What's in a name? Only the true identity of a grass roots movement, says a federal lawsuit filed by a handful of tea party activists against the founders of Florida's new political party by the same name.
The activists argue that registering "Tea party'' as a political party with Florida election officials amounts to hijacking their populist uprising against the political establishment. In other words, a Tea party with a capital "T'' is no tea party at all.
"We don't want to become what we're fighting," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party and a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in West Palm Beach. "Filing as a political party is detrimental to everything we've done."
Orlando lawyer Fred O'Neal, who officially registered the "Tea party'' five months ago, acknowledged that he had never actually been to an official tea party. No matter. He said the "Tea'' in his party stands for "Taxed Enough Already."
"The t-e-a is what attracted me to the name," O'Neal said. "If I wanted to organize a party for the tea party movement, I would have called it the tea party movement party."
The legal dispute reflects the growing pains of the fledgling but potentially potent crusade against big government, deficit spending and pretty much anything on President Barack Obama's agenda. How it will influence Florida's most hectic election season in decades is a matter of dispute. Critics dismiss what they describe as a fringe movement, while tea party supporters warn not to write them off.
"If you look at the early stages of any political movement, there are disagreements about which rail to travel on," said Miami-based political consultant Michael Caputo, who is advising the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "Anyone who wants to close their eyes and think that we are going to disappear does so at their own risk."
The roughly 80 different tea party groups Wilkinson knows of in Florida alone — each with different names — reflect the challenges of organizing into a cohesive force.
Nationally, there is Tea Party Nation, the Tea Party Express and the Tea Party Patriots, among other groups named after the colonial rebellion against the British in 1773.
The tea party plaintiffs worry that the new political party is part of a cynical plan to prop up one candidate.
O'Neal represents Orlando political consultant and radio talk show host Doug Guetzloe, a well-known supporter of Republican Sen. Paula Dockery's long-shot bid for governor.
Guetzloe said he is only a volunteer on the Dockery campaign and contended that the tea party movement will fizzle unless it starts putting names on the ballot.
"They can go back to their street corner with nine people. We're going to register some candidates," said Guetzloe, who is also named as a defendant in the suit.
In the lawsuit, Wilkinson and the other plaintiffs are asking the court to allow them to continue using the tea party moniker and to stop the political party founders from trading on the name.
But O'Neal said the plaintiffs from South Florida, Naples and St. Augustine can't stop him from putting his stamp on the loosely organized movement.
"I got an e-mail from a lady who thought the tea party movement should be about banning the sale of tilapia," O'Neal said. "Anybody can say, 'I am the tea party movement.' "