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Tea party pressure shows up in Oklahoma governor's office emails about Obamacare

Tea party activists used aggressive tactics to pressure Oklahoma lawmakers and Gov. Mary Fallin to reject Obamacare, and some claimed victory, though they didn't do as well in elections
by Chris Casteel Published: April 15, 2013
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photo - Al Gerhart Co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party
Al Gerhart Co-founder of the Sooner Tea Party

Tea party groups in Oklahoma used aggressive tactics and language to warn Gov. Mary Fallin and state lawmakers against backing any aspect of Obamacare, and they succeeded in “beating the crap” out of the governor's office, according to emails released by Fallin's office.

The loose affiliation of groups under the tea party banner organized calls and email-writing campaigns to the state Capitol and a protest in Tulsa to pressure the governor. Though it's not clear from internal emails how much real influence they had, the groups, and some of the individuals behind them, clearly had the attention of the governor's top aides.

An email from Fallin's policy director, Katie Altshuler, to governors' aides in other states in March 2011 addresses a federal health care grant accepted by Fallin and says “we are getting the crap beat out of us for accepting the early innovator grant by tea party and most legislators.”

Then, late last year, Fallin's chief of staff, Denise Northrup, alerted another aide to a blog written by David Tackett, who founded a group called Oklahomans for Liberty, and said “we'll want to follow what he's spewing this session.”

The head of the Sooner Tea Party, Al Gerhart, credited a robocall effort by the group to state lawmakers for killing a bill in 2011 to establish state marketplaces for buying insurance.

“Our battles aren't pretty, few fist fights are, but the battles we fight have made the Sooner Tea Party the most politically feared group in the state,” Gerhart, of Oklahoma City, wrote in a recent email newsletter.

Tea party groups may claim an outsized role in killing Obamacare initiatives in the state but at least they were on top of the legislative process and the timing of key decision points.

A group supporting Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma gathered more than 5,000 signatures on a petition and gave it to Fallin in February — weeks after she had announced her decision to reject the expansion.

Logs kept by Fallin's office indicate that before she made her decision, calls and correspondence from opponents of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, far exceeded those of supporters.

‘Teach them a lesson'

In a newsletter a year ago, Gerhart laid out his electoral philosophy while seeking donations for state legislative races.

“You know that we will stretch those dollars in inventive ways and club our targets without mercy,” he wrote. “You also know that we pick our targets very carefully, if we go after them we are going to hurt them politically and make them think twice about acting up again.

“We don't have to defeat them, we just have to teach them a lesson.”

Gerhart, 54, was charged in Oklahoma County last week with trying to blackmail a state senator into considering a piece of legislation.

Long before that, other tea party groups distanced themselves from him, with the head of the Muskogee tea party calling him “extreme fringe.”

And despite Gerhart's thoughts about teaching lessons to incumbents, it was actually some of the tea party activists who got schooled last year.

Ronda Vuillemont-Smith, one of the leaders of the Tulsa-based tea party group called the 912 Project, which organized an Obamacare protest outside of a speech by Fallin, was defeated in a Republican primary by state Sen. Mike Mazzei.

Continue reading this story on the...

by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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