"Vermonters have a new ally in the battle against Big Government" - so began a recent press release announcing the arrival of FreedomWorks Vermont, a new local chapter of the national anti-tax organization. State Director Rob Roper, former media director for failed Senatorial candidate Jack McMullen, was on hand at the Statehouse last Thursday to introduce himself and answer questions from the press.
It's a shame that only one reporter and a handful of legislators were present. It's not every day that the true-blue Green Mountain State welcomes representatives from what liberal activists call the "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy."
Never heard of FreedomWorks? Understandable. The group, which supports President Bush's tax cuts, the privatization of Social Security and the elimination of the so-called "death tax," is less than a year old. It was launched after a July 2004 merger of conservative think tanks Citizens for a Sound Economy and Empower America.
CSE was headed by former House Republican Leader Dick Armey of Texas and C. Boyden Gray, advisor to the first President Bush. The two men co-chair FreedomWorks along with one-time Republican presidential candidate Jack Kemp. Empower America was run by values czar William Bennett; Donald Rumsfeld was a board member.
FreedomWorks was active during the 2004 election. An August 28 article in Salon linked the organization to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Last summer, FreedomWorks mobilized to put Ralph Nader on the ballot in key battleground states. The goal, according to the Oregon chapter's website at http://www.freedomworks.org/processor/printer_press.php?press_id=863  was to "drive a wedge through the Liberal Left's base of support." The Oregon effort failed; Nader was disqualified when it turned out that many of the signatures were fraudulent.
A copy of CSE's 1998 tax return, obtained by Public Citizen, showed significant contributions from industries that benefited from their work; Philip Morris gave more than $900,000 that year.
Who's paying this year's estimated $100,000 price tag for FreedomWorks Vermont? The group's website does not identify its donors. State chair Rob Roper says they already have 2000 members, but he confirms there are no actual dues. "Members" have merely signed up to receive an email newsletter.
Roper insists that the Vermont group - one of only 10 FreedomWorks chapters with paid staff - will focus mainly on local issues. Nationally the group is campaigning for President Bush's Social Security initiative; incidentally, co-chair Armey is now a lobbyist for a mutual fund trade group that stands to benefit from this privatization effort. A recent Newsweek article revealed that FreedomWorks has managed to bus and fly its activists to President Bush's town-hall meetings on Social Security privatization, where they've been introduced as average citizens.
Roper says this won't be happening here. Instead, he says he'd like to focus on attacking the "pro-big-government" agenda of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, the Conservation Law Foundation and the Peace and Justice Center. These groups, said Roper, "are taking away our freedoms little bit by little bit."
Even Vermont's conservative state legislators were cautious about aligning themselves with the controversial group, however. When asked at the press event if she supports FreedomWorks, House Republican leader Peg Flory said only, "I think that the more groups you have promoting citizen involvement, the better." Not exactly a ringing endorsement.