have been making refunds.  We are slowly making progress. Our commitment remains that everyone who purchased a ticket to the convention will receive a refund.")

Whatever organizing prowess Phillips lacks, he's proven to have a knack for winning publicity for controversial statements (such as his suggestion that only property owners should be allowed to vote). At his Nashville Tea Party Nation convention in February 2010, Phillips endorsed Tom Tancredo, then running for a Colorado Senate seat, even after the candidate told the convening Tea Partiers that literacy tests should be re-instituted as a requirement for voters. (Literacy tests were often the means used to keep African Americans from voting before the Voting Rights Act passed in 1963.)

The Nashville Tea Party Nation convention became a matter of great controversy, both for its high attendance fee ($549), from which Phillips expected to reap a profit, and for the reported $100,000 speaking fee paid to Sarah Palin to keynote the conference. The outcry prompted Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., to withdraw from her spot at the convention, and led Palin to pledge to donate the fee to charity.

Tea Party Nation's core business, however, is not its conferences, but its right-wing social networking site of the same name. If Phillips can turn that into the Next Big Thing in right-wing media, his salary will mark but a small portion of the fruits of his labor.

Adele M. Stan is AlterNet's Washington bureau chief. Follow her on Twitter: