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Teachers' Unions Fighting Some Losing Battles in State Races

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Members of teachers' unions can expect a dizzying display of last-minute campaigning from their colleagues, as the unions mobilize teachers to get out the vote for their endorsed candidates in gubernatorial elections.

The unions, traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, could be disappointed this year; polls indicate that g.o.p. candidates are making a strong showing in many state races.

But union officials were optimistic that the politicking would pay off--if not in the short run, then somewhere down the road.

"Many of our states are making their finest effort," said Mickey Ibarra, the political-advocacy manager of the National Education Association. "A midterm election is not the same as a Presidential-election year, but we're learning some very valuable lessons in preparation for 1996."

Among the efforts leading up to next week's balloting, the United Federation of Teachers in New York City is targeting its members with phone calls urging the re-election of Democratic Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who is locked in a tight race with Republican State Sen. George E. Pataki.

The 120,000-member union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, boasts a phone bank with 1,000 volunteers, who are expected to make more than 100,000 calls by Election Day.

Grudge Match

Teachers' unions in Michigan are working particularly hard to keep Republican Gov. John Engler from succeeding in his bid for a second term.

Several recent moves by the Governor put the state's educators on the offensive, some union officials have said.

Last year, Mr. Engler and state lawmakers abruptly revamped the state's property-tax-based school-funding system. Then, the Governor and Republican lawmakers won passage of a law last spring denying school employees the right to bargain over several traditional contract issues. (See Education Week, April 27, 1994.)

Howard Wolpe, Mr. Engler's Democratic challenger, has vowed to repeal the bargaining law.

"Governor Engler has made it his mission in life to trample upon the Michigan Education Association and other organizations he finds in disagreement with his agenda," Mr. Ibarra of the N.E.A. charged. "And we're proud to take up that fight."

The Michigan state union, one of the N.E.A.'s largest and most powerful affiliates with about 125,000 members, has contributed $25,000 to Mr. Wolpe's campaign in addition to campaigning and volunteering for him, an M.E.A. spokesman, Pat Dolan, said.

The Michigan Federation of Teachers and the A.F.T.'s Detroit local have also joined in the effort to elect the challenger.

Another powerful state union, the California Teachers' Association, is playing a more conservative role, but not for lack of interest. The C.T.A. spent a great deal of effort and money last year on a $12 million campaign that education groups launched jointly to defeat a private-school-voucher initiative on the state ballot.

Tommye Hutto, a spokeswoman for the 225,000-member C.T.A., said the union has contributed $100,000 to Democratic State Treasurer Kathleen Brown's bid to unseat Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, who appeared to have a comfortable lead last week.

The union, a major political force in the state, has also put $300,000 into defeating a ballot initiative that would deny illegal immigrants most services, including public education. The N.E.A., the state union's parent group, has also kicked in $100,000 to fight the initiative.

In several other big states, such as Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania, the teachers' unions are also lending their clout to Democratic candidates in tight races.

Iowa teachers this year flip-flopped on their gubernatorial endorsement and are stumping for State Attorney General Bonnie Campbell, a Democrat, over Gov. Terry E. Branstad, the G.O.P. Governor incumbent. The Iowa State Education Association had backed the Governor in 1990 after he vowed to raise teacher salaries to the national average. Union officials estimated that their average pay ranks between 31st and 34th in the nation.

Union Turnabouts

"The movement was so minimal" in improving the situation over the past four years that the union urged its members to get out the vote for Mr. Branstad's challenger, said Ron Livermore, a lobbyist for the I.S.E.A.

The N.E.A. affiliate in Illinois has also reversed a longstanding trend by backing a Democrat after supporting G.O.P. gubernatorial candidates for the past 18 years.

Union officials said they like State Comptroller Dawn Clark Netsch's plan to increase state income taxes while rolling back property taxes. But they also said the union's rank and file feels burned by Republican Gov. Jim Edgar, who ran in 1990 on a promise to aid the public schools. (See related story.)

"His record proved otherwise," said a union source, adding that Mr. Edgar's rejection of a measure that would have increased state aid to education was a sore point.

Governor Edgar's office "has been dismal on education" issues, David Peterson, a legislative assistant at the Chicago Teachers' Union, asserted. The Chicago union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, both A.F.T. affiliates, are putting about $40,000 into Ms. Netsch's campaign.

In some states, the teachers' unions have surprised observers by steering clear of the action.

The Ohio Education Association, for instance, withheld an endorsement of Robert L. Burch Jr., Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich's Democratic rival--even though he has made school finance a big campaign theme.

Sources said that the union probably feared it would be putting weight behind a candidate with little chance of winning.

And endorsing weak candidates diverts time and money from other priority elections at the state and federal levels, union leaders added.

In Alabama, where statewide elections promise to throw the education community a few curve balls, the Alabama Education Association has not endorsed a candidate for governor. (See Education Week, Oct. 19, 1994.)

Paul R. Hubbert, the union's executive secretary, lost the Democratic nomination to Gov. James E. Folsom Jr. In recent polls, Mr. Folsom was leading Fob James, a former Democratic Governor who has joined the G.O.P.

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