The tea party wave that swept the nation this fall continues to roil the political waters in Florida. Now the tide is turning on itself, threatening to drown out the movement's message and potentially sink its future.
Orlando has become the center of fierce infighting as three tea groups joust with each other for voter attention and donor cash.
The Florida TEA Party, the Central Florida Tea Party Council and the Tea Party Foundation each tout the "tea" brand, but their ongoing and occasionally litigious feuds point to disparate new directions for the movement.
The TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party fielded 20-plus candidates for state offices in November. While none came close to winning, the party founded by Orlando attorney Fred O'Neal earned the undying enmity of other tea groups, which alleged that it misappropriated the "tea" name.
A series of claims and counterclaims followed, and the matter remains a bone of contention for tea partiers who believe that a freestanding political party subverts the movement's goals. They dismissively label O'Neal's party "fake tea."
TEA's critics allege that O'Neal and party consultant Doug Guetzloe have financial-political links to Democrats, notably U.S. Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Orlando. O'Neal, Guetzloe and Grayson all deny the claim, and TEA candidate Peg Dunmire (now chairman) had no discernible impact on the 8th Congressional District race won handily by Republican Daniel Webster.
In the wake of the fall elections, tea's heated intramural squabble remains at a high boil. The hard feelings owe to a combustible mix of personalities, politics and, of course, money.
LIBERTARIAN OR A REPUBLICAN PARTY FRONT?
The most recent arrival to the Orlando scene is the Tea Party Foundation. In short order, the foundation attracted large donations, including $25,000 from a group called Liberty 4 Florida.
Foundation organizer Phil Russo, who describes himself as a founding member of the Orlando Tea Party, uses his weekly AM radio show to talk politics and raise funds.
That's what Guetzloe, a former Orange County Republican Party activist, has done for years. But the resemblance ends there.
Russo's libertarian streak clashes with tea party orthodoxy. Depending on one's perspective, his stated agenda significantly broadens the movement or merely splinters it.
Russo favors legalized marijuana as well as gay marriage and gay adoption. He also wants Florida to opt out of the federal Real ID program, claiming it undermines states' rights and individual freedom.
Currently, Russo and the foundation are seeking a sponsor for the Firearms Freedom Act. The bill, which passed the House but failed in the state Senate last year, declares that specified firearms, firearm accessories and ammunition for personal use manufactured in state are not subject to federal law or regulation in Florida.
Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, told Sunshine State News he would sponsor the bill in 2011 if no one else steps up. Rep. Sandy Adams, elected to Congress this year, carried the measure last session.
While Russo says he regularly reaches out to Central Florida lawmakers such as House Speaker Dean Cannon and Reps. Scott Plakon, Steve Precourt and Eric Eisnaugle, he maintains that he is no mainstream Republican.
"We're trying to give them a spine," he says of state Republicans' leadership.
Russo said he voted for Libertarian candidate Alex Snitker, not Republican Marco Rubio, in the U.S. Senate race.
Russo says he doesn't know who's donating to the foundation, and is not beholden to anyone. He also said he did not know who runs Liberty 4 Florida.
"Maybe the money is coming from the GOP establishment, I don't know. But anyone who thinks a check is going to call off the dogs is sadly mistaken," he says.
The third player in the Orlando tea troika says it has a good idea who's calling the shots at the foundation.
The Central Florida Tea Party Council, headed by Tom Tillison and Jason Hoyt, says Liberty 4 Florida "was set up by Republican legislators to advocate for the Florida Healthcare Freedom Act."
"Erin VanSickle, former press secretary for the Republican Party of Florida, announced the launch of L4F.Plakon and (Sen.) Carey Baker were charged with overseeing L4F," Tillison said.
VanSickle is now a partner at the Tallahassee-based public relations firm of Capitol Energy Communications, whose clients include the Florida Medical Association.
In addition to the $25,000 from Liberty 4 Florida, Russo received $1,000 from Plakon, R-Longwood; $600 from Precourt, R-Winter Garden; and $500 from Rep. Bryon Nelson, R-Apopka, over the past five months.
Tillison said Precourt also purchased advertising on Tillison's website, the Orlando Political Press. That connection, along with the Tea Party Council's active campaigning for Webster, has opened Hoyt and Tillison to the charge that they, too, are merely an arm of the Republican Party.
TEA PARTY MOVEMENT 'DYING OUT IN FLORIDA'
While acknowledging that the tea brand has proven to be a magnet for money, Russo discounts the relevance of his two Orlando-based rivals, and says he senses that the state movement may have peaked.
"The whole tea party thing is dying out in Florida. It's run its course. They can't even take credit for Rubio," he opines.
Russo blasts Tillison's group for trying to "Jesus-ify" a secular tea movement ostensibly focused on smaller government and fiscal responsibility. He calls O'Neal's TEA Party "irrelevant."
O'Neal responds that as the only tea party which puts candidates on the ballot, TEA alone stands independent of the two-party system. He notes that while his TEA Party opposed the costly Sun Rail commuter-train venture, the other two Orlando tea groups cozied up to the very lawmakers who voted for the so-called "train to nowhere."
If they can agree on one thing, Guetzloe and Tillison suspect that Russo, for all his libertarian rhetoric, is himself simply a self-promoting front for the GOP.
"The general feeling within the tea party movement is thatthe Tea Party Foundation,through its multiple ties to the Republican Party, has compromised any legitimacy it may have hoped to have," Tillison says.
"Money and influence are the leading factors that corrupt the political process and it's unfortunate that some within the tea party fall prey to this.As the proverbial watchdogs, we certainly cannot be very effective when we find ourselvesbeholden to the party."
Meantime, O'Neal, in a bit of payback, has filed complaints with State Attorney Willie Meggs and the state Division of Elections accusing the foundation of illegally using the "Tea Party" name.
And so it goes.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.