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Published in Print: October 29, 2008, as Unions Battle For Democrats In Swing States

Unions Battle for Democrats in Swing States

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Teachers’ unions around the country have shifted into high gear in the countdown to the presidential election next week, and nowhere is the fervor more evident than in the battleground states.

In Florida, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, affiliates of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have been campaigning with every tool at their disposal, including newsletters, fliers, postcards, and volunteers to reach out to more than 4 million members and their families.

The two national unions, which have both endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, have raised and spent large sums of money on this election, including on radio advertisements in those areas being closely contested by their candidate and Republican nominee John McCain.

With educators, as for most Americans, the economy is the biggest single issue this year, union officials say.

Teachers’ Pets

Donors identifying themselves as public school teachers gave the most to Barack Obama in this election cycle, through June.

“Whether it is the layoffs that have been happening in certain states, whether it is teachers who drive 60 miles to get to work, whether it is the gas prices that are high, ... the economy affects educators, and it is hitting them on a lot of different levels,” said Karen White, the political director of the 3.2 million-member NEA.

“The economy has trumped every other issue,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 1.4 million-member AFT. “State and local governments are being faced with terrible Hobson’s choices” on what to cut from education spending, she said.

While “we don’t agree with everything Obama says, I give him credit for being open and upfront about his proposals and how he wants to ensure all children get a decent education in the wake of the economic situation,” Ms. Weingarten said.

The teachers’ unions have also praised Sen. Obama’s policies on health care and on key issues in education, including his support for early-childhood education, college affordability, and full funding for critical education programs.

Local union officials say they are seeing a never-before-evidenced sense of urgency among members in getting the vote out.

“There have been a lot of big elections, but I’ve never seen energy and excitement and the sheer number of volunteers as we’ve had in this election,” said Barbara Goodman, a spokeswoman for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate.

Gretchen Egelkamp calls fellow Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members to gain support for candidates from the phone bank at union headquarters.
Gretchen Egelkamp calls fellow Philadelphia Federation of Teachers members to gain support for candidates from the phone bank at union headquarters.
—Photo by Jason Rearick for Education Week

By early October, officials said, the NEA and its affiliates had distributed more than 4.2 million pieces of mail, made more than 2.1 million phone calls, and sent more than 1.3 million e-mails to members in battleground states about the Nov. 4 presidential election.

Crossing State Lines

Affiliates reported an influx of members from other states to help out with volunteering. Members from Maryland and the District of Columbia are flooding into Virginia to help out, while members from Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey are offering their services to Pennsylvania affiliates, Ms. White said.

To wage their battle, the national unions’ political action committees have raised significant amounts of money for this election cycle. The AFT, though the smaller of the two unions, has been the bigger spender, having collected nearly $9 million and spent $10.4 million, including money left over from the last election cycle, by the end of September, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based research group that tracks election spending.

In October alone, its PAC, Committee on Political Education, spent nearly $2 million targeting voters in swing states with radio ads favoring Sen. Obama. Ms. Weingarten said the ads are attempting to douse some of what she called the “mean-spirited” advertising by the McCain campaign that has tried, she said, to demonize the Illinois Democrat and his affiliations.

Almost all COPE spending was on Democratic races, with the AFT spending just 1 percent on Republicans.

The NEA spent more conservatively: just $3.4 million of the $5.9 million its PAC raised. Ms. White said, however, that by the end of the election cycle, she expects the union to have raised and spent at least $8 million. Eight percent of the NEA’s spending this election cycle was on Republicans.

According to Ms. White, the NEA is supporting several Republican candidates for local and statewide offices based on their support for education. In New York, for instance, the powerful New York State United Teachers, a merged AFT-NEA affiliate, is backing a number of state Senate Republicans who opposed midyear cuts in school aid.

Some policy experts say the teacher unions have a long history of supporting “liberal politicians.”

“It is no surprise that the NEA and the nation’s largest teacher unions would favor the candidate that favors expanding government,” said Dan Lips a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. He added that there are “many teachers who would probably be concerned” by the unions’ “far-left agenda.”

An analysis by Education Week of a database from the Center for Responsive Politics shows, however that teachers who donate individually to federal campaigns also tend to give mostly to Democrats.

Union Election Activity

(In millions)

By the end of June—the latest breakdown of this data—747 donors who identified themselves as public school teachers had contributed a total of more than $321,500 to Sen. Obama. In contrast, Sen. McCain, the Arizona Republican, had received about $46,500 from 56 donors identifying themselves as public school teachers.

Carrots or Sticks

The unions’ unequivocal support for Sen. Obama comes despite the fact that he does not see eye to eye with them on some core issues. His support for teacher performance pay and charter schools, for instance, has not been greeted enthusiastically by the unions.

Some leaders of state affiliates that have struggled with such issues as charter schools say, however, that they believe they can work out their differences if Mr. Obama is elected.

“While we may not agree with him 100 percent, he has demonstrated a willingness to talk,” said Ohio Federation of Teachers President Sue Taylor. “The way I phrase this is, do we want sticks or do we want carrots?”

Ms. Taylor pointed to the No Child Left Behind Act. Sen. Obama, who was not yet in Congress when it was enacted, “understands [the law] is a totally unfunded mandate and that there is more to teaching than tests,” she said. Ms. Taylor said she is also happy that he opposes vouchers. The union has opposed Ohio’s 4-year-old voucher program as well as the older Cleveland one enacted by the state legislature in 1995.

As for Sen. McCain, Ms. Taylor said, the union has not seen evidence that he is interested in improving education. And, she added, “he has not shown any interest in working with us.”

To help Sen. Obama’s bid for the White House, AFT people from Ms. Weingarten to retired members of the union and its affiliates are pitching in.

The union president already has been campaigning in such key states as Florida, Ohio, and Virginia, and on Oct. 31 is scheduled to embark on a three-day bus tour through Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

In Philadelphia, Lorraine McRae Overton, a retired school-community coordinator, has been volunteering every day at the local AFT affiliate’s offices, where she coordinates the phone bank.

Sen. Obama, Ms. Overton said, touched a chord with her because he once worked as a community organizer—a job that she says had similarities to her own. The Democrat not only understands the importance of education, she said, but also such issues as Medicare, Social Security, and health care, which are important to retired union members and senior citizens.

“We’re truly working for him here, and I will give him my all,” she said.

Other Races

In the hotly contested Virginia race, Bill Johnson, a spokesman for the Virginia Education Association, said the NEA affiliate is focusing on the presidential race as well as the U.S. Senate election. Former Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat whom the union supports, is pitted against former Gov. James S. Gilmore III, a Republican, for the open seat.

“Our strategy has been to first make sure that every member knows about the recommendation and how it’s made, and we’ve done that through our statewide publications,” Mr. Johnson said.

Each undecided member will have received at least five union mailings during the election season intended to inform them about the candidates, he said.

Sandy Sullivan, the president of the Loudoun Education Association in Virginia, an NEA affiliate, said her union has a postcard-writing party scheduled for this week. To the preprinted postcards, “our members add a note, something like, ‘Hope to see you at the polls,’ ” to ensure members get out to vote on Election Day, she said.

In Miami-Dade County, Fla., said Frederick Ingram, the secretary-treasurer of United Teachers of Dade, a merged affiliate of the AFT and the NEA, the union has mobilized its retirees, among other members. “They’re working here at our offices from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. phone-banking,” he said.

The national unions have sent staff members from headquarters to all the swing states to help affiliates with campaigning. The NEA, said Ms. White, has deployed close to 100 staff members nationwide.

In addition to the presidential race, both unions are focusing on congressional, gubernatorial, and state legislative and local races that they consider essential to furthering their agendas.

Altogether, Ms. White said, the NEA is involved in 44 U.S. House races, 11 Senate races, and four gubernatorial races.

The AFT is focusing on 10 Senate races and 35 House races, among others, Ms. Weingarten said.

Still, it is the presidential race that has energized the union forces.

Ms. Taylor of the Ohio Federation of Teachers said local affiliates have been hard at work to let members know what the union deems the major differences between the two candidates.

As of last week, a CNN-Time poll showed Sen. Obama holding a 50 percent lead over Sen. McCain’s 46 percent among likely voters in Ohio. The poll had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

“Staff from the AFT and from our New York colleagues,” Ms. Taylor said, “are taking vacation time and volunteering and assisting. Everyone knows we are ground zero.”

Research Librarian Rachael Delgado and Library Intern Colin Welch contributed to this story.

Vol. 28, Issue 10, Pages 1,14-15

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