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Union PAC Contributions ContinueTo Support Democratic Candidates

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Washington

The G.O.P. takeover of Congress is forcing the nation's two largest teachers' unions to reconsider campaign-contribution patterns that historically have favored Democrats.

For example, the National Education Association spent $500 on tickets for lobbyists to a recent fund raiser for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a top Senate appropriator who announced last week that he would seek the G.O.P. Presidential nomination in 1996.

"Political-action-committee contributions will go to attending meetings where key people will be," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the N.E.A.'s interim director of government relations.

It is not uncommon for interest groups to make such contributions as the price of access to Washington decisionmakers in both parties.

But the 2.2 million-member N.E.A. and the 870,000-member American Federation of Teachers have historically spent the bulk of their pac money on Democrats, and they have also donated generously to the Democratic Party.

In the 1993-94 campaign cycle, the N.E.A. gave a total of $2.2 million to 365 Democratic Congressional candidates, compared with $26,000 total to 13 Republicans. The average contribution to a Democrat was $6,110, versus $1,985 per Republican.

Similarly, the A.F.T. gave $1.3 million to 243 Democrats and $11,000 to six Republicans. The average contribution to a Democrat was $5,262, compared with $1,833 for Republicans.

Gerald Morris, the director of legislation for the A.F.T., acknowledged that while the union began to soften its attitude toward moderate Republicans last year, the election results have hastened the process.

"We needed a more objective, sliding scale of support," he said. "We don't automatically make categorical assumptions based on what someone has done in the past."

Ideology or Party?

While that means A.F.T. lobbyists will seek out more Republicans on education and labor issues, Mr. Morris added that it is too early to say whether there will be a shift in pac spending.

"I would be surprised if much changes, but we are going toward a more flexible mode," he said.

As for the N.E.A., Ms. Teasley maintained that the news media have incorrectly portrayed the union as firmly aligned with Democrats.

The N.E.A., she argued, is "issues-driven and party-blind," noting that one-third of N.E.A. members identify themselves as Republicans.

Another third are Democrats, and the remaining third are unaffiliated, she said.

Candidate endorsements, she stressed, are based on voting records, not political party--although both unions' endorsements go overwhelmingly to Democrats.

Indeed, labor unions are more likely than business pac's to back candidates based on ideology, said Josh Goldstein, a project director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, Washington-based group that studies campaign finance. Business groups, he said, tend to make contributions to whomever is in power.

"Over all, there is a real strong connection between organized labor and Democrats," he added. "To expect a dramatic shift is not a good thing. It's just not going to happen."

He predicted that the G.O.P. will "generally write off" unions for fund raising even though Republicans will reap a big windfall from other major lobbying groups, especially in the business sector, as long as they are in power.

Reduced Access

Even if it is determined by ideology, the unions' strong ties to the Democratic Party will hardly help them in the current political climate, observers agree.

"The general rule in town is that campaign money buys access. And getting in the door allows lobbyists to influence the outcome of a bill," Mr. Goldstein said.

"Absolutely. It's more difficult for us," Ms. Teasley of the N.E.A. said. "But we're trying to move an agenda with a whole new set of players."

She maintained that the large influx of new members and staff is a more important factor than retaliatory politics.

Making campaign contributions "does offer some access, obviously," the A.F.T.'s Mr. Morris acknowledged, but added: "I don't think that compels them to vote one way."

Mr. Morris said that he and his colleagues had a good deal more access to Democratic leaders last year than they now do to Republicans, and added that education lobbyists had mistakenly given moderate Republicans "short shrift" by paying them insufficient attention.

One prominent Republican lawmaker agreed, and said that respect is more important than contributions.

"The real issue is the fact that the N.E.A. has hardly made any effort to contact or deal with Republicans," said Rep. John Edward Porter, R-Ill., the chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education.

Asked if Republicans might stonewall those who supported opponents, Mr. Porter said: "I guess it's human nature to want to reward your friends and punish your enemies."

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