Bud Kennedy

A ‘Tarrant’ Tea Party but with Midland money

Bumper stickers were available at the NE Tarrant Tea Party election watching party in November 2010
Bumper stickers were available at the NE Tarrant Tea Party election watching party in November 2010 Star-Telegram archives

The NE Tarrant Tea Party is now mostly one Midland money man’s Tea Party.

Oilman, Christian educator and Empower Texans Chairman Tim Dunn of Midland gave the Grapevine group’s political action committee $31,000, more than half its total in a Dec. 30 ethics report.

Founded six years ago as a spinoff of the Dallas Tea Party, the NE Tarrant Tea Party is now a statewide political force gathering money from West Texas and doling out gifts to candidates as far away as the Panhandle and San Antonio.

“Like a businessman, Mr. Dunn is investing in a group that is successful,” Rice University political science professor Mark P. Jones said by phone.

Dunn, also chairman of Empower affiliate Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, donated $13,000 July 19 and $18,000 Oct. 10. Odessa businessman Dick Saulsbury donated $12,000.

The largest gift from Northeast Tarrant County: $600.

With landslide victories in 2014 by former spokeswoman and now-state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, and state Rep. Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, the NE Tarrant group is considered a gatekeeper to reaching primary voters in the state’s reddest urban county.

Its candidates haven’t fared so well in nonpartisan and local elections.

But to movement Republicans, Jones said, “They’re good at branding — people across the state know the NE Tarrant Tea Party.”

If it sounds as if Tea Party groups are less about grassroots than greenbacks, Jim Riddlesperger, a TCU political science professor, said that was always a code name.

“I’m not sure ‘Tea Party’ ever had a single meaning,” he wrote by email. “Originally, it was more libertarian, but it has become more conservative Christian. … In Texas, it’s mostly used in concert with Ted Cruz.”

UT Arlington political science professor Rebecca Deen looked over the ethics report.

“It doesn’t particularly surprise me that there’s West Texas money coming in,” she wrote, to support “candidates … likely favorable to the oil and gas industry.”

Besides several $2,000-plus gifts to candidates, $1,474.36 went to Tea Party President Julie Sue McCarty of Grapevine or to her husband, Fred, to reimburse postage or event expenses.

About $900 went to rent NRH Centre.

When Marie Howard of the more independent-minded Keller Boiling Point Tea Party wrote in a September newsletter that Dunn paid for the rent and “money can sure buy you a lot of friends,” McCarty called it a “boldfaced [sic] lie.”

On Tuesday, Howard said: “Looks like I was right about Tim Dunn having power over them. … It’s supposed to be a grassroots movement and it’s looking like one wealthy individual has taken control.”

She said she and other Tea Party groups agree with the NE Tarrant group on many issues, but “these people with money want the Tea Parties to do their bidding.”

Just don’t claim it’s about Northeast Tarrant County.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, bud@star-telegram.com, @BudKennedy. His column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.