What’s in a name? Everything when it comes to the Tea Party of Georgia.
Sixteen months after its birth, the national tax movement that arguably got its biggest boost in Georgia is now splintered into several organizations that are competing for recognition.
There’s the Georgia Tea Party Patriots. There’s The State of Georgia Tea Party, LLC. There’s Georgia’s Tea Party, which is also known as The Tea Party of Georgia, Inc.
They might all sound like they’re the same group. But they’re not. In fact, the organizers of those first two groups don’t much like each other.
Bill Evelyn, an Air Force vet who started the State of Georgia Tea Party group in May, said he founded the group because the Georgia Tea Party Patriots have lost their way. They “have become an appendage of the Georgia GOP,” he said.
Evelyn said he has been disparaged as a fringe player by leaders of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, which was one of the first such groups in the nation. “I’m representing the mainstream” of true conservatism, Evelyn said. “They are representing the fringe, the fake and phony conservative candidates.”
Debbie Dooley, a coordinator of the Georgia Tea Party Patriots, contends the other similarly named groups are Johnny-come-lately fronts for candidates trying to get Tea Party cred. Or they say the groups are ego-driven vehicles for the founders to get their 15 minutes of fame.
Dooley is a part of Tea Party lore. She was one of 22 angry activists and concerned citizens who met each other in February 2009 while participating in a national conference call set up to address the growing deficit. That call spurred the Tea Party movement. Dooley said she has concerns about the new groups: “False tea parties. Fake tea parties. Tea party fronts.
“This is a problem,” she said. “People are trying to hijack our group. I think they cause confusion. People see ‘Tea Party’ and they think all tea parties are the same.”
But should it be surprising that groups started by citizens who were “mad as hell and not going to take it any more” are now turning on each other? Probably not, said Merle Black, an Emory University political science professor.
“There’s no platform or recognized leaders,” said the professor. “It seems like a battle of what constitutes the essence of the movement. I suppose they’ll be fighting it out for a while.”
Evelyn said the essence is that the movement is open to ideas. He was angered in May when a debate organized by some leaders of the Patriots and another organization invited just the four “top-tier” Republican candidates — insurance commissioner John Oxendine, former congressman Nathan Deal, former secretary of state Karen Handel and former state Senator Eric Johnson. Raymond McBerry, a “state’s rights” candidate, was left out of the debate, proof enough for Evelyn that the Patriots were fronting for the RINOs (Republicans in Name Only).
Patriot leaders claim Evelyn is using the Tea Party “brand” to give McBerry’s candidacy credibility and to attract other Tea Party members who now align themselves with the Patriot movement.
Joy McGraw, a state Patriots coordinator, said Evelyn’s group has become an anchor for several local Tea Party organizations that have members supporting McBerry.
Part of the reason for starting other groups is ego, McGraw said. “It’s human nature. You want to get the publicity, to be the leader,” McGraw said. “He’s bad mouthing us to get ahead.”
Another group, Georgia’s Tea Party, was created in May by a Dahlonega resident with ties to Oxendine to push his candidacy, Dooley said. The group’s “Favorite Pages” box has just one offering — John Oxendine’s page.
The site’s founder, David Hayes, an insurance appraiser and former volunteer fireman, said he’s not a proxy for the insurance commissioner nor is he doing anything underhanded. He started the site georgiasteaparty.org , he said, because he wanted to get involved in politics but a degenerating spine has left him unable to easily leave the house. The Internet makes it easy to organize and make one’s views known, Hayes said.
He wanted to call his site the Lumpkin Party Tea Party but found that name taken. So he settled for Tea Party of Georgia Inc. A techie friend suggested “Georgia’s Tea Party” would be more catchy.
“The nice thing about the Tea Party is it’s getting a lot of attention,” said Hayes, who called himself “just a small little guy stuck in [his] house.”
Hayes said some of the attention he received was unwanted. He was contacted by Dooley, who accused him of starting the group specifically to back Oxendine.
Hayes believes the Patriots want all the glory, all the recognition. He acknowledged people might confuse the groups.
“But it’s too late,” he said. “We’re here now.”