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Kennedy Surprises Feldman

Web Extra!

Sandra Feldman’s decision to step down from the president’s job at the American Federation of Teachers drew some surprise political star power to the union’s biennial convention, which is being held July 14-17 in Washington.

Taking the stage at the end of the union’s formal farewell to Ms. Feldman on July 14, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., joked: “You didn’t think you could have a tribute to Sandra Feldman without Ted Kennedy?”

Voices from the AFT's annual meeting:

Excerpts from Sen. Edward Kennedy's speech. (5:08; MP3 format)

The nearly 3,000 delegates gathered in the Washington Convention Center roared their approval, and dozens rushed to the foot of the stage to take pictures of the now-white-haired youngest brother of President F. John Kennedy.

Sen. Kennedy praised Ms. Feldman as one of the first to recognize that “every child in American should start school ready to learn”—if not from home experiences, then from high-quality early-childhood education.

And he said that “it’s wonderful to be with a president I can agree with as much as I do,” a not-so-oblique reference to President Bush.

Alluding to the breast-cancer recurrence that led Ms. Feldman to relinquish the AFT presidency, the senator said, “You have our thoughts and our prayers.” The union leader, who has held the office since she succeeded the late, legendary Albert Shanker in 1997, said she needed more time than the job allowed for a new round of treatments.

Finally, Mr. Kennedy just put it this way: “We love you, Sandy.”

—Bess Keller

Union ‘Sells’ Political Action

The AFT convention is not lacking in politics. The first thing you see when you walk into the hall at the Washington Convention Center is the Political Action Center.

In one part of the center, union delegates can choose from four different ways to get involved. They can contact their members of Congress on issues ranging from health care to education funding; volunteer for local campaigns; register to vote via the Internet; or contribute money to the John Kerry-John Edwards campaign for the White House. The union has generally been allied with the Democratic Party, and this year’s presidential race is no exception.

Most visitors gravitate toward the “Contact Congress” area, according to Neil Robertson, a senior associate with the AFT’s political- and legislative-mobilization department, because they are used to seeing it at the conventions and on the AFT Web site.

The other part of the Political Action Center is also popular among the delegates and other convention visitors. It is the COPE, or Committee on Political Education, store. Here you buy various items, such as pins, which go for $5, “three-season jackets” for $55, and even CD holders for your car visor for $10—all emblazoned with “AFT.” Or, following the political-action theme, for $5 you can get a lapel pin that says “AFT Supports Kerry for President.”

How popular is the store? Well, although the daily totals had not yet been tabulated as of early in the day on July 14, in the 40 minutes the store was opened before the convention started, the sellers took in more than $1,300. That’s not too bad for a fraction of a day’s work.

—Catherine A. Carroll

Va. Teacher Really Gets Involved

One of the ways the AFT is constantly trying to get its members involved is by encouraging them to run for local office. Jeion A. Ward is one delegate who took that suggestion seriously—and now she’s a delegate to more than just a union convention.

Ms. Ward, of Hampton, Va., started out as a paraprofessional in the classroom, with just a high school diploma, almost two decades ago. After earning a bachelor’s degree and teacher certification at night school, and being elected president of her local AFT affiliate, she decided to run for the Virginia House of Delegates.

“The things I start fighting for—I have to show people it can be done, so I do it,” Ms. Ward said.

Never having run for public office before, and with her entire platform based on education, she found some people were skeptical about supporting her. But her dogged campaigning made a difference.

“I went to so many doors, and so many churches,” she said. “I went everywhere.” Having the AFT behind her didn’t hurt, either. She received numerous donations—most in the $5 to $10 range—and lots of member-volunteers sacrificed their vacations to help out. “I just had so many people cheering me on. … I couldn’t have done it without them,” said the Democrat, who won her seat in the state legislature’s lower house last November.

And as for those dedicated volunteers? The first day she arrived at the state Capitol in Richmond, she had an entourage of more than 40 campaign workers. She wouldn’t sit down in her chair until each and every volunteer present had tried it out first. According to Ms. Ward, they had earned it.

“I felt like this was their seat.”

—Catherine A. Carroll

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