By Ben Pershing
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Richard K. Armey has been an economics professor, House leader, corporate lobbyist and a blunt-talking critic of his fellow Republicans. Now, at the vanguard of a loosely-knit band of opponents of President Obama's agenda, Armey has morphed into a role Obama himself held years ago: a grass-roots organizer.
From the raucous town hall meetings of August to the Sept. 12 protests that brought thousands of conservatives to Washington, Armey and the group he heads, FreedomWorks, have spent their summer battling Democrats on health-care reform.
The idea for a conservative march on Washington was born in a conference room at FreedomWorks' headquarters. Staffers picked the date, secured the permits and handled all the other logistics. The group teamed up with several other organizations, including the Tea Party Patriots, to pull off the event.
To Armey, the entire Obama agenda -- from health-care reform to the stimulus package, the auto bailout and climate-change bill -- represents an unacceptable expansion of government
"My life's work is protecting liberty," Armey, 69, said in a recent interview. "I have never seen a greater threat to liberty in America as that which is imminent."
Critics see Armey -- and FreedomWorks -- in less lofty terms, accusing them of shilling for the pharmaceutical industry and health-insurance companies.
Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, said the organization has "not accepted a single dollar" from either industry during the health-care battle, and that FreedomWorks agrees with liberal groups such as MoveOn.org that such corporate special interests have had too much influence over the bill-drafting process.
FreedomWorks is not required by law to disclose the identity of its donors, but the organization says that more than 50 percent of its donations come from individuals, 15 to 20 percent from corporations, and the remainder from foundations.'Too Colorful'
Armey, of Texas, has built a career on contradictions.
He's a professional political organizer who claims politics "is kind of an aggravation for me."
He is a crusader for fiscal discipline who has lobbied for earmarks. And he is a key leader of a populist, anti-Washington movement who has simultaneously worked for and accepted contributions from deep-pocketed corporations and interest groups.
In August, he quit his job with DLA Piper, the law and lobbying firm where he had been a senior adviser since 2003.
Armey, whose most recent lobbying clients included auto dealer CarMax and the Interactive Gaming Council, had courted controversy before K Street. ThinkProgress, a popular liberal blog, published a post in April titled, "FreedomWorks Orchestrates 'Grassroots' Movements to Serve Dick Armey's Corporate Clients."
The health-care debate brought the issue to a head at DLA Piper, where Armey had helped its clients lobby for earmarks. Some suggested that Armey's work against Obama's health-care efforts meant that DLA Piper and its drug clients were working against it as well. The pharmaceutical industry is publicly supporting Obama's efforts.
"Despite some unfounded media suggestions attempting to link DLA Piper to FreedomWorks' opposition to health care reform, the firm has not, on its own behalf, or on the behalf of any client, directly or indirectly opposed any of the pending health care reform bills," DLA Piper Chairman Frank Burch said in a statement when Armey left.
Armey echoed the point, but his activism made his position untenable, and he said he feared the firm's clients would be subject to "harassment" as long as he was associated with it.
"I hated to walk away," Armey said, calling his joint employment "a curious model, probably not having been tried by anyone before, and we made it work for 6 1/2 years."
Though Armey earned $550,000 from FreedomWorks last year, according to IRS filings, he said he misses the DLA Piper income and will likely seek a similar job soon.
"I've found nobody yet that will pay me to stay home," he joked. "The Democrats have tried, but they don't offer much."
Armey had a prominent speaking role at the Sept. 12 rally, but he said he much prefers "being in a smaller setting" talking about policy. He and his aides don't want too much credit for organizing the event, either. "The press and the Obama guys -- they keep looking for the guy who pushes the button behind the curtain," said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform. "This really is a bottom-up operation. Everybody at the national level has been very careful. Because we support local activism, we shouldn't pretend we created it."
What has also gone unclaimed is the intense animosity against Obama at town halls and the Washington rally, including several signs likening his administration to the Nazi regime.
Few congressional Republicans attended the rally, and some have questioned the tone of the protests.
"I'm not as comfortable with all the things that I've seen," said Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), an Armey ideological ally.
Opponents have rendered harsher assessments. "No matter how these people came to these events, they were whipped into a froth by groups like FreedomWorks peddling outright lies about reform," Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said.
Armey, of course, rejects such talk.
"There were a couple of people that maybe got a little bit too colorful, but what the heck, I've been called everything under the sun," Armey said, though he added of the Nazi comparisons: "There's nobody in our organization that approves of those kinds of signs."
FreedomWorks is located on an upper floor at Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, and may be the only tenant among the trade associations and law firms with a large poster of Ayn Rand in its reception area. Founded in 1984 as Citizens for a Sound Economy, FreedomWorks employs 16 full-time staff members and has an annual budget of roughly $7 million, according to its Internal Revenue Service filings.Insider as Outsider
Armey served nine terms in the House but said he is more comfortable as a Washington outsider. He spends a few days a month at FreedomWorks' D.C. office because he's often fundraising and meeting with activists, he said. But, he said, he prefers to be at his Dallas-area ranch when possible.
During Armey's two decades in the House, he and fellow Republican leaders seemed to squabble more with each other than with Democrats, often because Armey liked to blurt out whatever was on his mind. The tension continued after Armey retired in 2002, as he criticized his former colleagues for increasing the budget deficit and passing the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill. He also antagonized the Bush administration, once complaining publicly that Vice President Richard B. Cheney had lied to him about Iraq -- though Armey expressed it in more colorful terms.
FreedomWorks does not endorse candidates publicly because of its tax status, but Armey does. On Monday, he hosted an event in Texas for Marco Rubio, the Florida state House speaker who is running an underdog Republican primary campaign for Senate against Gov. Charlie Crist.
"We obviously don't think we want this guy in Washington with influence over public policy," Armey said of the moderate Crist, who is backed by much of the party establishment. Armey won't rule out seeking public office again, but said he "can't imagine" doing so.
He said he feels much freer in his current role, and he and his lieutenants are already planning another march on Washington next September.
"I think there's a general feeling," Armey said, "when something goes well and you feel like you've won, you can't wait to do it again."