Top tea party group tied to extremism, report charges

Zachary Roth
Senior National Affairs Reporter
The Lookout

Since the tea party movement exploded onto the political scene over two years ago, one of its key players has been the advocacy organization FreedomWorks. Founded and run by Dick Armey, a former top Republican congressman, FreedomWorks isn't exactly a tea party group itself. Rather, it's a well-funded Washington-based lobbying organization that has played a crucial role in supporting and co-ordinating the grassroots activism of the movement's far-flung factions. FreedomWorks was a central organizer, for instance, of the 9/12 March that last year brought tens of thousands of conservative activists to Washington.

FreedomWorks also has helped defend the tea party movement against charges of racism. "Ours is a colorblind movement based on principles not race," the group's president, Matt Kibbe, has said.

But a new report questions FreedomWorks' commitment to keeping bigotry on the margins of the movement.

The Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights (IREHR), a group that monitors extremism, has taken a close look at FreedomConnector, a new site created by FreedomWorks that's designed to help put conservative activists in touch with each other. Since launching FreedomConnector in February, FreedomWorks' online membership has roughly quintupled, rising to more than 94,000.

But IREHR charges that to reach this kind of online following, FreedomWorks "took down what little firewall it had constructed between itself and the farthest edges of the far-right." The report's researchers claim to have found at least 59 cases over the last five months in which FreedomConnector announced events being held by the John Birch Society, a group with a history of bigoted views, IREHR contends.

Those events have taken place in California, Florida, Idaho, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. In one case, according to the report, a local coordinator with the Birch Society even was able to create a Bircher group -- described by IREHR as "a hub for area Birchers to gather on the FreedomConnector site."

Launched as an anti-communist organization in the 1950s, the Birch Society opposed the civil rights movement in part on the grounds that mixing black and white people would lead to a "mongrelization" of the races. Since the mid 1960s, it has been relegated to the fringes of the conservative movement. Indeed, the Birchers' reputation for radicalism is so well-established that when Armey was asked last year about Birchers getting involved with the tea tarty movement, he was keen to deny any link.

"The John Birch Society has been very little evident in my association with the tea party.  I have not seen anybody, have not encountered anybody who says I'm here and I'm from the John Birch Society," Armey told Charlie Rose of PBS. "So I mean, I know it's alleged that they're there.  I've not encountered them. But I do think that John Birch Society historically has had a good deal of people that have regretted them."

Could Armey come to regret his own group's association with the Birch organization? A spokeswoman for FreedomWorks didn't respond to a call from The Lookout seeking to find out.

(Former House Majority Leader Dick Armey addresses a Tea Party rally in Washington, April 2010: AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)