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.
State Rep. Glen Mulready, who carried legislation to establish a state health insurance marketplace in Oklahoma in 2011, was a top target of tea party activists and was challenged in the Republican primary in Tulsa by Darren Gantz, who worked with Tackett in Oklahomans for Liberty.
Gantz got less than 38 percent of the vote and raised about $31,000, with much of that coming from groups of trial lawyers opposed to tort reform.
Mulready raised about $74,000 for the primary, with financial support from medical and insurance groups, among others.
Tackett ran for a state House seat as a Republican and got 46 percent of the vote against Democrat Wade Rousselot, who received financial backing from a wide range of interest groups, many of which typically support Republicans.
Tackett and other tea party activists accused Fallin of helping Rousselot, of Wagoner, by allowing him to use a picture of the governor in his campaign materials.
Northrup, Fallin's chief of staff, seemed to cheer Tackett's defeat, even though he lost to a Democrat. Northrup referenced the race in an email after the election last year while noting that Tackett had confused Medicare and Medicaid in a blog posting.
“And nice to know we didn't elect someone who doesn't know the difference between medicare and medicaid for petes sake!!!!” Northrup wrote.
In November, Gerhart tried to rally his email following to call Fallin's office before she made decisions on whether to expand Medicaid or establish a health insurance exchange.
“Tell her that Medicaid shouldn't be expanded and that any form of Health Insurance Exchange will be a personal slap in your face that will be remembered come election time in 2014,” he wrote.
According to his own newsletters, which were emailed regularly to the governor's office and were among the 50,000 health care related documents released by the governor's office two weeks ago, Gerhart relished — and possibly embellished — his in-your-face tactics.
In a newsletter from April 2012 emailed to Fallin's aide Altshuler, Gerhart said he had confronted state Treasurer Ken Miller at the state Capitol about Miller's position as co-chairman of Mitt Romney's presidential campaign in Oklahoma.
“Miller had stepped up to be a Co Chair for the Romney campaign but quickly dropped out of sight after I collared him in the hallway of the Capitol on opening day of the legislative session. All it took was to remind him that he would be ripping the scab off what he and I had going back in 2010 and that the Ron Paul activists were itching to bring out the KenMillerLied.com signs…”
Gerhart was referring to an effort alleging Miller backed tax increases as a legislator, a charge Miller denied.
Miller's spokesman, Tim Allen, said last week that the treasurer recalled a brief conversation with Gerhart about their roles in the presidential race but didn't remember it being confrontational. Moreover, Allen said, Miller maintained an active role in Romney's campaign.