NEA-PAC, Labor’s Largest, Wields Growing Political Clout

By James Hertling — October 03, 1984 9 min read

Thousands of teachers are scouring “the valley” of Texas--the expanse stretching south from Houston to the Gulf Coast and in the west along the Rio Grande--joining in the drive to register one million Hispanic voters before the state’s Oct. 7 deadline.

The teachers’ hope is that these new voters will provide the margin of victory for Lloyd Doggett, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, against his Republican opponent, U.S. Representative Phil Gramm, much as a huge voter-regis-tration drive sealed Gov. Mark White’s 1982 election.

Teachers are campaign coordinators in “just about every county,” said Annette S. Cootes, information officer of the Texas State Teachers Association, the 95,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. They operate phone banks in every county; thousands of building representatives have been deputized as voter registrars; and the union can deliver a political training program anywhere the Doggett campaign wants it, she boasts.

“More than any other group, [teachers] have contributed to ... and taken a person-al interest in our campaign,” said a spokesman for Mr. Doggett, a state senator who has received the maximum contribution of $15,000 from the nea’s political-action committee, known as nea-pac.

‘One of the Best’

Such efforts in Texas and other states illustrate the growing political clout and sophistication of the nea and its state affiliates, which are mobilizing thousands of its members and investing hundreds of thousands of its dollars in scores of election campaigns this year.

nea-pac, the wealthiest political-action committee in organized labor, “is clearly one of the best pacs on the Democratic or liberal side, and there certainly aren’t very many out there,” said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia and author of pac Power: Inside the World of Political Action Committees, published last month. According to officials of the association, more than 70 percent of nea-pac-endorsed candidates have won their elections since 1974.

The $2.1 million nea-pac had raised by the end of July is more than double the amount raised by the group in 1980. Having already contributed more than $1.2 million to more than 300 candidates by the end of July, nea-pac had nearly $1 million left to spend before the November elections, according to documents filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Joseph J. Standa, a political-education specialist with the nea, said most of the funds will go to candidates who have already been endorsed by the union and have received some nea-pac funds, but not the legal maximum. The Federal Election Commission permits political-action committees to contribute up to $5,000 per race, with primaries, runoffs, and general elections counted separately.

No ‘Hit List’

The 12-year old pac has “no special hit list” of senators and representatives, but it plans to make the maximum contribution to the opponents of 29 Congressional incumbents who normally oppose nea positions and who are deemed vulnerable, according to Mr. Standa. nea-pac will also aid 57 incumbent political allies in tough races.

These two types of candidates, along with contests for open seats, constitute nea-pac’s top three priorities, Mr. Standa said.

A preponderance of nea resources goes to Democratic candidates. Records maintained by the Federal Election Commission show that 295 of the 325 candidates who received nea-pac contributions by the end of July were Democrats.

Some 28 percent of the nea’s3members are registered Republicans, and members of the Idaho affiliate recently broke away because of a political disagreement.

A spokesman for the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee called nea an “adjunct of the Democratic Party,” and said, “teachers aren’t going to vote one way just because their leaders say to.”

But dissension among the rank-and-file membership is limited, say national and state leaders of the association. Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia suggests that this is because the endorsement process is democratic: “Everyone has a chance to have his or her say.”

Political Network

The nea has identified 50,000 of its 1.7 million members as political activists. State nea chapters and 2,500 to 3,000 local affiliates each have pacs, according to Mr. Standa.

Holding the network together are “UniServs,” 1,300 nonteaching nea professionals who coordinate state and local affiliates’ political activities and perform numerous other functions, according to Marjorie S. McCreery, UniServ director in the Arlington, Va., area.

Mr. Sabato, whose book analyzed 399 pacs, said he “was very impressed with the rigor applied to the system” of fundraising and decision-making in nea-pac.

nea officials say they do not know exactly how many of their members contribute to the local pacs because the state chapters collect the funds and send them along to the national organization. But Mr. Standa estimates that more than 22 percent of nea’s 1.7 million members, the most ever, have given to nea-pac this year.

State and national nea officials attribute the increase mainly to the Reagan Administration’s policies, to political factors in states and communities, and to the association’s concerted effort to politicize members, who made up the largest bloc of delegates at this summer’s Democratic national convention.

“I attribute [the increase] to Reagan,” Mr. Standa asserted. “We have had members who have lost their jobs, seen the retrenchment [in education], seen the change in civil rights.”

The nea affiliate in North Caro-lina stepped up its political efforts in 1979, in response to spending by Senator Jesse Helms’s huge conservative pac, according to John Dornan, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.

In each of the past three years, the ncae political-action committee has raised between $70,000 and $100,000 and has recently “gotten into fairly sophisticated training on how to target [potential supporters] and how to analyze voter-turnout information,” Mr. Dornan said.

Began Serious Fundraising

In Arlington, Va., the 15-year-old local political-action committee began serious fundraising three years ago, directing its efforts toward unseating the largely Republican school board, said Kathleen T. Hartness, a middle-school teacher who is chairman of the Arlington pac.

Mississippi’s pac began its major political efforts in 1981, in conjunction with then-Gov. William Winter’s push for education reform, according to Tony J. Rollins, executive director of the 13,000-member Mississippi Association of Educators.

“It all went together for us,” said Mr. Rollins, referring to the convergence of mae’s political and educational goals. For the past three years, the state pac has raised $10,000 to $15,000 per year, from about 50 percent of its members.

Other state affiliates whose contributions to nea-pac have increased substantially in the last year include Arizona, California, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, and Washington State, according to Mr. Standa.

Founded in 1972

nea-pac was founded in 1972 as an outgrowth of the nea Citizenship Committee, according to Mr. Standa, who has been with nea-pac ever since.

Members began to recognize that “everything that impacts on their lives is political” and that they needed an avenue for dealing with politicians beyond simple participation in the electoral process, Mr. Standa explained. Steady growth, however, was stalled in the late 1970’s, when the group’s fundraising methods were challenged in court.

Until 1976 in many states, nea-pac would simply deduct $1 above a member’s dues from his or her paycheck. A member who objected would have to request that the sum not be deducted. A federal court ruled this “negative checkoff” practice illegal, and ordered nea-pac to refund $800,000 of contributions, according to Mr. Sabato’s book.

Face-to-Face Fundraising

Since then, the nea’s political data and operations have been computerized and have become increasingly sophisticated. But its fundraising still has relied primarily on the personal touch--member-to-member contact and a little peer pressure, association officials say.

Union representatives in each school solicit from their colleagues donations to nea-pac and its state and local affiliates. Such face-to-face fundraising “is the system we work the hardest. ... It’s a very good system,” said Mr. Standa. One reason for its success, he said, is “the guilt or psychological factor that plays” when one is solicited by a colleague.

In most states, the members’ political donations, along with their dues payments, are made through payroll checkoffs, in which a certain amount is deducted from salaries. The recommended political checkoff, according to Mr. Standa, is $10, but it ranges from $1 to $100.

Creative Techniques

In states such as North Carolina where dues checkoffs are illegal, affiliates are moved to use some creativity in fundraising.

Mr. Dornan said the ncae has arranged with local banks to deduct political-action fees and dues payments from members’ accounts. Last year, the first year of the arrangement, about 9,000 out of 42,000 members participated, accounting for about 10 percent of the pac’s money. Mr. Dornan said he hopes that 13,000 to 14,000 members will participate this year.

Checkoffs are also illegal in Virginia, said Ms. McCreery; thus, the union’s Arlington pac conducts an annual telephone fund drive. About 250 of the local’s 800 members have contributed $15 this year, which is divided evenly between the local, state, and national funds.

In Texas, Ms. Cootes said, a Republican teacher recently bid $1,000 at a fundraising auction to spend a day on the campaign trail with either the Democratic Presidential candidate, Walter F. Mondale, or his running mate, Representative Geraldine A. Ferraro. After all, Ms. Cootes explained, in the home state of Lyndon B. Johnson and Sam Rayburn, “we cut our teeth on politics.”

Grassroots Endorsement Process

Local nea members also set in motion the endorsement process. Once a candidate requests funds, a local committee interviews him or her, reviews positions on education and related issues, and makes a recommendation to the state pac, which passes it to the nea-pac Council, a group composed of state presidents, various caucus representatives, and nea executives.

More than 99 percent of the time, the council approves the recommendation, Mr. Standa noted. The funding level for the endorsed candidate is decided by a nine-member executive committee, which met Sept. 20 for the last time during this political season; the panel includes six members elected at the national convention, and nea’s president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer.

This “clearly delineated” endorsement system contrasts with the “seat-of-the-pants method” employed by the endorsement committees of most pacs, Mr. Sabato of the University of Virginia said.

More Valuable Than Money

Often, according to nea officials and campaign spokesmen, individual members make contributions to Congressional campaigns that are more valuable than money.

For example, between 150 and 200 nea members have worked in the campaign of State Senator Richard Saslaw of Virginia, the Democrat challenging U.S. Representative Stanford E. Parris. The volunteers have worked phone banks or hit the streets to canvass voters and raise funds, he said. “They were there very early and very strong,” said Joe Gleason, Mr. Saslaw’s campaign manager, “and that’s important to us.”

Adds Mr. Dornan of North Carolina: “Our real impact is through our membership. Any group that can deliver several hundred volunteers day after day after day is a valuable thing to a candidate.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 03, 1984 edition of Education Week as NEA-PAC, Labor’s Largest, Wields Growing Political Clout