For the past month, Phillips has been paddling furiously on his own behalf. Though Sarah Palin is still slated to headline his $549-per-ticket powwow at the Nashville Opryland Hotel, Republican congresswomen Michele Bachmann and Marsha Blackburn have pulled out over concerns about Phillips' decision to run his Tea Party Nation group as a for-profit enterprise that plowed proceeds into his wife's PayPal account. Several big sponsors have also withdrawn. Phillips has offered unconvincing explanations for the set-up, dissembled about the convention being sold out (seats for Palin's keynote address on Saturday are still available for $358.71), and bellowed at the media for not trying to get his side of the story. (Rest assured, the media have tried.)
The result has been a cacophony of criticism online and in Tea Party circles at large. People who once worked with Phillips call him a brazen and bungling opportunist and point out his worrisome history of money woes. As Kevin Smith, the former webmaster for the Tea Party Nation, puts it: "He's nuclear."
All of which is true, to an extent. But it does not tell the full story of Judson Phillips. He can still get Palin on the phone. She's still coming to the convention, which means CNN and Fox News are coming, too. Which means everyone can watch Phillips hoist himself out of the backwater and onto the national stage, if only for a moment.
It's an outcome less improbable than it might seem. Phillips is just the latest incarnation of that quintessential American bootstrapper lurching forth from, say, a plumber's yard in Ohio, or some similar redoubt of anonymity. The man who burns hot, then cold, and in short order returns whence he came.
'He Just Kind of Sprung Up'
So says Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party. "He's not on anybody's statewide radar screen," he adds. Not even the Tennessee GOP's. A spokeswoman at Republican headquarters in Nashville was sufficiently mystified by Phillips that she didn't even feel comfortable commenting.
This much is known: As a lawyer, Phillips has struggled. His legal practice has been suffering for years. The slick-sounding Nashville address on his firm's Web site actually belongs to a construction company. Phillips meets his dwindling clientele in a Starbucks, according to both Smith and Tami Kilmarx, another former Tea Party Nation volunteer. Since 2002, Phillips has failed to update state-mandated paperwork for his business. For almost as long, he failed to pay federal taxes, leading the IRS to saddle him with $22,521 in liens from 2004 to 2008. But his financial problems and personal troubles stretch back even further.
Phillips spent his youth in Memphis and went to Craigmont High School in that northern suburb of Raleigh, best known for the car dealerships that line its major thoroughfare. In 1977, he enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Memphis. He studied international relations, concentrating on the Soviet Union. He was in college when Ronald Reagan came into office and ratcheted up the Cold War. He was still in college in 1983, when Reagan introduced the "Star Wars" Strategic Defense Initiative. After six years as a full-time student, Phillips earned his bachelor's degree. He then matriculated to the University of Memphis law school, and after graduating took a job as an assistant district attorney for Shelby County.
The first decade of Phillips' professional life was unremarkable. He made about $50,000 a year to prosecute drug dealers and pedophiles, but, as a young attorney in a big office, he didn't work the major cases and left little impression on John Pierotti, the district attorney general at the time.
"He was kind of an upbeat fellow," Pierotti says, struggling to place Phillips. "He didn't cause me any trouble."
Phillips acquitted himself well in the team-oriented scut work that filled most of his days. "He was a good prosecutor," says Deborah Owen, an investigator in the D.A.'s office. "He didn't mind doing what he needed to do in the courtroom." He was also quieter with his politics then. "If you asked him, he would tell you his views," Owen says. "I know he was conservative, but big whoop. Most of us are around here. He didn't broadcast it."
At the end of 1995, however, when Phillips was 36, things began to unravel. He and his wife, Charlotte, divorced. He soon left the D.A.'s office and went into private practice. In 1998, he moved to Franklin, a cozy hamlet south of Nashville, where he hoped to settle in as a self-described "small-town lawyer" and pursue his photography hobby. But his fortunes didn't improve. Working alone for the first time, Phillips filed for Chapter 7 personal bankruptcy the following year. By 2000, he'd returned to life as an assistant D.A., this time in Williamson County. Two years later, he was back in private practice. "Barely adequate," is how one fellow attorney described him.
Then Phillips decided to try his hand at politics. The 2002 commissioner's race wasn't a big election, especially not in thinly populated Williamson County. Phillips was running as a Republican in a conservative area, one of three candidates vying for two open seats. The first went to John Hancock with 46 percent of the vote, the second to Peggy Romano with 33 percent. Phillips finished with 21 percent. It was a thumping. Phillips slouched back to his job. Back to the drunks and the drudgery.
"He hated practicing law," Smith says.
A few years later, Phillips was defending a client -- a man with the incongruent name of Darwin Bible -- who stood accused of skimming a few hundred dollars from the nearby Super Cuts that employed him. Bible had confessed his guilt to a police officer. But that didn't stop Phillips from turning into Perry Mason at trial. He accused one witness -- the store manager, who'd cooperated with police from the start -- of being the real thief. Phillips had no evidence to support his allegations, and his antics, which the court attributed to Bible and described as "repugnant" and "nothing short of perpetrating fraud," earned his client a long sentence. An appellate court swiftly overturned the ruling.
"It's pretty clear that Phillips was a doof," says Gene Honea, the appellate lawyer on the case. "He was ranting and raving and making claims and the judge didn't like it."
By this point, Phillips had remarried and moved into the home of his new wife, Sherry, a widow who came to the marriage with property from her deceased husband's estate. By this point, too, Phillips was casting about for new answers, for some better way to leave his mark.
Brash Plans and Tough Talk
Phillips' involvement with the Tea Party movement began with a rally that he organized in downtown Nashville in February 2009. But his sights were always trained on a greater prize, according to several people who worked with him.
"From the beginning he talked about wanting to make a fortune off the Tea Party movement," Kilmarx says.
Phillips' big idea was a social network for conservatives. It would eventually be called Tea Party Nation. In Phillips' mind, it could be bigger than Facebook. And it would be his. But he couldn't build it on his own. Over the course of 2009, he cajoled others into volunteering hundreds of hours of their time to help. Most thought they were giving structure to the broader, inchoate movement.
The first sign that something was amiss was the donation box on the Tea Party Nation Web site. Smith says he felt uncomfortable linking the box directly to Sherry Phillips' PayPal account, but that Judson assured him the arrangement was temporary. It wasn't. More than $4,000 in donations came in while Smith was helping Phillips. "We don't know what happened to it," Smith says. "We still don't know."
Indeed, the Phillipses have refused to fully account for the money that continues to flow into their personal coffers. When Phillips registered Tea Party Nation as a for-profit company, Smith walked out. Other volunteers were alienated as well. But Phillips bulled forward, persuading a new crop to help him take Tea Party Nation to a bigger audience. "I thought he was very kind, a real sweet guy," Kilmarx says. "Maybe that's the charm of a viper."
As Phillips jockeyed for supremacy in the Tea Party movement in Tennessee, he undermined people he saw as rivals and lashed out at those who challenged his decisions, most notably through the forums of the Tea Party Nation Web site. Phillips deleted posts when people disagreed with him over candidate picks. He banned people when they questioned the direction he was taking the organization. The more outspoken dissenters received bilious e-mails threatening legal action.
"[R]emember what I do for a living," Phillips warned Anthony Shreeve, another volunteer, in a parting e-mail after the two men clashed.
The more potential Phillips saw in Tea Party Nation, the more controlling he became, and the more unwilling to take a back seat to the larger movement. "He became a low-level dictator," Smith says.
At one "Call to Arms" rally at the Cornerstone Church outside Nashville last summer, Phillips was urged to keep a low profile: The mega-church was already bumping up against the law by hosting a rally for groups that along with Tea Party Nation included Focus on the Family and the Eagle Forum. Ostensibly, the event was an attempt to raise money for local charities such as the Nashville Rescue Mission and to sign up attendees (some of whom were carrying side-arms) as volunteers for conservative causes. But Phillips saw another opportunity. He stepped to the front of the church and launched into an ardent speech, urging the crowd to combat the "Obama-Pelosi-Reid axis of evil."
"Tonight's altar call is not for God," he said. "It's for country."
The audience was shocked.
"There was a firestorm of controversy," says Cliff Tredway, the director of public relations for the Nashville Rescue Mission. "There was no getting around the fact that this was a rally for the conservative movement. Politics and church don't too much mix."
The event raised $2,300, according to Kilmarx. "[Sherry] claimed that they sent a third of that money to the Nashville Rescue Mission," she said. But Tredway says the rescue mission never received a penny.
Tea-Partying On, Without Him
In private, Kilmarx says, Phillips has referred to himself as the "original founder of the Tea Party movement in Tennessee." But he has never publicly acknowledged his desire to lead. Reached by e-mail, he responded with a cryptic declination: "I am not the leader of the Tea Party movement. This movement is not my movement nor is it about me." The initial interview request, however, made no mention of his holding that role; Philips arrived at that determination on his own.
With little information from Phillips himself about what he thinks and what he wants, we turn, at last, to that modern-day mirror of the soul: Facebook. The photo on Phillips' page shows him in front of a lectern, gripping a microphone. And he has scattered many revealing comments about his politics across the site. One of the first groups he joined after setting up his account was the "Society for the Defeat of Islam."
Then there's Phillips on illegal immigrants: "I know the solution. Take a plane load of them and dump them in Somalia. Make no secret of it and tell the illegals, everytime we catch them, that is where they are going. 99% of them will head back to the border on their own."
Phillips on Christmas and illegal immigrants: "The Tennessean [newspaper] is whining about the children of illegals not being allowed to get Christmas toys from the Salvation Army because they require an SSN. Boo hoo. How about the kids of American citizens who aren't getting much of a Christmas this year because the illegals have put their parents out of work?"
Phillips on Obama's decision to cancel the moon program: "What a moron! Billions for Acorn and unilateral surrender to the rest of the world. Please can we have a real American President! ... The moon program gave us the computers we are all typing right now. There are vast resources on the moon that we should be exploiting ... when someone is that stupid, you simply have to call it like you see it."
And here, finally, is Phillips on the matter at hand: finding a leader for the Tea Party movement: "The tea party movement will eventually chose a leader for national office. But the movement will chose the leader. The leader will not chose themself!"
Judson Phillips, it seems, has chosen himself to paddle through the fertile wetlands of the political fringe, seeking the figurehead role for a nascent movement trying to chart its course. He's stretched his 15 minutes into a month, maybe more. In December, the Tennessean named him one of the state's "Political Movers" for 2009. On Wednesday, he was on CNN.
What's become clear, as Sarah Palin wings into Nashville this weekend, is that Phillips has successfully branded his gathering as a "national Tea Party convention," even as scores of Tea Partiers around the nation disavow him.
In the weeks to come, however, after Palin is gone and the Opryland bunting has been struck, a convention of a different sort will take place. Kilmarx and Smith and a coalition of other Tea Partiers will come together to ratify a framing document for the movement in Tennessee. Debate will be welcome, and opinions shared. Already, there has been one caucus. It attracted 34 Tea Party groups and more than 50 delegates from across the state who arrived to sharpen their positions and discuss what comes next.
That sounds an awful lot like the coalescing of a legitimate grassroots movement. Phillips was invited to be a part of the process. He didn't show up.