If there's one thing that members of all the Tea Party groups might be expected to agree on, it's that no single individual has an exclusive right to the "Tea Party" name.
Except that Dale Robertson of Houston appears to believe he does have that right -- and he's determined to milk it for all it's worth.
Robertson, who claims to have been "the founder of the modern day Tea Party" back in 2004, has been sending out a flurry of emails asking for donors to support his cause.
"We are about to launch a new internet recruiting system which will reach over 1 million people each and every day with the message of the Tea Party!" one of these message proclaims excitedly. "This month the recurring 29.11 pledge by each member of the Tea Party Guardians sent a BOILING HOT FAX BLAST - 'Pink Slip To Congress' to all 100 Senators, 435 Members of the House and all 50 Governors!"
That $29.11 figure is actually something of a bargain. For anyone who doesn't want to commit to a recurring monthly pledge, the fee is much higher -- $57.76 for a single "'PINK SLIP' fax to ALL 100 Senators, ALL 435 Members Of The House and All 50 Governors 1 Time, A Total of 585 Faxes."
Robertson's interest in making money off what he apparently sees as a legion of gullible Tea Partiers is not the most questionable aspect of his activities, however.
There's also his overt racism, which became apparent last year when he showed up at a February 27, 2009 Tea Party rally in Houston with a misspelled sign reading "Congress = Slaveowner, Taxpayer = Niggar."
A second problem involves his claim to have founded the Tea Party in 2004. This would appear to be based on his ownership of the teaparty.org domain, which was originally registered in that year -- though not by Robertson, who only acquired it in April 2009.
Although copies of the original teaparty.org website from 2004-05 have been scrubbed from the Internet Archive, it was probably being used by global soul music promoter Ian Friday, who was then operating as "Tea Party Productions."
A third strike against Robertson is that the Tea Partiers themselves want nothing to do with him. According to one Houston Tea Party member, Robertson was "asked to leave" that February 2009 rally because of his sign -- but a year later the group was still having to reaffirm that they had no affiliation with Robertson and "do not choose to associate with people that use his type of disgusting language."
Soon after the rally, the Houston Tea Party's Felicia Cravens began to suspect that Robertson was running a financial scam and attempting to extort money from her group. She expressed her suspicions in a blog entry dated April 17, 2009 -- just twelve days after Robertson acquired the teaparty.org domain.
"What happened on 2/27 was nothing short of a miracle," Cravens wrote. "But since then, one member of the unofficial Meetup (the one we separated from to form our own) has become increasingly suspicious. This member has contacted our organization making veiled threats, and then not-so-veiled threats through other people, and suggesting his ownership of the name Houston Tea Party might prohibit us from doing business as the Houston Tea Party."
Cravens did a search of recent "doing business as" listings in Harris County, where Houston is located, and found that Robertson had registered not only "Tea Party," "1776 Tea Party," "Houston Tea Party" and other variants but also such names as "We Surround You Texas" and "Glen [sic] Beck We Surround Them 912 Project."
"A pattern begins to emerge," Cravens suggested, "one of a man bent on either controlling the names available for current movements in Harris County, or on extorting money from the leaders of these grassroots movements. ... We don’t appreciate people busting in, demanding to shake us down for cash, trying to push their agendas onto us, or do things under our name and demanding we work with them and insulting us when we are hesitant."
Part of the Tea Partiers' frustration with Robertson arose from the fact that he was being treated by the mainstream media as a legitimate spokesperson for their movement -- at least until last May, when according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, he "blasted out a mass E-mail today that seemed meant to convince doubters that his movement is, after all, racist at its core."
"'Obama is going home to spend time with his homies in the Chicago hood,'" the SPLC quoted. "The taxpayers will be footing the bill for the president to 'bump and grind in the hood.' While he’s gone, Vice President Joseph Biden and his wife 'will step into Obama’s sneakers' to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Obama, meanwhile, will be 'shooting hoops, smoking cigarettes and goofing-off with his homies.'"
But perhaps the most curious aspect of Robertson's "Tea Party" activities is his close association with two members of the inner circle of Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project, an anti-immigrant border vigilante group.
One is Tim Bueler, who originally gained fame in 2004 as a seventeen-year-old conservative fighting back against the "overwhelming liberal bias" in his high school. By 2006, Bueler was serving as the director of media relations for the Minuteman Project, and he is also the media representative for Robertson.
The more important of these connections, however, is "Minuteman Steve" Eichler, who is the executive director of both the Minuteman Project and Robertson's Tea Party. Eichler's own Tea Party Guardians also works closely with Robertson and is featured at his website.
Members of a rival anti-immigration group, the San Diego Minutemen, have accused Eichler of being behind a variety of "frauds and scams," and though these allegations cannot be verified, it does appear that he is the source of Robertson's money-making schemes.
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Fax blasts are not Eichler's only claim to fame, however. His name was also in the news last year after border vigilante Shawna Forde was arrested on suspicion of involvement in a double murder allegedly intended to raise money for her Minutemen American Defense.
Reporter Scott North investigated Forde's ties to Gilchrist's group and found that Gilchrist and Eichler "almost certainly were among the last people Forde e-mailed before her June 12 arrest. They talked about adding her and her officers to their Web site's list of national Minutemen leaders. 'The border is going to be HOT. Good things to come my brother,' Forde wrote Eichler that morning. She was in police handcuffs later that day."