Orlando-based political consultant Doug Guetzloe died this week. I made my opinion about him well known during his life, and would not normally feel compelled to rehash warnings about someone who no longer poses a threat, but the Orlando Sentinel‘s sloppy journalism has compelled me to correct their mistakes and defend the legacy of the legitimate tea party activists in Central Florida.

I started blogging in May 2010 in no small part over my frustration at the Sentinel’s repeated failures to accurately cover local politics, especially on the conservative side. I lost track of the number of Central Florida events I attended where I would see Marc Caputo (when he was with the Miami Herald; he’s now at Politico Florida), Adam Smith (Tampa Bay Times), George Bennett (Palm Beach Post), and other out-of-town reporters, but no one from the Sentinel. Unsurprisingly, their reporting often contained obvious bias, if not wild inaccuracies.

Regarding Guetzloe, the Sentinel thought he was worthy of a front page obituary but apparently couldn’t be bothered to do even the most rudimentary of research about him; they seem to be incapable of searching their own article archives.

Front page of the Orlando Sentinel, dated February 9, 2018.

This effusively flattering obituary piece reads like it was written by whichever Guetzloe acolyte is responsible for editing his Wikipedia page  (seriously — the latest edit mentions his involvement in a political battle over a Winter Garden trailer park but conveniently omits the $1.61 million defamation judgment entered against him for falsely claiming that a political opponent in that matter was a pedophile), giving him credit for defeating tax increases simply because he claimed that credit and skipping over some of the most notorious aspects of his biography.

Most egregious of all is a paragraph at the beginning of the article, in which Guetzloe is described as “best known for creating a tax watchdog group, Ax the Tax, and as a founder of the Tea Party movement in Florida.”

Guetzloe was a founder of the tea party movement?

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That’s funny. I remember being in Orlando when the tea party was just getting started and Guetzloe had absolutely nothing to do with it.

This was less than a decade ago, in 2009 after fiscal conservatives were alarmed at the agenda being advanced by President Barack Obama, who had just been inaugurated that January. A nationwide tea party conference call was organized by Christina Botteri and Michael Patrick Leahy on February 20, 2009.

Jason Hoyt was on that call, and with the help of fellow local Republican activists including Linda O’Keefe, Suzette Carter, Phil Russo, Rick Richbourg, they held the first tea party rally in Orlando on February 27, 2009, in conjunction with fifty other events around the country.

Another rally was held on March 21, 2009, organized by Bud Heddinger, a conservative talk radio host on 540WFLA, along with Lisa Ferioli and Shelly Ferguson.

The big event that really got the ball rolling was the Tax Day Tea Party, held on April 15, 2009, of course. Locally, Barbara Seidenberg and Tom Tillison joined with Hoyt and his team to organize the Orlando event. Around 850 events were held all over the United States that day, attracting major media attention.

Other early tea party activists include Peter and Kelli Lee, who formed — and still run — the East Side Tea Party, and Clyde Fabretti and Ron McCoy, the founders of the West Orlando Tea Party.

There were of course many other people involved at various levels to launch this new political movement — my apologies for anyone I have omitted — but Doug Guetzloe was not among them. 

Again, this was all less than a decade ago, when newspapers were already online. This information is readily available and I know for a fact that many of these legitimate tea party activists were frequently featured and quoted in local news stories — including those published by the Sentinel.

Moreover, not only was Guetzloe not involved in helping form or support the tea party movement in Florida, he actively worked to oppose it and personally targeted many of the legitimate tea party activists involved. 

As the tea party movement gained in strength, Guetzloe sought to capitalize on its popularity in 2010 by forming a political party named the “Florida Tea Party.” Again, Guetzloe was not involved in the actual tea party, nor was Fred O’Neal, his attorney who helped him organize his new political party.

Guetzloe had O’Neal send threatening letters to tea party groups across Florida, claiming that his political party had the sole right to identify as a “tea party” and demanding that they change their names or face lawsuits.

None of the candidates Guetzloe recruited to run under his new party’s banner were involved in the actual tea party. Many of them had zero political experience whatsoever. The “Florida Tea Party” had registered with the Florida Division of Elections to appear as “TEA” on ballots, and the strategy was obvious: to divide conservative votes and defeat Republican candidates who had refused to hire Guetzloe as a political consultant or otherwise opposed him. Guetzloe had been ejected from the Orange County Republican Executive Committee for violation of party rules and his new political party was viewed as a tool of revenge for him to strike back.

Florida has long been a swing state and many legislative and congressional districts that have historically elected Republicans only did so by a single digit margin. If the “Florida Tea Party” had been able to peel off just a few points in these districts, that might have been enough to make a safe seat a toss-up, or even flip it to a Democrat.

This was perhaps most galling regarding former Congressman Alan Grayson‘s original district. Even before his election, Grayson had a reputation in the local political scene as an abrasive loudmouth (or, as the more favorable media reports would describe him, a “firebrand”) and was one of the top targets for conservatives seeking to restore the Republican majority in Congress.

Guetzloe recruited a woman named Peg Dunmire to run for Congress in Grayson’s district. To the best of my knowledge, she had never run for office before that 2010 race and has not attempted to do so since then. The Sentinel covered this race in multiple articles, including Dunmire’s entry in the race and criticisms that she was a spoiler candidate, as well as the threatened legal action between Guetzloe’s “Florida Tea Party” and the legitimate tea party organizations.

“It was a dirty, underhanded attempt to influence the election,” Tillison told The Capitolist in a phone interview Friday afternoon.

WKMG investigative reporter Tony Pipitone found multiple ties between Guetzloe and Grayson, and many speculated that Guetzloe was running his political party not only to seek revenge against Republicans who had crossed him, but specifically to benefit Grayson. This video discusses some of the money trail connections Pipitone discovered, along with the debate over TEA candidates as spoilers:

On June 24, 2010, the Central Florida Tea Party Council, an umbrella organization formed to represent multiple local tea party organizations, held a press conference to publicly denounce Guetzloe’s fake political party and his attacks on their groups and members. In attendance were many of the original Central Florida tea party activists, including Hoyt, Tillison, and Peter Lee.

Guetzloe also showed up, along with a group of young men, who crowded around the tea party activists in an obvious attempt to physically intimidate them.

In this video from the press conference, Guetzloe can be clearly seen standing behind Tillison as Hoyt is speaking, repeatedly interrupting Hoyt with comments and insults.

Guetzloe did not limit his rude behavior to the press conference. In a Facebook post on Friday, Peter Lee denounced the Sentinel’s coverage and described how Guetzloe had personally insulted him before the press conference began:

This is another example of poor reporting by the Orlando Slantinel. Doug Guetzloe was not a founder of the Tea Party Movement. I am personally friends with many who were. He created a political party called the Tea Party to capitalize on the Tea Party Movement of which I and others were a part. You can view a press conference here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w6ldSOhH98E where we set the record straight years ago. Doug is there, acting rude and foolish. He has been, and was at the time, a political consultant. Politics was how he made money. On the day in the video above, he walked up me and said “I’d shake your hand, if you had any.” I have no fingers. This is the quality of the man being remembered in this article.

Earlier he was banned from being a part of the Orange County Republican Executive Committee. Of course, I pray he has repented and is restored to glory in heaven, but he was no saint on earth. To associate this man with the volunteer movement of the Tea Party is an insult to the movement. I do not take pleasure in his death, but let’s get the facts about his life straight.

As Lee said, he is an amputee and has no fingers on his hands. Tillison was also present, helping set up the microphone and podium, when Guetzloe made those comments to Lee. Tillison recalled that he was shocked and disgusted by Guetzloe’s words and asked him, “Are you serious? Are you that low?” to which Guetzloe replied, “You have no idea how low I can go.”

Guetzloe also made several misogynistic comments to O’Keefe and other women who were there supporting the Central Florida Tea Party Council, insinuating they were “whores” for the Republican Party, and sent the young men who accompanied him to the parking lot to take photos of the tea party activists’ license plates.

“It was just slimy intimidation, you know,” said Lee, who said he was frustrated at the inaccuracies in the Sentinel’s coverage of Guetzloe. “Guetzloe was always about Guetzloe, and not a champion of the people.”

I could easily continue. There are many, many stories — verifiable by multiple witnesses — about Guetzloe’s misdeeds, violations of the law, betrayal of conservative principles, and harassment and threats against conservative activists. But the majority of these issues are relegated forever to the past, with Guetzloe unable to cause any further such harm to anyone ever again.

That is not true regarding the Sentinel‘s irresponsible journalism. Falsely saying someone as controversial as Guetzloe was a tea party movement founder not only gives him an accolade he has not earned, but unfairly tarnishes the reputation of the legitimate activists who did the actual work to launch a new political movement.

Too many of my friends sacrificed too much and worked too hard for me to stay silent on this issue. The Sentinel has shown a serious disrespect to the true founders of the tea party movement and owes them all a correction and an apology.

UPDATE: A friend reminded me that the Orlando Weekly, which definitely leans to the left, has been far more accurate in their coverage of Guetzloe than the Sentinel. From their article yesterday:

[Guetzloe] and his lawyer founded the Florida TEA Party in 2009, resulting in dozens of lawsuits from other “tea party” organizations for co-opting the “tea” name but diverging from the movement’s agreed-upon goals and tactics.

And here is an earlier Orlando Weekly article putting Guetzloe’s claims of being an influencer and grassroots leader in proper context:

His critics often complain that Guetzloe is a public figure only because the media props him up by quoting him extensively without any context on who he actually speaks for (Orlando Weekly is guilty of this sin, too).

Ax the Tax is seen as a dummy organization designed to give the appearance of a populist movement. Guetzloe says the group has a mailing list of 10,000, but the group never meets and its only point of contact is — guess who — Guetzloe.

His weekly program, The Guetzloe Report, which airs on WIXL 1190-AM, has an audience so tiny it fails to rank on the Arbitron rating system. He pays for the air time.

Photo by Moultrie Creek via Flickr.

Follow Sarah Rumpf on Twitter: @rumpfshaker.

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