Guest Post: Healthcare Hecklers: Grassroots or Harris & Ehrlich Proxy

Periodically we are going to have guest posts to this blog from all sides of the political spectrum. We give each guest the opportunity to write about anything they want and their posts are unedited by this blog. The first guest post is written by Steve Lebowitz also affectionately known as “justdafacts”. See his post below:

Healthcare Hecklers: Grassroots or Harris & Ehrlich Proxy

Professional and well funded Astroturf operations on both sides of the healthcare debate have attracted national attention, but little has been said about their presence in Maryland. Someone from the other team can ferret out pro-Democratic activity in the Free State; I’m after Republicans.

At least two Washington groups tied to the GOP have set up camp in Maryland with an emphasis on targeting Rep. Frank Kratovil:

Americans For Prosperity (AFP)

  • Consistent with its record of moving into states either during tight races or after Democrats win tight races, AFP appeared in Maryland, its 25th state, soon after Rep. Kratovil narrowly won a packed Republican district.
  • AFP hired Maryland state director Dave Schwartz, a longtime Ehrlich aide, straight from the Harris congressional campaign. Mr. Schwartz stayed on with the Harris campaign after the election, drawing his last paycheck on February 1, 2009; by March 2, 2009 he was blogging on the AFP website on behalf of “AFP Maryland.” From Harris to AFP—Same goal, new boss.
  • Another 1st CD GOP activist, Nick Loffer, appears to be on the AFP payroll. Nothing wrong with that [correct me if I’m wrong, Mr. Loffer] but it underscores the absurdity of AFP’s claim to be a non-partisan organization.
  • AFP Maryland’s volunteer affiliate, AFP Lower Shore, has been a principle promoter of anti-Kratovil protests, although they were not responsible for the effigy incident as widely reported elsewhere.

AFP has been busy in Maryland with much more than drumming up opposition to Rep. Kratovil, but Mr. Schwartz or a spokesperson from AFP would be strained to deny that targeting the 1st CD incumbent isn’t high on the agenda. We won’t know for a long time how much money AFP is spending on its agenda right now, but in 2007, the most recent year for which I could get my hands on their returns, AFP and AFP Foundation spent $9.5 million in 20 states. That’s a lot of “change in a teabag.”

In 2007 the going rate for AFP state directors was $72,000 to $115,000 annually, and that year AFP reported a combined $2.3 million in payments for “consulting. Would someone please call the Ehrlichs’ WBAL radio show tomorrow morning and ask if AFP or any of its affiliates are paying his firm’s Strategic Communications Team or any other entity of his firm for any services. Gov. Ehrlich remains the Maryland GOP’s eight hundred pound elephant, and he forgot to mention his ties to Mr. Schwartz last week on his radio show (he has disclosed that in prior appearances) so it’s fair to ask what role he might be playing in Maryland’s take on the tea party/town hall craze.

Institute For Liberty

This boutique of a Washington conservative political operation is part think tank and part action center. Its prolific president, Queen Anne’s County resident and Maryland GOP central committee member Andrew Langer, is no stranger to these pages. By coincidence of residence if for no other reason, Mr. Langer has trained the resources of his organization on Rep. Kratovil. The Institute For Liberty ran an orderly picket of a Kratovil district office [notice the AFP sign in the photo], and somehow, Mr. Langer’s “personal press release” picking on Rep. Kratovil found its way onto the Institute For Liberty’s Scribd page, alongside lofty tomes like, “Property Rights: Twin Promises for Postwar Iraq” and “How to Brew a Tea Party.”

What if, after all the tea parties, tracking, and district office pickets, Andy Harris loses the GOP primary to Sen. Pipkin or another ambitious colleague? No matter; re-election might be a squeaker for Rep. Kratovil, but there’s more to the 1st C.D. electorate than tea partiers, and many of those attending his town hall meetings have been leaving very pleased with the way their new congressman handles his job. I predict his re-election.

– Steve Lebowitz, Annapolis

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10 Responses

  1. I thought I was a hack for Pelura and Lollar – now I’m supposed to be flacking for Ehrlich and Harris?

    But I guess this is what MarylandPoliticsBlog is becoming known for: bizarre stabs in the dark in a vain attempt to be right about something, anything.

    Keep trying, guys – even a blind squirrel finds a nut from time to time.

    • Andrew –
      Can you deny the truth of anything in my post?

      I said two well funded Washington conservative organizations are targeting Frank Kratovil, Americans For Prosperity, and your Institute For Liberty (IFL) and I supported my claim pertaining to your organization with the following facts:
      1. IFL organized a healthcare protest at Frank Kratovil’s district office; and

      2. IFL published your personal presser criticizing Frank Kratovil, which I see IFL pulled from Scribd in a commendable manner.

      You must realize how amusing it is to watch Republicans and conservative movement leaders (many of whom, like you, wear both hats) falling over themselves to call the tea party craze “spontaneous” on the one hand while inspiring, organizing, and promoting the events all over the airwaves, the internet, and the newspapers on the other hand.

      Concerning your previous coverage on Maryland Politics Blog, I had nothing to do with that. I was invited to submit the guest column featured above. When linking the blog’s previous coverage, I was careful to include a post linking your rebuttal.

      – Steve Lebowitz

      • Yes, I actually do take issue with a number of the “facts” you state, your characterization of them, and your overall methodology – starting from the basic criticism I initially had with this blog, which is that if you have questions about me, any activities I’m involved in personally or professionally, or what the organization I run is up to, why don’t you try asking me before you start pontificating?

        Let’s start with your thesis, which is that IFL (and I’m not speaking on behalf of AFP here – they’re a completely separate organization and I wouldn’t deign to speak on their behalf) is an “astroturf” operation acting as a “proxy” for Ehrlich and Harris.

        a) “Astroturf” doesn’t just imply, but alleges that any grassroots activities that we are engaged in are fake (astroturf, ie, “fake grass”). At any point that we have encouraged, as an organization, for people to show up at events, the people showing up at events are real people, with real concerns, who have shown up of their own volition. Unlike the fake protesters on the other side of these issues, we haven’t had to plead for people to show up, haven’t emailed lists of individual IFL supporters asking them to show up, haven’t PAID people to show up or offered other “freebies” (like free t-shirts) for people to show up.

        What I find amusing is that the left has continuously accused the right of that which it has done time and time again. We don’t pay people to protest – we wouldn’t do that, even if we were “well-funded” enough to do so (which we are not).

        So “astroturf” = not a fact.

        b) IFL hasn’t spoken on behalf of any candidate for office, and most assuredly neither former Governor Ehrlich or State Sen. Andrew Harris. While we have organized a rally in Centreville, MD (which happens to be my home), we were focusing on the legislative record of Rep. Frank Kratovil, and his potential vote on health care. Andy Harris isn’t the only announced or potential candidate to challenge Kratovil for CD-1, and it is mere speculation on your part (and certainly not fact) for you to assume that any effort to criticize Kratovil would be done on Harris’ behalf.

        For all you know, I could be laying the ground work for my own run for CD-1.

        As regards Ehrlich, as I said earlier, I was accused to being a shill for Lollar’s gubernatorial campaign, a campaign that presumably would have been running against Ehrlich. So, in all of my work organizing events, am I acting as a proxy for two competitors for Governor?

        “proxy” = not a fact

        “At least two Washington groups tied to the GOP have set up camp in Maryland with an emphasis on targeting Rep. Frank Kratovil”

        IFL hasn’t “set up camp” in Maryland. I live here. IFL is a DC-based organization focused primarily on federal public policy issues (with the occasional foray into state issues around the nation). We haven’t emphasized targeting Rep. Kratovil any more than we have criticized just about any other elected official. You note that we have issued press releases and organized rallies regarding Rep. Kratovil. We have issued press releases criticizing Rod Blogojevich, too, and dealt with public policy issues in Illinois. We’ve criticized Reps. Mollohan and Jefferson (D-LA). Duke Cunningham. The Bush White House. The Obama White House.

        We’ve also criticized the GOP, too, so to say that we have “ties” to the GOP isn’t really the entire story.

        So, “camp” and “targeting Kratovil” = not facts.

        As to that press release, I wasn’t aware that it was on our Scrib’d site, so thank you for calling that to my attention. IFL hasn’t used that Scrib’d account in several months, and I’m dismayed that the release was on there, because I’ve tried to be as careful as possible in separating my IFL activities from any personal political activities I’ve done.

        On the issue of organizing events, organizing an event in Centreville, and on the issue of spontaneity. Despite what my good friend Phil Kerpen might have said, really, the basic criticism has been this issue of whether or not the Tea Parties themselves have been organic versus inorganic (ie, real versus fake grassroots), right?

        I mean, nobody is suggesting that, with regards to the Tea Parties, people just coincidentally all showed up on Court House lawns, etc. The accusation is that their anger is manufactured, that they’re not real people, etc.

        One cannot have a rally without there being some “organization”. And in Maryland, many officials have made it supremely difficult to have a rally without some ACTUAL big-“o” Organization running it (a lot of localities, for instance, are demanding “proof of insurance” before permitting these rallies to take place, despite the fact that this is ‘prior restraint’ in violation of the participants’ 1st Amendment rights). And most individuals don’t have insurance for events that, say, a hundred or so people (or more) might attend.

        So, logistically speaking, for a Tea Party event, some individual or group of individuals has to be filling out the forms, putting together an agenda, getting speakers, getting a stage, figuring out who is bringing the sound equipment, etc.

        But that doesn’t change the fact that people have to actually show up. IFL is only starting to have “members” per se, and we have very few in Maryland. So I don’t have a list of people (like Organizing for America does, or does, or the SEIU or UFCW or AFL-CIO or ProgressiveMD does). If I want people to show up at events, I e-mail people I know. I email people I know who will e-mail people they know. Other people will do the same thing.

        But the people themselves have to show up – I can’t make them go, and as I said, I can’t pay them to go (as has been demonstrated that the left is doing). And I’ve been involved in the free-market/limited-government movement long enough to know that it is incredibly hard to get people to take time out of their busy schedules (running businesses, engaging in family responsibilities, etc) to come to an event.

        So I’m pleased when more than 25 people show up to an event. That tells me a great deal. When 100 people show up, it tells me even more. When a thousand show up? That’s big.

        I spoke at the Tea Party at Solomon’s Island in March. 600 people showed up down there. I expected maybe 75. That told me something. 2000 people showing up in Annapolis in the driving rain in April? 200 people showing up in CHESTERTOWN in April, in the same freezing cold and driving rain?

        That’s not astroturf, by any stretch of the imagination.

        Here’s my point, Steve – all of this could have been cleared up had you merely contacted me and asked me, before writing your story. Heck, the worst that could have happened is that I’d have said, “no comment”, which you could have used in your story. And I think it would have been a better blog. In fact, the whole post was tailor made for questions, like:

        1) Has IFL set up camp in Maryland for the purposes of targeting Rep. Frank Kratovil?

        2) Aren’t you really serving as a proxy for Andy Harris and/or Bob Ehrlich?

        3) Aren’t your rallies really “astroturf” as opposed to genuine “grassroots’?

        4) Why did IFL choose to organize a rally in Centreville?

        5) If you’re not targeting Rep. Kratovil, why was a personal press release posted to IFL’s website?

        6) Do you consider the Tea Parties to be “spontaneous”? How about the rallies at Town Hall meetings?

        and so on. And you could have asked follow-up questions, we could have had a dialogue, and it would have been far more meaningful – both for your efforts, and for the education of your readers, and the readers of this blog.

        At the very least, it would have been a courteous gesture, and one that could have generated not only a great deal of good-will, but perhaps even engendered a sense of informational give and take between the two of us.

        Steve, you write under the nom de plume “JustDaFacts”. But that’s not quite accurate, because while you do present “facts” (ie, it’s a fact that IFL sponsored a rally), you also offer up a tremendous amount of your own conjecture, your own interpretation.

        So please, if you’re going to present facts, stick to the facts. If you’re going to offer conjecture, be up front and don’t try to represent that your conjecture is “fact”. A

        And if you’re unclear about something I’m doing, something IFL is doing, or really anything pertaining to my activities, please, just ask. If it’s something I can answer, I will do my best to do so. If I cannot, then I’ll tell you so.

        – Andrew Langer

      • Agree with Andrew that these protests and tea parties are definitely not astroturf. The passions are very deep against this health care reform bill and the taxes Obama has supported. I think candidates belittle these protesters to their own peril. The 2010 elections should show us if I am right.

        At the same time Andrew, this is a blog not a newspaper or major media outlet. There is no requirement to do interviews with people prior to posting things. Steve had some items that supported his thesis and you have made a case of why you think his thesis is wrong. I think this debate is positive.

      • TR and Steve:

        I know this isn’t a newspaper or major media outlet. On the other hand, your blog touts itself as being an outlet for not just insight, but “breaking news.” This blog has represented to me that, like real journalists, they check multiple sources on stories before printing them – so at least you’re trying to check that journalistic box.

        When IFL sends out a press release, we double-check our facts. When I sent out my press release about Kratovil’s stimulus vote, I called his office first to get his side of the story.

        All I’m saying in these instances is, I’m not some inaccessible pol who is far too important for you to drop me an e-mail asking me if I have any comment on the allegations you or someone on your blog is prepared to make.

        It’s not only a matter of courtesy – I also think you’d get a better story for your website. Not to mention opening up a dialogue with someone who might be a source down the road.

  2. Thoughtful reply, Andrew, and I’m pleased to learn more about your philosophy. I’ve said on blogs earlier that I admire your work.

    I agree with trmeckeldin, one of our hosts on these pages. You can expect a poster to be factually accurate–and indeed I have been–but I’m a blog poster, not a reporter. I won’t interview people and report their spin. You seem like a genuinely sincere guy and I’m sure we could have a nice chat, but you oughta see some of my email exchanges with Greg Massoni. Don’t hold your breath; no one ever will. Are you suggesting I call the Womble gang for comment every time I push back on Gov. Ehrlich?

    Not long ago I took a prominent Maryland blogger to task for failing to report a denial that I did indeed give him prior to his posting an accusatory blog entry. The venue wouldn’t even give me the courtesy of posting my rebuttal on its pages, so I had to do that elsewhere. If you had posted something to the effect of, “appearances aside, I’m not targeting Frank Kratovil,” of course I would have noted that before offering my information contradicting your statement.

    In the shorthand of the medium, I cut you plenty of slack. For example, after identifying you as a Kent Islander, I said in my original post,

    By coincidence of residence if for no other reason, Mr. Langer has trained the resources of his organization on Rep. Kratovil, which allows for the fact that you’ve focused your attention on Frank Kratovil because he’s your congressman.

    Whether you’ve criticized the GOP or not, you can’t get around your personal ties to the party. You’re a locally elected party official; you posted the notice of the Kratovil protest on a Republican party blog; and whether by accident or not, someone in your organization thought it was a good idea to post your partisan political work on the Institute for Liberty’s document publication page. That’s not a big deal per se, but it supports my position.

    You point out that Institute for Liberty has criticized other elected officials over the years, but how many protests have you organized at their offices, as you did at Rep. Kratovil’s?

    So I don’t buy your premise that all this could have been “cleared up” had I interviewed you prior. You would have given me your spin, and I would have spun it right back at you. The ladies and gentlemen of the press try to sort all this out in their professional quest for the truth, but here we slug it out until someone cries uncle, letting the many readers who drill down the comments sections of blog posts judge for themselves.

    Let’s hear from Americans for Prosperity’s Dave Schwartz!

    – Steve Lebowitz

    ps – Hundreds and sometimes thousands of angry people have been showing up at tea parties and healthcare town halls, but it’s no great feat considering the single-minded focus of Fox News Channel, which has been little more than a nonstop infomercial for the “spontaneous” craze over the past months, as well as countless hours of high wattage talk radio time. Those media have a highly responsive fan base large enough to make noise, but too small to win elections, and their exposure hurts them more than it helps them. – SL

  3. See – now THIS is what I’m talking about!

    “You point out that Institute for Liberty has criticized other elected officials over the years, but how many protests have you organized at their offices, as you did at Rep. Kratovil’s?”

    Perfect – GREAT question! In fact I just had a meeting with some Tea Party organizers in California to offer advice on how they can hold a Tea Party rally in front of their member’s office, and we’ve talked to other groups about what they might be doing for “RecessRally” day, which is supposed to be this Saturday.

    This follows on from the July 17th Rallies on health care, which were suggested by Tea Party Patriot Coordinators Amy Kremer and Jenny Beth Martin (whom I’d worked with on the National Tax Day Tea Party event) – and they’re the ones who were pushing on a nationwide basis for the events to happen in front of Congressional offices (not many were happening in front of Congressional offices prior to that point).

    The “RecessRally” events build on what happened on July 17, and are similarly supposed to be in front of congressional offices. I don’t know what’s going on in the 1st CD this Saturday.

    But in terms of July 17, seeing how Kratovil’s primary office is in Centreville, it was only natural that I get involved in organizing this one. I was plugged in to what Kremer and Martin had suggested, and at the same time I knew who to talk to about getting permits in Centreville (which, in the end, we wound up not needing, but that’s a whole ‘nother story).

    In terms of other rallies, however, we were one of the sponsors of the National Tax Day Tea Party website, were one of the groups helping to put together the DC Tax Day Tea Party (as well as the Annapolis one), and we’re one of the sponsors of the 912 event in September. IFL has participated in rallies in a number of other congressional districts in Maryland, and in a number of different states.

    As I said, great, straightforward question – and I think I’ve answered it in a straightforward manner.

  4. Andrew –

    Nice long spin, but my question was,

    “….how many protests have you organized at their [other elected officials’] offices, as you did at Rep. Kratovil’s?

    and the simple answer is “none.”

    You’re a prolific guy doing many things, but If you can’t recognize that one of those things is targeting Frank Kratovil, then the only person you’re fooling is yourself.

    Whether this benefits Andy Harris, another candidate, the Republican party, or the agenda of the Institute for Liberty is a secondary matter. I put Sen. Harris and Gov. Ehrlich in the original headline because AFP’s Dave Schwartz is allied with both.

    I included a salient piece of information not previously reported: that Mr. Schwartz was on the Harris campaign payroll through February 2009, and then appeared on the AFP paid roster the very next month. He moved directly from the Harris campaign to AFP Maryland, and AFP Maryland appeared here after Kratovil won the 1st CD seat. AFP has a record of moving into states either during tight races or after Democrats win tight races.

    David Schwartz’s employment history is a sleeper compared to the biggest question I raised in the post: Is AFP or any of its affiliates paying Gov. Ehlrich’s firm or any of its affiliates for any services at this time or in the past, or are they under contract to pay Womble Carlyle-Baltimore for any services?

    It’s a fair question, since I reported that AFP and AFP Foundation paid consultants around the country $2.3 million in 2007, the most recent year for which I could obtain their 990’s. If AFP is a Womble Carlyle-Baltimore client, the Ehrlichs owe their listeners an apology for not disclosing as much when they’ve plugged and hosted AFP on their radio show.

    Henry Fawell isn’t taking my calls; is he taking yours?

    – Steve Lebowitz

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