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Sal Russo: Tea time

The 'Tea Party Express' strategist discusses his movement's relationship with the GOP establishment, the heated rhetoric of politics today and more.

October 02, 2010|Patt Morrison

Sal Russo is on a roll. Rolling from CNN to NPR, rolling off to Rome for a speech, rolling onto the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.

The man who's been a familiar operative in California politics for decades is now a national name. His Sacramento political consulting firm, Russo Marsh and Rogers, started up the Our Country Deserves Better PAC in 2008, added " Tea Party Express" to the PAC's name and mission in 2009, and the rest is, or could make, history. As a student in the 1960s, he found his way to Barry Goldwater's cause and then to Ronald Reagan's first campaign. In addition to a long history working with California's Republican stalwarts, he also supported the presidential hopes of Rudy Giuliani and Ross Perot.

Now he's raising and spending millions to promote "tea party" candidates around the country, money from people named Perot and Chuck Norris. That a nice chunk of money gets paid to Russo's firm as well — $479,353 in the last reporting period — irks some tea partyers but doesn't faze Russo; he says it's all that other money — deficit, budget, taxes — that's the message.

Are you troubled by the ad hominem tone in politics; for instance, a person questioning someone's patriotism just because the two of them disagree? How do you make it about issues and not let it turn into, say, President Obama is a Muslim-Kenyan-anti-colonialist?

That's a tough one. I would be happier with[out that]. I'm guilty of it myself sometimes; you get carried away, you make mistakes, you do things you kind of wish you wouldn't have done. Welcome to life.

Is there an ad or campaign you wish you hadn't put on?

I can think of one last year. It was something about Obama; it might have had to do with his unwillingness to repudiate Rev. Wright. We said that, but I think I concluded that he was being forthright. But at the time, we didn't think he was.

What about the "tea party"?

There's a misunderstanding of the movement. Its focus is on a belief that the growing intrusiveness of the federal government, accompanied by higher taxes, increasing deficit and skyrocketing national debt, is wrong. The Tea Party Express — that's the only thing we talk about. Some [other tea party groups] have ventured off into social issues.

All the efforts to stigmatize us.... We're going to hear about the crackpots, you know, the birthers, a bunch of nuts. We hear [tea partyers] are all a bunch of racists, but these [attacks] don't hold water.

Most people understand that there are odd people [in every group]. At a Dodgers game, I listened to the most bizarre conversation behind me; I kept thinking, how do people get such goofy ideas? I didn't think less of the Dodgers that there were a couple of nuts in the audience. I think less of the Dodgers for how poorly they played. I think most Americans look at [it] that way — there are odd ducks who show up.

Your colleague Mark Williams, the conservative activist and radio personality, called the NAACP racist and mocked its president on a blog. As a consequence, the National Tea Party Federation expelled announced it was expelling Williams and the Tea Party Express. What happened?

Mark was wrong. I think he would concede that that was a stupid thing to do. There's not a racist bone in his body. It was an unfortunate thing; it reflected maybe somewhat his sense of humor and provocative mannerisms, but it didn't reflect the kind of person he is. If you're going to be involved in a prominent role, then you've got to refrain from doing things that you might do in your normal life. He was just poking at the NAACP for being so partisan, and I don't have a problem with that. [The NAACP] clearly got off base calling everybody in the tea party a racist, and backed off.

At least $5 million or $6 million has come through your PAC, which you've spent on behalf of tea party favorites like Senate candidates Sharron Angle, Christine O'Donnell and Scott Brown. How does that work?

We don't have any major donors. We're a PAC, so we cannot accept corporate dollars. We're totally at the whim of [individual donors]. We don't have any cash reserves. We send e-mails out, we tell small donors what we want, and if they like it, they support it. [In a campaign], you raise money and then the campaign decides how to spend it. We're just the opposite. We have to tell the donors what we're going to do and then if they like it they give us the money.

Why do so many tea partyers regard the Republican establishment with suspicion?

The fact that a Republican Congress and Republican president didn't address fiscal issues very effectively fueled that. We actually had an earlier version of the tea party movement with Ross Perot. I went down to help Ross. For those who always say, "Well, you're just a Republican consultant," I guarantee nobody at the RNC was [doing that] then.

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