Everett Wilkinson, portly, nervous, and drenched in Polo cologne, is a man of many titles. In the past year, the New York Times has called him "Chairman of the Florida Tea Party" and a "Tea Party leader." To CNN, he's "Chairman of the South Florida Tea Party." The National Journal, perhaps the nation's premier arbiter of politics, knows him as "chairman of the Florida-based National Liberty Foundation." Fox News has even anointed him the "Tea Party Patriots' state party coordinator."
In the past four years, Wilkinson has been quoted more than 400 times in state and national media and has become, quite possibly, the most cited, nonelected conservative in Florida. If you're a journalist hammering out a political piece on deadline, he's your talking head. His phone's always on, and he always has things to say. "It was a deadline crash, and we had one hour to close," New York Times political reporter Jim Rutenberg says of a recent interview with Wilkinson. "We were glad to get him."
Adds Beth Reinhard, who once wrote for the Miami Herald and quoted Wilkinson this month in a National Journal cover story: "I left Florida 2.5 years ago, and I don't know him that well. I don't know anything about his backstory."
Which is exactly what gets left out of the column inches. Wilkinson, 34, was there when Florida's Tea Party was founded on tax day in 2009. Since then, however, he's been involved in controversy and lawsuits so extensive that the Tea Party Fort Lauderdale plasters a message at the bottom of its letters: We're "not in any way affiliated... with Everett Wilkinson, or any of his organizations that come and go."
What's more, big media either don't now about or don't bother with his out-there conspiracy theories and fringe extremism. This he saves for news releases. According to a perfunctory Wilkinson email, President Barack Obama will soon take away everyone's guns, spiraling the nation into a civil war that will spur the United Nations to send in "peacekeeping troops."
And he claims the Federal Emergency Management Agency has built more than 800 "concentration camps" all over the country to detain and silence any political dissident opposing the emerging socialistic, "if not fascist," control over the nation. The government "is gearing up for civil war," Wilkinson says.
Then there's the chilling and profane video he forwarded in a collection of news releases he emailed to New Times several weeks ago. A man rants off-camera about the government's future campaign to confiscate weapons as he films a Jo-Ann Fabrics store. "I know a lot of people aren't going to give their guns up and will try to take out as many as come knocking on their door," says the man, whom Wilkinson declined to identify. "What are we really supposed to fucking do? I guess try to take out as many of the pawns as we can."
So we sat down with Wilkinson last week, and he told us his story while cocooned in a large black suit and drinking cinnamon coffee. He grew up in rural Michigan, an hour west of Detroit, in a whitewashed township called Leslie. His parents divorced when he was young, and his mom raised and later homeschooled him. He hopped between Western Michigan University and Jackson Community College before finally obtaining a degree from an online university. Wilkinson arrived in Florida when he was 26 and opened a construction company he claims did "very well." (A survey of state business records shows no evidence that Wilkinson ever owned a business in Florida. When asked about this, Wilkinson said, "I'm not going to talk about personal stuff, period.")
Wilkinson says he didn't enjoy the work, however, and was soon seized with a new passion: conservative activism. On February 19, 2009, Rick Santelli went on CNBC and delivered his now-iconic shelling of President Obama and the federal stimulus, saying he was planning a Chicago "tea party" in July. "I saw the video later that day and thought, 'We can't wait for July. It needs to be now.'" So Wilkinson dialed his acquaintance Sid Dinerstein, then the Palm Beach County Republican chairman. Dinerstein called his buddies, and they all organized a rally in downtown West Palm Beach.
"On April 15, 2009, we had 2,500 people," says Dinerstein, recalling the first time he saw Floridians step into Colonial garb and bellow indignation. "And we also had [then-Florida House Speaker] Marco Rubio."
Across the country, more than 1 million people had protested. Though Wilkinson says today he conceived the Tea Party, his specific role isn't clear. Dinerstein claims to be the one who founded the Tea Party movement in Florida, and Wilkinson was just a "young guy" who helped.
The Times's Rutenberg says he has "known [Wilkinson] since the inception of the movement, and he's a legitimate Tea Party guy." But that claim has been disputed time and again.
After Wilkinson incorporated the South Florida Tea Party as a nonprofit on April 20, 2009 — one of the many Tea Party organizations with which he is affiliated — he started working the phones. "He called me and said, 'Anyone who's in the Tea Party in Florida is under the South Florida Tea Party. We're heading this up,'" recalls Danita Kilcullen, Fort Lauderdale Tea Party chairwoman. "And I didn't know him from Adam."
But that tenacity got him noticed. In October 2009, Wilkinson materialized on MSNBC's Hardball With Chris Matthews. Next came CNN, and soon Wilkinson had launched a Twitter handle: @teapartyczar.
"He's established some kind of celebrity status with the national programs," Kilcullen says. "Charlatans do that. He's just power-hungry. So absolutely power-hungry."
In January 2010, Wilkinson filed a federal lawsuit, which was later dropped, against the Florida TEA (Taxed Enough Already) Party, alleging it had misappropriated the name tea. Its chairman, Doug Guetzloe, then sued Wilkinson in state court for defamation; those claims too were dropped. In separate litigation, Wilkinson was sued in 2011 for breach of contract and paid a woman named Susan Smith of Palm Beach County $1,251 after she accused him of "lies" and "procrastination" that impeded her fundraising efforts, according to Sunshine State News.
That same year, Wilkinson organized a local rally for Donald Trump in Boca Raton but came up short $6,000 in security fees, and Trump had to cover the event's expenses. (Wilkinson says he hadn't expected so high a bill.)
Even today, money problems seem to bedevil Wilkinson. On a recent Tuesday, he said he makes "very little" through activism. He declined to reveal how much he pays to rent his office — a small, sterile side room in a three-story building in downtown West Palm Beach.
And it's likely, for all his national clout, he doesn't have much of a following. Wilkinson told New Times last November that he has as many as 40,000 followers, but Pam Wohlschlegel, the former Palm Beach County Tea Party chairwoman, said she doesn't know anyone anywhere who takes Wilkinson seriously.
Nick Egoroff, a Tea Party activist in Orlando, called Wilkinson a "has-been." Five prominent party activists interviewed by New Times all agreed: Wilkinson is pure bluster.
But what separates Wilkinson from others like him is how many reporters quote him — and repeatedly — without checking him out.
On the homepage of his website, liberty.com, there's a disturbing video depicting a group of Nazis confiscating a gun from a "Constitution fanatic," accusing him of "resisting social progress," and executing him.
Another "news" article published on February 15 says that "Supreme Leader Barack Hussein Obama" called for an "ultimate gun ban" in his recent State of the Union address to "communize" the country and establish his "anti-white, pro-radical Muslim, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic, pro-gay, socialist government and eliminate what few liberties we have left."
One lengthy piece, "It's Obvious They Want Civil War!," says Obama "staged or encouraged" the mass shootings that occurred in Aurora, Colorado, and Newtown, Connecticut.
When New Times contacted the National Journal's Reinhard to ask whether she knew about any of this, she hurried to get off the phone. "I don't know him that well," she said. "I don't want to participate in a story like this... I just like doing my stories."