A leading voice against a pending Asian free trade agreement is tailoring his message to the country’s grassroots conservatives, but until recently he described himself as a progressive and worked for union-backed Democrats.
Curtis Ellis leads a group called the American Jobs Alliance that vehemently opposes the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and "fast-track" authority that would expedite its congressional consideration. Ellis calls the latter "ObamaTrade."
The House of Representatives is expected to vote on a trade promotion authority (TPA) measure on Friday. If it passes it will allow President Barack Obama more latitude to negotiate and enact the TPP deal.
"The politics of ObamaTrade are poisonous," Ellis wrote on Wednesday at the conservative Breitbart News. "Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans across the political spectrum oppose these phony ‘free trade’ deals—and conservatives oppose them in even greater numbers than Democrats."
Ellis runs a site called ObamaTrade.com that takes a conservative line of attack against the free trade agreement. It features commentary by Donald Trump, former Rep. Allen West, GOP pollster Dick Morris, and Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a leading TPA opponent.
Ellis has appeared on conservative talk radio to criticize TPA, and his work is being promoted by a conservative public relations firm alongside Heritage Foundation president Jim DeMint and talk radio giant Mark Levin.
ObamaTrade is a phrase designed to call to mind Obamacare, and he has unfavorably compared TPA to the Affordable Care Act and the president’s efforts to unilaterally reform the nation’s immigration system.
"The grassroots are on fire against ObamaTrade," he declared in his Breitbart column. However, until recently, Ellis was an outspoken Democratic critic of the Tea Party movement.
"They fancy themselves the vanguard of a revolution, when in fact they are typical self-absorbed, privileged children used to having their way—now—and uninhibited about complaining loudly when they don't," Ellis wrote in a 2010 column for the Los Angeles Times criticizing the movement.
Ellis disavowed the column in an email.
"My 'hot take' in 2010 was wrong," he wrote. "The Tea Party is alive, well and perhaps the most important movement in American politics today."
Ellis has a documented history as a Democratic operative. The Times identified him as one, calling him and the column’s coauthor "Democratic political consultants." On a since-deleted page on liberal blog Talking Points Memo, Ellis described himself as a progressive Democrat.
Ellis did not respond to questions about his political background or former employers, which include two Democrats backed by hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from labor unions.
One of them is behind ObamaTrade.com.
The American Jobs Alliance, ObamaTrade’s publisher, was founded and received early funding from New York industrialist Jack Davis in 2011, the same year that Ellis managed Davis’ congressional campaign in New York’s 26th district.
After unsuccessfully running as a Democrat for the seat in 2004, 2006, and 2008, Davis declared himself a Tea Party candidate and ran in a 2011 special election. He was criticized by conservative and Tea Party groups as a spoiler and a "fraud."
Democrat Kathy Hochul won the race, besting Republican Jane Corwin by about 5,000 votes—half of the roughly 10,000 that Davis received.
Throughout his congressional runs, Davis received contributions from the political action committees of a number of prominent Democrats, including Obama. The then-senator’s leadership PAC, Hopefund, gave Davis’ campaign $5,000 during the 2006 cycle.
Unions also contributed heavily, donating more than $69,000 to his 2004 and 2006 campaigns.
Labor groups also backed another former Ellis employer, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen. Ellis served as communications director for Kagen, who, campaign finance records show, received more than $700,000 in campaign support from labor unions throughout his congressional tenure.
Conservative critics of the law should be wary of some of those opposing the bill said Scott Lincicome, a trade attorney and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, in an email.
"One would think that supposed supporters of fiscal conservatism and limited government would look at their protectionist allies on the left—folks with whom they disagree on almost everything—and realize that maybe, just maybe, they were wrong to oppose free trade, but so far that hasn't really happened," Lincicome said in an email.
"I don't know Ellis or his ideology, but it would hardly be surprising to see a progressive leftist being promoted by the far right in order to oppose freer trade," he added.
TPA supporters were less charitable. Brendan Buck, a spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R., Wis.), called Ellis’ advocacy "despicable."
"Liberals are trying to fool conservatives with bogus arguments to advance their union agenda," Buck said in an emailed statement.