Conservative Activists Battle for Control of 'Tea Party' Name

A coalition of tea party activists in South Florida is accusing a well-known local radio host of trying to hijack their movement.

The Florida activists filed a lawsuit last month against Doug Guetzloe, lawyer Fred O'Neal and another associate after O'Neal filed papers last year with state officials registering the name "Tea Party" as an official political party -- and then allegedly warned other tea party groups to stop using that name.

The defendants made waves in the conservative activist movement by registering the tea party name since none of the other state tea party groups operate as an official party.

Guetzloe, who is also a political consultant, told Friday he's just trying to take the movement to the "next level" and start putting up candidates under a formal "Tea Party" flag.

The development comes as the National Tea Party Convention, led by an entirely separate organization, gets under way in Nashville.

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"If you don't move to the next level, which is actual political involvement, then you're not going to be able to have the impact you need to have," Guetzloe said.

But the Florida activists don't buy it. They allege Guetzloe's trying to shut down other tea party organizations in pursuit of a lucrative money-making scheme.

"They're not part of us. That's the key thing. ... We're trying to influence the parties, not become one," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party. "This is a political consultant who's trying to take advantage of the tea party movement. ... This is insulting."

Wilkinson was one of seven plaintiffs on the suit filed last month in U.S. District Court in South Florida. The suit is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court saying Guetzloe has nothing to do with the other tea party activists in the state and an order to stop him from threatening lawsuits against those groups using the "tea party" name.

Michael Caputo, a political consultant advising the plaintiffs, said Guetzloe and O'Neal have warned other tea party groups repeatedly not to use the "tea party" name. He said the underlying suspicion is that Guetzloe will use his organization to threaten to put up "tea party" candidates against politicians unless they pay him off in some way -- either by retaining him as a consultant or paying him in some other way.

"These guys are trying to mix themselves among the authentic activists to camouflage their activity," he said, referring to Guetzloe and the co-defendants, including O'Neal.

Caputo pointed to the consultant's history of "shenanigans." According to local reports, the Orlando Magic acknowledged a few years back that it had arranged for a $200,000 payment to Guetzloe's consulting firm to silence opposition against a new arena.

But Guetzloe described the speculation about his tea party motives as "absurdity."

He said he's only interested in providing a platform for candidates to run and that he'll announce the "first-in-the-nation tea party candidates" running under his party name in the coming weeks, mostly for state legislative offices.

He argued that his group, which he said has 6,000 supporters, is the real deal and denied that he and O'Neal are trying to stop other groups from using the "tea party" name.

"Florida Tea Party" is the only name that should be off limits for other organizations, he said, adding that he will file a "motion to dismiss" against the other activists' suit.

"No one's claimed copyright or anything like that," he said. "The Florida Tea Party does indeed represent tea party movement people. It may not represent some of the leaders of some of the tea party movements."

The lawsuit cites e-mails from O'Neal that warned tea party activists not to use the phrase "Florida Tea Party," but claims the defendants are trying to ban the more generic term, "tea party," altogether.