Karin Hoffman of Coral Springs: Consider yourself warned. The real South Florida Tea Party is on to you. Her group is called DC Works for Us, but in media reports, Hoffman has been identified as a "tea party leader." So this week, when Hoffman's group landed a meeting with Republican Chairman Michael Steele, it seemed a signal that the tea partiers were moving toward the GOP's political tent. (That's video of the meeting above.)
Not so fast! "They were using the name 'tea party,'" says Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the official South Florida Tea Party, which sprawls from Martin County to Miami-Dade. "These people who have the meeting are not really tea party people. If you have a group of 120 or 130 people (as Hoffman apparently does), and we have a group of 5,000 people, then who's really the tea party?"
There were other signs that Hoffman was trying to hijack the tea party's mighty political capital.
One suspicious move by Hoffman: According to Wilkinson, the tea party doppelganger went around to other local groups to invite them to the private meeting -- and perhaps into her group's fold. A very un-tea-party maneuver. "Everything we try to do is out in the open," says Wilkinson. Press releases about meetings with high-powered party figures ain't his group's thing.
"The tea party group is nonpartisan," says Wilkinson. "My members have been contacting me and saying 'Why are you meeting with Mr. Steele?'"
Wilkinson has had to explain that this was not an official, sanctioned tea party meeting. The term he prefers: "Publicity stunt."
But it takes two to make a publicity stunt. What's in it for Steele?
Wilkinson told Juice that he thinks Steele is trying to create the illusion that he's lured the droves of tea party activists toward voting Republican. In the past, he's been recruiting the group, with little success. Last year, the tea party denied him permission to speak at its conference in Chicago.
"The movement has intentionally stayed away from Michael Steele," says Wilkinson. "He found a couple people who have the name -- but they aren't part of the movement."
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Wilkinson wrote a letter to Steele this week, denouncing any association between his group and Hoffman's. He has since discussed the matter with a staffer in Steele's office. Yesterday his group launched a website where true tea partiers can sound off about the Hoffman affair.
Later today, we'll give Hoffman a call to get her take.
This episode is indicative of a larger problem for the activists. Even Wilkinson admits his group has an identity problem: "It's very confusing from an outsider's view, because you see the name 'tea party.' But you have a wide variety of people, from racist idiots to tax groups who use the name now."
Despite claiming to not be affiliated with the Republican Party -- and also asserting that the tea party has no interest in being a third party -- Wilkinson concedes that the group's politics are decidedly right. The analogy he favors: "We're like what moveon.org is on the left."