The anti-reform movement is fueled by upstart, Web-savvy groups and by… (Carolyn Kaster )
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.