Take a Ride on the Tea Party Express

It has taken criticism from other corners of the Tea Party movement for its GOP-consulting-firm origins, and for the financial benefit Russo Marsh reaps from it. Of the $4.4 million Tea Party Express has raised since it was formed, over over $360,000 of it appear to have gone to Russo Marsh in the form of consulting fees and advertising commissions, based on Federal Election Commission reports. (Russo Marsh has handled over $1.2 million in ad buys for TPE, much of it TV and radio space, on which purchases Russo Marsh takes a 15% commission.) TPE also has paid Russo Marsh somewhere between $300,000 and $415,000 for e-mail blasts and newslettering--apart from the e-mail blast/database services it purchases from Paramount Communications. Russo receives a nominal consulting fee, and one of his partners in the firm, Joseph Wierzbicki, has received over $50,000 in fundraising commissions--a by-no-means unreasonable fee in the world of PAC fundraising.

The central question surrounding the group, and Williams, then, is: why is he still chairman? Why does the group not simply dump him? And why does Sarah Palin choose to associate with Tea Party Express, given its problematic chairman?

As for the latter question, it may have something to do with this: Our Country Deserves Better, having been founded to support the McCain ticket in 2008 (Russo was dissatisfied with the way the campaign was going, before his former employee, Steve Schmidt, was brought on to run it; Russo described McCain's situation as "too many states [with] too many problems," with messaging that was too soft on Obama), ran a national TV ad campaign thanking Palin for running as VP--for taking on that responsibility and "leaving the comforts of Wasilla," as Russo told me, after '08 the campaign was over. Before the Searchlight rally, Russo believes it was TPE who reached out to the former governor.

Palin, to be fair, may not know much about Williams. Her political organization, SarahPAC--notorious for not returning press inquiries--did not return one about Williams, his views, and the former governor's association with the group.

As for the why Williams is still involved, the answer has to do with the history of the group and with the man in charge of it.

Russo, the only one capable of firing Williams, doesn't see a reason to.

"We've known Mark for a long time," Russo said in a recent phone interview, Williams having been active in conservative politics in California for many years and Russo having been so for many more (he began working for Ronald Reagan in 1966 at the age of 19; more recently, he worked on the Gray Davis recall effort).

Tea Party Express began, Russo said, shortly after CNBC correspondent Rick Santelli's fateful rant on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, in which he suggested dumping bad mortgages into Lake Michigan and spoke the magic words "tea party," setting many wheels in motion. The group Free Republic wanted to hold a protest rally in Sacramento, and they called Russo for help. Williams got a call, too, and he emceed the rally.

When Russo formed Tea Party Express, he needed a face, someone to work the rallies and the crowd ("He's a great emcee," Russo told me.) And like that, Williams became chairman of Tea Party Express.

So it has remained, with Williams receiving a few thousand dollars in consulting fees from the group, a few times a year. He's not involved in the day-to-day operations, Russo says; the main work of Tea Party Express is done by only two people in the group's California office, which happens to be the same office as Russo Marsh + Associates (the PAC pays Russo's consulting firm for meeting costs and office expenses). Rather, Williams "comes and goes," joining the group for tours and making TV appearances.

Russo, the only one who really could fire Williams, doesn't see a need to. Or rather, he doesn't see it as his place.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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