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A prominent Republican Tea Party activist has launched a campaign to oust Jeffrey Immelt, the chief executive of General Electric, from his appointment as head of a new advisory panel to President Barack Obama on jobs and competitiveness.
The populist campaign underlines the deep divisions between traditional Republicans, who have been stalwart supporters of big industrial giants such as GE, and the ultra- conservative Tea Party movement, which views big corporations with as much suspicion as it does “big government”.
The divide has lingered but not erupted since Republicans took control of the House of Representatives. But as the party wrestles with issues such as whether to increase the debt ceiling, it risks splitting more traditional and pragmatic Republicans from party activists who are pushing for ideological purity.
FreedomWorks, which advocates small government and low taxes, said the appointment of Mr Immelt represented “crony corporatism in its purest form”.
“It’s time to break up the unethical romance between government and big business. For too long, corporate elites have lobbied to profit from the size and growth of government at the expense of hard-working Americans,” said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks.
The comments are a reminder of the populist underpinnings of the Tea Party movement, which fuelled the Republican resurgence in last year’s congressional elections. The appointment of Mr Immelt, a registered Republican, was praised by some powerful business lobby groups such as the Business Roundtable.
But FreedomWorks and grassroots Tea Party groups have been critical of what they call “rent seeking” corporations, such as GE, for lobbying for specific government policies and benefiting from subsidies and tax breaks. FreedomWorks is targeting GE’s support for a US cap and trade policy to reduce carbon emissions, a stance it adopted during the Bush administration. The company is a leading innovator in so-called “green” technologies, which would be boosted by the passage of cap and trade legislation.
FreedomWorks is being joined by the National Center for Public Policy Research, a conservative think-tank that has been a longtime critic of Mr Immelt and which became embroiled in the scandal over indicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who previously served on the group’s board. The NCPPR was never charged with a crime, but a Senate investigation found that it accepted funds from Mr Abramoff that were later directed to other groups at his discretion.
Tom Borelli, a senior fellow at the NCPPR, has regularly attended GE shareholder meetings and lambasted the company’s stance on cap and trade. His wife, Deneen, a FreedomWorks fellow, called on Tea Party activists to “challenge progressive CEOs the same way they are challenging progressive politicians”.
But the suggestion that Mr Immelt is a “progressive” CEO appears out of sync with the GE chief’s record. He has been a vocal critic of the White House in the past.