By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 5, 2010; A03
NASHVILLE -- The grass-roots movement that exploded across the nation last year in revolt against President Obama's economic policies and health-care agenda reached a critical milestone Thursday as hundreds of conservative activists converged here for the start of the inaugural National Tea Party Convention.
But the first gathering of the sprawling movement, made up of hundreds of disparate "tea party" organizations, has been marred by controversy. Some high-profile speakers and activist groups have canceled their appearances in protest of alleged profiteering by the convention organizers.
Attendees have paid $549 a ticket (plus hotel and transportation) to gather for three days at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel and Convention Center, which critics say is out of reach for many activists. Some of the proceeds will cover former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's reported $100,000 fee for Saturday's keynote address.
Despite the fractiousness, however, officials said the event is sold out, with 600 "delegates" registered and scores more being turned away. The closing steak-and-lobster banquet, featuring Palin, has sold 1,100 tickets.
Unlike the protests and town hall rage that defined the tea party movement in its first year, the convention is designed to show that the effort is "growing up," said convention spokesman Mark Skoda, chairman of the Memphis Tea Party. There will be sessions on leadership, political philosophy and such nuts-and-bolts topics as "how to do voter registration drives," as tea party leaders try to turn grass-roots power into political gain in November's midterm elections.
"We are all very mature people -- without the pointy hats and the signs," Skoda said. "You will see people of quality and maturity to help bring this movement to a pinnacle whereby we actually change politics."
Hundreds of independent tea party groups have sprouted up nationwide over the past 12 months. Their members hold divergent political views, and their leaders have publicly quarreled over tactics. But the factions have largely united around a common cause: a don't-tread-on-me brand of fiscal conservatism and a belief that the government, first under President George W. Bush and now under Obama, has recklessly plunged deeper into debt and overstepped its constitutional powers.
"If you take 1,000 so-called tea partiers and ask them what this movement is, you'll get 1,000 different interpretations," said Mark Williams, a talk-radio host and chairman of the Tea Party Expresshttp://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2010/02/sarah-palin-will-rally-for-tea.html. "But they're all waving American flags and speaking out against the galloping socialist agenda."
Scores of tea party activists from as far as Hawaii arrived in Nashville on Thursday, energized by signs that their cries last year had been heard and that that political tide is turning against Obama and congressional Democrats. Someone hung a poster of Palin from a balcony overlooking a garden atrium at the Opryland complex. In the hotel lobby, a few delegates sat on luggage and read copies of the Declaration of Independence.
And outside the convention hall, entrepreneurs sold souvenirs: sterling silver tea bag necklaces ($89.99), bags of "Freedom Coffee" ($9) and T-shirts emblazoned with a bald eagle ($20).
The convention's first day lacked the orchestrated staging of most modern political events. The convention host delivered a meandering welcome speech without notes, saying he misplaced them. Former congressman Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) offered a fiery defense of Judeo-Christian faith and traditional American values, but there was no prayer or Pledge of Allegiance to open the convention -- nor was there an American flag in the convention hall. (Skoda blamed the oversight on the hotel staff.)
In Washington, the Republican establishment has wrestled with the tea party movement, but House Republican Leader John A. Boehner (Ohio) said Thursday that there is "no difference" in the beliefs of Republicans and tea party activists. Appearing on conservative Mike Gallagher's radio show, Boehner counseled Republican candidates to "prove it to tea party activists that we really are who we say we are."
Despite her fee, Palin said she will not "benefit financially" from the event. "Any compensation for my appearance will go right back to the cause," she wrote in an opinion article published in USA Today. Palin did not specify how she would distribute her earnings.
Tea Party Nation, a social-networking site, is organizing the convention. Although it is a for-profit corporation, founders Judson and Sherry Phillips have said that any profit will be funneled back into the movement. "We have made the best of a tight budget and scaled back the price of attending this convention as much as we could without putting TPN into bankruptcy," Sherry Phillips wrote recently in an e-mail to members.
Still, other prominent voices in the movement remain furious. Erick Erickson, editor of RedState.com, a conservative blog, wrote that the convention "smells scammy." Two tea party groups, the American Liberty Alliance and the National Precinct Alliance, withdrew from the convention in protest, as did two featured speakers, Reps. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).
"It didn't sound 'tea party' to me," said Anthony Shreeve, 27, a tea party organizer from Tennessee who is boycotting the convention. "It sounded more like a regular Republican fundraiser."
Philip Glass, director of the National Precinct Alliance, said the convention "won't change anything." He said resources would be better spent working through the Republican Party system by helping conservatives take over local precincts, parties and, ultimately, elected offices.
"It's nothing more than a feel-good gathering of like-minded individuals doing nothing that's tangible or effective," Glass said. "Once those people leave there, what is it that they're going to do? Are they going to do something tangible? Or are they going to go home and just sit on the couch?"
Palin wrote that she decided to attend despite the controversy because she did not want to disappoint attendees.
"As with all grass-roots efforts, the nature of this movement means that sometimes the debates are loud and the organization is messier than that of a polished, controlled machine," she wrote. "Legitimate disagreements take place about tone and tactics. That's OK, because this movement is about bigger things than politics or organizers."
Staff writer Ann Gerhart contributed to this report.