By Dan Eggen and Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 16, 2009
The rowdy protests that threaten President Obama's health-care reform efforts have been spurred on by a loose network of activists -- from veteran advocacy groups with millions of dollars in funding to casual alliances of like-minded conservatives unhappy over issues from taxes to deficits to environmental laws.
Most of the groups helping to organize protests view the proposed health-care overhaul as just one part of a broader assault by government on free markets and individual liberty, their leaders say. Conservatives portray the movement as largely organic, fueled by average citizens alarmed at the direction the country has taken since Obama moved into the White House.
"I think what we've been able to do is reach out to an audience that no one has spoken with before, people who have never been involved," said Eric Odom, 29, a Chicago Web developer who heads a fledgling protest group called the American Liberty Alliance. "They've been pushed to the edge and feel they can no longer stay at home."
Several of the biggest efforts are led by established veterans in the conservative movement, whose organizations receive heavy funding from industry groups and sympathetic billionaires.
One of the most prominent organizers is FreedomWorks, a Washington-based advocacy group headed by former House majority leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.) that is also pushing to defeat Democratic climate-change legislation. FreedomWorks's major financial backers have included MetLife, Philip Morris and foundations controlled by the archconservative Scaife family, according to tax filings and other records.
Armey said in an interview that the widespread protests over health-care reform could not happen unless people were "truly scared."
"This is a real grass-roots uprising that is to some extent helped by FreedomWorks, but it would be there without FreedomWorks," he said. "It's what they call in the cyber world 'viral.' "
Odom's fight began last summer with protests in favor of offshore oil drilling. Then came the "tea parties" earlier this year, featuring boisterous rallies against Obama's stimulus package and automaker bailouts.
Now, drawing on more than 40,000 members via e-mail, Odom tracks hundreds of planned health-care protests by Zip code and uses Facebook and Twitter to link up activists. Earlier this month, he hosted a conference call with more than 200 participants.
The outlines of the anti-reform movement are still jagged, with few formal connections among the activist groups or with mainstream political organizations, such as the Republican National Committee. But interviews with group leaders and numerous town hall participants also make clear that increasing coordination has boosted turnout at many of the meetings, and it has focused the messages of many protesters.
"There's certainly synergy between these groups, and there's overlap," said Brian Burgess of CRC Public Relations, which coordinated the "Swift Boat" attacks on Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in 2004 and now represents Conservatives for Patients' Rights, an anti-reform group. "But I don't think it's intentional. It's easy to see where the gaps are and how to fill a role."
One of the most visible groups is Americans for Prosperity, an anti-tax and anti-regulation group known for opposing smoking restrictions and for trying to cast doubt on global warming. The group launched a project called "Patients First" in June and has been conducting bus tours around the country to drum up opposition to the health-care legislation.
Public records show that the group is heavily funded by the Koch Family Foundations, a major contributor to conservative causes headed by two brothers who control Koch Industries, a Kansas-based oil-and-gas conglomerate. David H. Koch serves as board chairman of the Americans for Prosperity foundation.
Armey has come under fire from Democrats for leading FreedomWorks while working at DLA Piper, a firm lobbying on behalf of New Jersey pharmaceutical company Medicines Co. Armey announced Friday that he was quitting DLA Piper to protect it from "spurious attacks" over his role as a lobbyist.
Leaders of conservative groups and at the RNC have sought to distance themselves from some of the most provocative protest tactics, including shouting down lawmakers or carrying signs equating Obama to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. But these leaders also are unabashed in defending an aggressive posture; FreedomWorks features a quote from Armey on its Web site: "If you are going to go ugly, go ugly early."
As a result of such rhetoric, the Democratic National Committee and other party leaders have portrayed the protesters as products of a fake grass-roots -- or "Astroturf" -- operation led by FreedomWorks and like-minded groups. Meanwhile, conservatives note that Organizing for America, an Obama-backed group, and major unions such as the AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union, have pushed to turn out thousands of their supporters at the events.
The complex forces at play in the unrest were visible at town halls last week hosted by Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). At a meeting in the city of State College, Pa., hundreds of protesters gathered outside a convention hall, chanting and holding colorful picket signs bearing the logos of various conservative groups. Americans for Prosperity brought a "Patients First" bus emblazoned with a giant red hand and the slogan: "Hands Off Our Health Care!"
But the scene inside was calm. Many attendees were local residents who said they were motivated to turn out not by conservative groups but by personal opposition to Democratic health-care policies. Thirty people began the wait at 5 a.m. so they could score the coveted cards allowing them to ask Specter a question.
"By and large, I don't think the conservatives are nearly as organized as they've been portrayed," said Tom Ellicott, 54, a farm-equipment salesman who had traveled from Gettysburg, about 130 miles to the southeast. "The people that got there early like us -- and we talked to most of them as they were coming in -- none of those people were bused in. They were locals. We were by far the furthest to travel."
At a Specter forum at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa., Tamie White, 46, expressed her opposition to the Obama administration, which she said is taking "us down a path to total socialism."
"What are you going to do about upholding our freedoms?" she asked Specter. "We are the land of the free and the home of the brave!"
White, a part-time bookkeeper and longtime Republican from nearby Millersburg, said in an interview that she learned about the town hall from e-mails she received from conservative groups. In March, White founded a neighborhood activist group that has about 20 members. She said the group's mission is to keep the federal government from "taking over everything."
"Government is playing God, and I'm here to say government is not God," White said.
Rucker reported from Pennsylvania.