Sunday, September 19, 2010

Top Teabagger: Astroturfer or Grifter?

Interesting article in the NYT on Sal Russo, described as "the chief strategist behind" the Tea Party Express, "one of the movement’s most successful players," and a prime reason why Christine O'Donnell won in Delaware.

A nugget:

... Mr. Russo, 63, is a longtime Republican operative who got his start as an aide to Ronald Reagan and later raised money and managed media strategy for a string of other politicians, including former Gov. George E. Pataki of New York. His history and spending practices have prompted some former employees and other Tea Party activists to question whether he is committed to, or merely exploiting, their cause.

Mr. Russo’s group, based in California, is now the single biggest independent supporter of Tea Party candidates, raising more than $5.2 million in donations since January 2009, according to federal records. But at least $3 million of that total has since been paid to Mr. Russo’s political consulting firm or to one controlled by his wife, according to federal records.


Friends credit Mr. Russo with knowing how to identify promising candidates and seize on hot issues. But they acknowledge that the Tea Party Express has brought real benefits to him, too.

“Sal Russo is a smart consultant and a great entrepreneur,” said Mark Abernathy, a Republican consultant in California who has known Mr. Russo for more than two decades. “He’s doing well by doing good.”

The rise of the Tea Party Express can be traced to tax-filing day in 2009, when disparate groups around the nation organized what they called “tea parties” to protest government spending.

Within a day, Joe Wierzbicki, a senior associate at Mr. Russo’s firm, Russo Marsh & Associates in Sacramento, sketched out a proposal to latch onto the nascent Tea Party movement, according to internal e-mails provided to The New York Times. He hoped to breathe life into the firm’s faltering political action committee, known then as Our Country Deserves Better. Donations to the committee, established during the 2008 presidential campaign in an effort to frustrate the ambitions of Barack Obama, had dropped significantly.

And one more:

Mr. Russo estimated that Russo & Marsh, and his wife’s company, King Media Group, had been paid about $250,000 a year for their work with the Tea Party cause.

An analysis of Federal Election Commission records by The Times puts the total amount paid — for commissions, services and wages to executives and staff members — at nearly $700,000 in the last 20 months, or about 13 percent of the $5.2 million the committee has spent. (By comparison, media buyers for candidates’ campaigns typically take a 6 percent to 15 percent commission, according to one consultant.)

But the campaign finance records for the Tea Party Express also showed payments totaling more than $10,000 for stays at casino hotels, as well as bills for meals at expensive restaurants near Mr. Russo’s offices, including nearly $5,000 at Chops Steak House, which former staff members said the Tea Party Express frequented after work.

The article did not say whether he also favors undergarments by Spanx.

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