Teachers' Unions Jockey To Sway Races in Pivotal Election Year
Sensing a once-in-a-generation opportunity to influence both state and national education policy, the two major teachers' unions and their state affiliates are mounting intensive efforts to affect the outcomes of many of the nation's 36 gubernatorial elections.
The heightened role of governors in school reform and their strategic position in the upcoming battles over Congressional and state-legislative redistricting have created major stakes for the unions, say political operatives for the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
Moreover, the presence of a substantial number of open governor's chairs--13--has left a fertile field for the financial support and formidable organizational muscle of the state affiliates.
"The stakes for the AFT could not be higher this election year," said Rachelle Horowitz, political director of the union.
"This opportunity, as we view it, only rolls around every 20 years,'' said Mickey Ibarra, political-advocacy manager for the n.e.a. office of governmental relations. "When we have 36 governorships up, that's a big piece of business."
While the two national unions share a common commitment to the gubernatorial races, their efforts have revealed a significant difference in emphasis.
The AFT, through its national Governors Project, has sought to find and support candidates who agree with the union's stand both on bread-and-butter issues and on broader reform goals.
Although the NEA has not ignored those concerns, it has focused its energies on a different target--the balance of power in the U.S. House of Representatives. Affiliates in California, Texas, and Florida in particular are going all-out to put Democratic governors at the helm of the redistricting process, which will shape the composition of those huge and growing House delegations for a decade.
Both unions have continued their traditional Democratic orientation, with NEA affiliates giving only five of 30 endorsements to Republican candidates, and the AFT two of 22. In addition, the NEA affiliate in Connecticut is backing a former Republican senator, Lowell P. Weicker Jr., who is running as an independent.
Nevertheless, some political analysts see in this year's endorsements evidence of a slight shift to the GOP, both because of greater Republican interest in education issues and the desire of some state affiliates to project a more bipartisan image.
One symbol of the unions' growing involvement in these contests comes from Alabama, where the veteran head of the NEA affiliate, Paul R. Hubbert, is the first teachers' union official in any state in recent memory to serve as a major-party gubernatorial candidate. Mr. Hubbert is seen as mounting a credible campaign, although he trails the Republican incumbent, Guy Hunt, in the polls.
Responding to the growing role of governors in education reform, AFT officials this summer launched the Governors Project to supplement their traditional political strategy, which helps local affiliates determine candidates' stands on a wide assortment of education issues and guides the affiliates in helping supportive candidates to develop their education planks.
The Governors Project provides the affiliates with candidate questionnaires that are designed to expand the criteria for endorsement beyond the candidates' views on education funding, tenure laws, and pensions. New areas covered include such issues as school-finance reform and the educational goals put forward by President Bush and the nation's governors.
The project also seeks to gauge the willingness of candidates to serve as advocates for education reform on the national level, by asking them to use the stature of their office to persuade the Congress and the President to increase education funding to at least 3 percent of the federal budget.
As part of the project, the AFT has, for the first time, offered to match up to $10,000 of a state federation's contribution to an endorsed candidate.
The Governors Project also provides guidance to affiliates in helping their endorsed candidates spell out their stands on education issues. Ms. Horowitz said the project has had a significant role in shaping the education planks of George Voinovich of Ohio, Bruce King of New Mexico, Rudy Perpich of Minnesota, and Neil Hartigan of Illinois.
"I don't want to claim it has turned the world around," she said, ''but it has had an impact on what is going on."
Mr. Voinovich, the Republican former mayor of Cleveland, won the endorsement of the 20,000-member Ohio Federation of Teachers in part by adopting detailed AFT-recommended positions on student discipline, career ladders, and peer review.
The decision to support a Republican candidate over the Democratic contender, Attorney General Anthony Celebrezze Jr., stirred criticism from the state afl-cio But Ronald E. Marec, president of the oft, defended the move.
"The truth is, we've got two well-qualified candidates," Mr. Marec said. "But the truth also is that Mr. Voinovich is much more progressive when it comes to the basic issues of educational reform."
The NEA, by contrast, has invested most of its campaign war chest in those states that are predicted to to gain or lose the most population under the 1990 Census, and thus stand to gain or lose influence in the House, Mr. Ibarra said.
"This is the last election where we are going to have an opportunity to impact those officeholders who are very much a part of redrawing district lines," said Mr. Ibarra, stressing a point that his union has been trying to get across to state affiliates through briefings and training sessions.
"Florida, Texas, and California are going to be the biggest gainers," he noted. "Are we interested in who is going to be governor in those states? You bet we are."
Mr. Ibarra said the n.e.a. is especially concerned about the impact of the Census because demographic trends have been undermining its friends and strengthening its enemies in the House.
"Those Congressional districts that are most declining in terms of population are in fact some of our best supporters of public education as measured by their voting records," he said. "And the districts that are showing the greatest growth are those that have the least favorable voting records as far as members of the Congress."
The n.e.a. annually invests $2million in political-action committees and spends an additional $300,000 to $400,000 to communicate with members about political issues, Mr. Ibarra noted.
Major beneficiaries of the union's support have been the Democratic candidates in California, which is predicted to gain seven House seats; Florida, predicted to gain four seats; Texas, predicted to gain three seats; and Arizona, predicted to gain one.
Seeking to minimize its losses in states with falling populations, the union also is backing the Democratic incumbents in New York, which is predicted to lose three seats, and Pennsylvania, predicted to lose two.
But Mr. Ibarra said the n.e.a. has not always backed candidates who stand to further its interests in redistricting. Where education interests and redistricting interests have come into conflict, he maintained, the union has gone with its interests on the education issues.
He cited the examples of Illinois, which may lose two House seats and has an n.e.a.-endorsed Republican candidate, and Iowa, which may lose one seat but in which the Iowa State Education Association endorsed the Republican incumbent, Terry E. Branstad.
The isea's decision to endorse Governor Branstad over the Democratic candidate, Speaker of the House Donald D. Avenson, has generated heated debate within the ranks of the state's teachers.
Union officials said Mr. Branstad won their support with his promise to raise the state's teacher salaries to the national average within four years and his cooperation during his most recent term in pumping $92.5 million into teacher salaries and giving teachers a stronger voice in setting standards for the profession. They also praised his efforts to include the n.e.a. in the setting of national education goals as chairman of the National Governors' Association.
Many Iowa Teachers Angry
"The thinking was that we would lose credibility as an organization if we failed to support a Governor who had turned 180 degrees in terms of his support for education," said Bill Sherman, a spokesman for the isea
But many teachers in the state were angered by the abandonment of Mr. Avenson, who has been a strong ally of the union during his 18 years in the legislature.
Representative Arthur C. Ollie, the chairman of the House Education Committee and an i.s.e.a. member, for example, responded to the union endorsement by helping organize "Educators for Avenson."
Joe Shannahan, a spokesman for the Iowa Democratic Party, last week asserted that teachers throughout the state have become active in Mr. Avenson's campaign.
Another controversial decision to endorse a Republican occurred in Minnesota, where the Minnesota Education Association this summer voted to endorse a Republican contender, State Auditor Arne Carlson, rather than the veteran Democratic incumbent, Mr. Perpich.
Mr. Carlson was defeated in the Republican primary, however, by Jon Grunseth, who was generally seen as the more conservative candidate. The mea subsequently decided to back Mr. Perpich.
In four other states, the NEA and AFT affiliates have split their endorsements along partisan lines.
Perhaps the most closely watched division is in Illinois, where the Illinois Education Association is backing the Republican candidate, Secretary of State Jim Edgar, who favors making permanent a temporary income-tax surcharge that provides more than $350 million a year for education. But the state AFT affiliate favors the Democrat, Attorney General Hartigan, who opposes extension of the surcharge, while proposing to increase education funding through other means.
The Ohio Education Association is backing Mr. Celebrezze against the oft's candidate, Mr. Voinovich.
The National Education Association Rhode Island has endorsed the Republican incumbent, Edward D. DiPrete, while the AFT affiliate supports his Democratic opponent, Bruce Sundlun.
A slightly different sort of split has occurred in Connecticut, where the AFT affiliate is backing the Democratic candidate, U.S. Representative Bruce A. Morrison, against Mr. Weicker, who is favored by the Connecticut Education Association. As a Republican member of the U.S. Senate, Mr. Weicker was a close ally of the nea
In one state, Alaska, the two affiliates have united in backing a Republican candidate, State Senator Arliss Sturgulewski. The Democatic candidate, Tony Knowles, earned the enmity of unions in the state by frequently clashing with city employees when he was Mayor of Anchorage, and by allegedly trying to block efforts to organize workers at a delicatessen he owns.
'Slight Tilt' to G.O.P.
Although teachers' unions have backed Republican candidates in the past, this year has seen a "slight tilt" by the unions away from the Democrats, according to Steven D. Henriksen, a consultant who has been monitoring the elections for the Education Commission of the States.
Further losses of teachers' union backing could be a major setback for Democratic candidates, who traditionally have relied on the affiliates for campaign funding and manpower.
But Mark D. Gearan, executive director of the Democratic Governors Association, asserted that the affiliates who have backed Republicans are "a very small minority" who made their endorsements "for reasons particular to those states."
"There are particular stories in each one of those cases," Mr. Gearan said, maintaining that the endorsements of g.o.p. candidates "do not re4flect the membership" of the unions.
Michele Davis, executive director of the Republican Governors Association, countered that "the standard stereotype that unions automatically just back Democrats is no longer accurate."
A number of Republican gubernatorial candidates have established a good rapport with educators, Ms. Davis observed. "There is a general sense out there that if you establish a relationship and bring outside groups to the table it ultimately will pay political dividends," she said.
Mr. Ibarra interpreted the nea affiliates' endorsements of g.o.p. candidates as a sign that Republicans are becoming more aware of educational issues, particularly at the state level.
"We are delighted that we have Republicans who are worth our endorsement," Mr. Ibarra said. "We are a bipartisan organization, and we would love to endorse more Republican candidates."
Lorraine M. McDonnell, a senior political scientist at the rand Corporation who has studied the development of teachers' unions in depth, sought to place the groups' involvement in gubernatorial races in the broader context of their role in state politics as a whole.
The increased interest of teachers' unions in Republican candidates, she asserted, is not just the result of change within the g.o.p. It also reflects efforts by the unions to become perceived as more politically moderate and interested in education reform in an attempt to regain political ground lost during the early 1980's, she said.
Mr. Henriksen of the e.c.s. found a pragmatic motive, though, in many of the union endorsements of Republican candidates.
"Where you have a clear Republican winner," he said, "you are going to find the teachers' unions doing 'the smart political thing' and going with the winner."