TALLAHASSEE — Trouble is brewing among Florida's tea parties.
A West Palm Beach group called Tea Party in Action is being criticized by other tea party groups who allege the organization is a front for the Republican Party of Florida and a hired gun for special interest groups in Tallahassee. The group's executive director, Marianne Moran, dismisses the allegations.
The issue came to a head last week when Moran testified before a Senate committee on behalf of a bill to ban unions from using payroll deduction to collect dues.
"What does this bill have to do with tea party principle of limited government?'' asked Henry Kelley, president of the Fort Walton Beach Tea Party, in a letter to senators. "I can't see why a Legislature focused on limited government in a right-to-work state wants to tell union people what to do with their paychecks.''
Other tea party critics complain that while Moran appears in front of lawmakers promoting her organization and an alliance of 130 other conservative groups, she doesn't speak for all tea party activists.
"Marianne Moran seems to be a tea party of one,'' said Apryl Marie Fogel of Americans For Prosperity, the conservative advocacy group founded by the Koch brothers. "I don't know anyone who has ever been to a meeting. She is one person who tries to sound like she is the spokesperson for the group."
Moran, 30, has spent much of the legislative session testifying before lawmakers on behalf of her year-old organization. She has moved to Tallahassee for the session and said she is paying her own expenses. She said she is not a registered lobbyist but an unpaid volunteer for the nonprofit political advocacy group.
In addition to the union dues issue, Moran has met with legislators and advocated in favor of the repeal of rules regulations and against a bill to impose a cigarette tax on Miami tobacco company Dosal.
Her organization paid for radio ads targeting Melbourne Republicans Sen. Thad Altman and Rep. John Tobia for sponsoring the tobacco surcharge measures.
Fogel's group also supports the bills to deregulate professions but has been silent on the issue of the tobacco tax and the union dues fight.
Moran says she speaks only for her organization and the agenda agreed upon by its board of directors. The board includes her father, James Moran, a Boynton Beach lawyer and two other people.
James Moran is asking Gov. Rick Scott to appoint him to the South Florida Water Management District board. Last summer, Marianne Moran organized a protest at the agency's headquarters of the U.S. Sugar purchase by the district. Scott was a featured speaker.
"When I speak, I only speak on Tea Party in Action views,'' Moran said. "However, when there have been other issues other groups have supported, I feel it is my duty to let legislators know."
She won't disclose donors to her organization but said they "have had plenty of meetings" and, based on her Facebook and Twitter accounts, estimates the numbers are "six to seven thousand."
Tea Party in Action's Facebook page lists 1,080 fans and Moran's Twitter account includes 178 followers. It was started about a year ago at about the same time Scott announced his gubernatorial campaign. The governor has used the group to push his legislative agenda.
Kelley of Fort Walton Beach said his members are frustrated that Moran's focus distracts from their attempt to keep pressure on lawmakers on fiscal issues.
"The issues she's on sound like she's carrying the RPOF's water," he said. "Yes, we align with a lot of Republican Party principles. That is not the same as supporting Republican Party politics.''
He said he tells his members to focus on holding their local legislators accountable and stay away from groups that claim to have a statewide focus.
Everett Wilkinson of the South Florida Tea Party Patriots worked with Moran in founding the South Florida Tea Party but has since parted ways. He said that Moran's organization is not the only one that attempts to present itself as a grassroots group.
"I want to make sure we stay legitimate and these other organizations are political consultants based in D.C. and don't represent the tea party," he said. "Unfortunately, no one owns the name Tea Party.''
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]