Brand New Faces For Grand Old Party

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New Orleans--To some, James M. Campbell may seem a walking contradiction in terms.

The Utah teacher is an active member of the National Education Association, serving now as president of his state affiliate.

And, he is an avid Republican.

"It isn't always easy being a Republican and a member of the n.e.a.," Mr. Campbell confessed at an education forum held here as part of the Republican National Convention.

In fact, added one of Mr. Campbell's fellow Utah teachers, Allen Rasmussen, "Republicans seem to think the n.e.a. is a left-wing organization."

But both men--and most of the 40 nea members who served as delegates here--were adamant in their belief that, if George Bush is to become the "education President" he says he wants to be, he must learn, in Mr. Rasmussen's words, "to work with the nation's largest education union."

And there were signs here--small, but nonetheless historic--that the fence-mending needed for that cooperation may have begun.

The n.e.a. sponsored this year what union officials said was their first official function at a Republican convention, $15,000 luncheon honoring Maureen Reagan, co-chairman of the Republican National Committee, for her efforts to promote sex equity.

And Vice President Bush moved closer to a decision to take part in the union's official political-endorsement process, which he did last week by completing the nea's candidate questionnaire. (See story on page 18.)

Escalating War of Words

While the union and the Grand Old Party have never been close allies, in recent years their relations have been particularly strained as Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and the nea's president, Mary Hatwood Futrell, have engaged in an escalating war of words over the course of reform.

Last year, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Mr. Bennett called the powerful union the "most entrenched and aggressive opponent of education reform."

In an interview the same week, he repeated that charge and described the nea as "the most powerful labor union in the world, ... maybe the most powerful special interest in the United States."

"But it's not just because they're big" that he opposes them, the Secretary said. "It's because they're big and wrong."

For her part, Ms. Futrell has charged the current Republican Administration with being "duplicitous" in its rhetoric and action on education while leading a "retreat on equity."

"The Reagan regime's motto has become 'educate the best, forget the rest,"' she said in a speech last year. And, in another appearance, she predicted that American voters in 1988 would reject what she called "voodoo education" as they had rejected the Administration's "voodoo economics" in the off-year elections.

Opening the Process

All of the tension seemed to be momentarily suspended here, however, as Ms. Futrell shared a table with the President's daughter at the nea luncheon and later was Ms. Reagan's guest in her box at a convention session.

"This event is an exciting step," said Edward R. Dorsett, former president of the Connecticut Education Association, of the union-hosted luncheon. "It is a real effort by the n.e.a. to work with the Republican Party."

Mr. Campbell of Utah said that the election year offers a golden opportunity to improve relations between the union and the party and the n.e.a. is trying to seize it.

"Mary is a dyed-in-the-wool-Democrat," he said, "but she has been very committed to opening the union up."

He cited the establishment three years ago of a Republican Educators Caucus, of which he is now chairman, within the union, as evidence of the commitment to balance.

Out of the union's 1.9 million members, 600,000 belong to the Republican party, Mr. Campbell said. "Now, you don't have to be ashamed to be a Republican."

Mr. Dorsett of Connecticut conceded that the 40 nea-affiliated delegates here contrasted sharply with the union's 291 delegates and 80 alternates at the Democratic convention--a group that represented the largest block of delegates from a single organization.

But Mr. Dorsett stressed that although the Republican nea delegates were few, their presence marked "a beginning." And he pointed to the union's Republican strength at the state level, where many affiliates, he said, have good relations with the state party and often endorse Republican candidates.

"The n.e.a. really wants to see the process open at the national level, so that we can work with whoever is in office," he said. "The leadership understands that the only win-win situation is to have candidates from all parties as advocates of education."

Still Seeking 'Respect'

But according to Mr. Campbell, the Republican party may not yet be meeting the nea halfway in its effort to clear the air and open new lines of communication.

He was less than pleased, he said, with the treatment he was accorded when he testified before the Republican platform subcommittee on education.

"I wasn't treated with a lot of respect," he said. Though he had not expected the committee to embrace all of the n.e.a. positions, Mr. Campbell said, "I had some constructive things to say, and I tried to focus my testimony on those things."

But the platform committee virtually ignored his testimony, he said, preferring to grill him instead on issues such as the n.e.a.'s position on counseling gay students and the union's support of site-based health clinics.

The n.e.a.'s Republican Educators Caucus has also been very disappointed, Mr. Campbell said, that Vice President Bush has resisted participation in the union's endorsement process.

After the n.e.a.'s national convention in July, the union's Republican caucus sent a letter to the Bush campaign asking that the candidate fill out the questionnaire sent to all Presidential candidates and agree to conduct the required interview with Ms. Futrell.

The questionnaires and videotapes of the interviews have been used at local meetings across the country to aid union members in their selection of a candidate to support in the union's endorsement process and in the general elections.

The union is expected to announce its endorsement on Sept. 8.

Bush Bows To Pressure

There was talk here that Mr. Bush had filled out the nea questionnaire and would be open to a meeting with Ms. Futrell. But nothing concrete came of the rumors during the convention.

Mr. Campbell said he had enlisted the aid of Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah and former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell in helping convince the Vice President to participate.

On Mr. Bush's much photographed riverboat cruise down the Mississippi, Mr. Campbell did get a couple of minutes with the candidate to make his pitch.

"I asked him to participate in our process, and he said the endorsement was already locked up," the Utah teacher recalled. "Then I told him that there were 600,000 Republicans in the n.e.a. that wanted to hear his message."

"When he heard that number," Mr. Campbell said, "he did a double take."

Apparently, the lobbying by Mr. Campbell and others was enough to convince the Vice President, for last week Mr. Bush completed and returned the nea questionnaire, although ballots for the endorsement had already been sent out.

For Mr. Campbell, however, joining in the nea's endorsement sweepstakes is only the first step. Gaining credibility on the issues that concern the union will be a longer and more important journey.

"As a Republican, I'm working hard on the inside [of the n.e.a.]," he said. "Now, it's time I got some help from the outside."

Vol. 08, Issue 01

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