Why I Quit the Gravy Train Tea Parties: Confessions of a Former Political Swag Seller

King says his buttons -- from Obama "Hope" to Obama "Dope" -- sold very well at political rallies.
King says his buttons -- from Obama "Hope" to Obama "Dope" -- sold very well at political rallies.
Errol Hosea King was shaking his head watching TV coverage of the Tea Party Express all last week. The 16-day, cross-country rally ended Saturday in Washington, D.C., with different news outlets suggesting wildly different attendance numbers for the final day.

Whether hundreds or thousands, a fired-up crowd equals easy money to a button-seller like King, who says that could have been him out there scooping up coin with fellow St. Louisans David Brown and Kenneth Gladney.

But King quit the political-swag-selling business just as the tea party tour got underway.

He contacted Daily RFT, he says, to air out a few frustrations with his former boss, Brown, and to set the record straight.

Brown, you might remember, is a white attorney who grabbed the headlines in August when Gladney, a black St. Louisan, was allegedly punched by SEIU members at a town hall meeting hosted by U.S. Congressman Russ Carnahan. (Video here.)

Brown has described his role in that brouhaha differently at different times. At first he was identified as Gladney's attorney and he said a lawsuit against SEIU was in the works. Later, he said he was not Gladney's lawyer.

Brown nonetheless took the mic for Gladney at a St. Louis rally where tea party members demanded the NAACP investigate his alleged beating. See below.

Gladney swiftly became labeled in numerous national media outlets as "a black conservative activist" who was "handing out" political memorabilia when the SEIU members allegedly beat him up.

In fact, Gladney was selling the paraphernalia. He was working with The Political Mint, a business owned by David Brown and his sister Angela Brown, according to paperwork filed with the Missouri Secretary of State's Office.

Gladney went on to become a featured member of the Tea Party Express delegation, speaking at rallies across the country. He was identified as "American Patriot and SEIU Beating Victim."

Brown accompanied him on the tour.

When reached by phone to clarify his relationship with the tour and with Gladney, Brown told Daily RFT that he is now Gladney's "agent."

When asked what exactly that meant, Brown yelled, "Figure it out! Look it up in the dictionary!" and promptly hung up the phone.

Says King: "The thing is, David Brown is just using this guy Kenneth Gladney to make money. He told me so. He told me in his own words that Mr. Gladney is his gravy train."

Daily RFT left several messages for Brown after he cut our first conversation short; he did not return the messages. Previously, Brown denied knowing or employing King.

As a lawyer Brown primarily peddles in St. Louis area traffic courts; he once worked for a firm called Law Dawgz.

Other button sellers say Brown got into the political swag business back in the mid-'90s. (His web site says he's been doing it since 1992, but his SOS filings show he incorporated Political Mint LLC in February 2009.)

Errol Hosea King wants people to know those yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags are made in China. - PHOTO BY NICK LUCCHESI
Photo by Nick Lucchesi
Errol Hosea King wants people to know those yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags are made in China.
King says he toiled for Brown as a swag-seller, and worked on several occasions with Gladney. "Kenneth is not a conservative and not an activist," says King. "He's a little naive, he's quiet, and he's not that politically astute. That's why you saw David doing most of the speaking for him early on."

King says he first met Brown at the speech Barack Obama gave under the Arch last fall. "David was out there selling buttons, him and some black guys," says King. "I got some, walked away, people asked to buy them, so I went and got some more. I did this five or six times. And David said, 'Hey, give me a call and we can make some money.' So me and David have been driving all over the Midwest selling buttons at these tea parties."

First, King sold Barack Obama-themed swag. When the presidential campaign ended, he says, he and Brown switched to Bo-related items, in honor of the president's dog.

King was not a partner in the business. He says Brown gave him about 30 percent of gross sales.

Then spring came, and suddenly, King says, he and Brown were busy with other issues entirely. Instead of pimping Democratic causes, they got into hawking GOP tea party-themed paraphernalia. (Other button sellers note that selling swag on both sides of the aisle is common practice.)

King says they went to Dayton, Ohio, and Gary, Indiana, and numerous places in between. "In Nashville I was able to get on the podium with the local, shall I say, Rush Limbaugh, and he waved the flag for me and I waved the flag and I sold out," exclaims King. "I did the huckster thing, I did the dance. Hey, anything to make a buck! I think in just two or three hours I made about $400. The money was good."

At a tea party in St. Louis, King notes, a woman handed over a $100 bill to him -- to keep.

But the atmosphere started to change, says King. He began feeling weird to be one of few black people at the rallies. "At every event I sold at, I had someone white ask me, 'Wow, what are you doing here?' Even at the St. Louis event. It's 99.9 percent white and people are saying things to me like, 'Well, it's great to see capitalism at work!'"

King says he and Brown drove out to Los Angeles for the Michael Jackson funeral to sell buttons outside the Staples center. The takings weren't as good as they'd been at the political rallies. King says he and Brown proceeded to get into a fight over vacation time. They exchanged more than words, he says.

(Brown denies that he went to sell buttons at the Jackson funeral. King supplies numerous details to Daily RFT which seem to indicate he and Brown were indeed in L.A.)

Back in St. Louis King says he almost went to work for Brown again. He says Brown asked him to work the night that fellow seller Gladney allegedly got beat up. King ended up declining. "The atmosphere had started to change. It was getting hectic. I'd like the money, but with all these people coming out of the woodwork. Unh unh. And I was a little embarrassed to be doing it in my hometown."

King says he wants people to know that Brown and Gladney are salespeople. "It's entrepreneurship," says King. "People need to know that."

"Ironically," adds King, "those yellow ["Dont Tread On Me"] flags the people wave so proudly--when we opened up those boxes, we had to sit there and remove all the 'Made in China' stickers from them. It took hours."

About The Author

Scroll to read more St. Louis Metro News articles (1)
Join the Riverfront Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Riverfront Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.