Sal Russo: Tea time

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.

Yet you've mostly worked with California establishment GOP candidates like former Gov. George Deukmejian, Jack Kemp and your friend, state Sen. Ken Maddy. All were moderate conservatives; they probably wouldn't be tea partyers. The Maddy Institute website even says he was "dumped by conservatives because he was not partisan enough."

That gets into definition of terms. [Maddy] wasn't moderate in the sense that he had strong opinions and strong views and was very conservative, in my opinion.

And what about the criticism that you are making money on the tea party movement?

I think our record speaks for itself. We've taken on the Republican establishment in every single campaign we've been involved in. The establishment Republican [in the 1982 California gubernatorial campaign] was Mike Curb, not Deukmejian. Jack Kemp was never in the establishment. My whole career has been working kind of on the anti-establishment side.

"Tea Party Express"' is a hot brand. Do you compete with other tea party groups for money, bodies, attention?

It's a hot brand because we made it one. Our view is the more the merrier. We've never seen it as competition.

What do you especially like about your Tea Party Express gig?

When I worked with Reagan in the 1960s, [he] would leave [after] a speech [to] what he thought was kind of a duddy group and say, "Well, I'm afraid that's another eat, meet and retreat group."' I was 19 in 1966, and I've been determined since then that whenever I'm involved in anything, it's going to have few meetings and few eatings and no retreatings.

What do you make of it when Karl Rove criticizes Christine O'Donnell's candidacy?

I consider Karl a friend. I normally agree with his analysis, but I think he's wrong in this case. Welcome to America.

You helped spark the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis in California. At the time, you were quoted as saying conservative Tom McClintock shouldn't run for governor because he'd be a spoiler for a Republican candidate. How do you square that with the fact that tea party candidates are spoiling Republicans' chances in general elections?

I would use one of Jack Kemp's favorite quotes, "You have to be in concert with the zeitgeist of the times." In some years when we have peace and prosperity, the first question someone might pose to [a politician] is, do we have enough parks? But there are times like now when people are gravely concerned.

We look for two things in candidates [now]: Are they concerned [about] growing federal government, higher taxes, increasing deficit and national debt? Then, character traits: Are they the kind of people that don't mind saying no? Both parties have a tendency to the get-along, go-along of Washington. (It should happen a little more in Sacramento!)

In 1980 nationally, we elected all these U.S senators that nobody expected to win, a lot of them with little or no experience. For six years they were absolutely stalwart in promoting the Reagan agenda, which changed America, changed the world. A lot of those people lost six years later when the zeitgeist was different.

Are these people [running in November] going to have 30 years in politics? Probably many won't. But at this point, when the economy is the focal point — we can't have a Congress full of them, but we need more than we have today.

So these newcomers can be passionate and enthusiastic but may not know some constitutional principles and how government is designed to work? It's like getting in a car to go from L.A. to San Francisco but not knowing how to drive?

When we do focus groups, sometimes I walk out shaking my head. You give [some people] the Bill of Rights, and they'll say, "This is a bad idea." What it takes is a good leader to say, "No, this is what America stands for, and here's why," and Americans will say, "You're right."

Sometimes the press will go to a tea party rally, find some poor person who doesn't really know anything, ask them provocative questions and get answers that don't really make any sense and then generalize, "This is just a bunch of kooks." No, it's just Americans. They don't know all the details, but they know something's wrong and they want a leader that will get us out of this.

You and former Speaker of the Assembly Willie Brown would agree on few things, but one of them would be opposing term limits.

I'm not sure what the answer is. You get people in office too long, they outlive their usefulness, and that's a huge problem; how do you get them out? Your reporters will tell you: Everyone knows who the crooks are, who the stupid ones are, who the lazy ones are, who the worthless ones are. It's never reflected in the [newspaper] endorsements of candidates.

Term limits became the only way to get rid of people because the political class wouldn't do it. The problem with term limits is that we have no institutional knowledge anymore. People are trying to climb to the next office rather than do a good job. The effects have been disastrous. I don't know what the right answer is, I really don't.

Could the tea party be an enduring third party?

I don't think that's anybody's serious plan. My guess is the parties will get more responsible on fiscal issues, so there won't be the need to go to that extreme.

This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. Online archive:

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