NEA Endorsing More Candidates From the GOP

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Glenn Poshard might seem a shoo-in for winning the endorsement of teachers' groups in his bid to become the next governor of Illinois.

The Democratic congressman has been a champion of President Clinton's proposals for modernizing school buildings, hiring new teachers, and expanding professional development for educators. He's even a former public school teacher himself.

Yet, when the Illinois Education Association announced its recommendations for next month's election, the 98,000-member union went with Mr. Poshard's Republican challenger, Secretary of State George Ryan.

"It's not that Glenn Poshard is not admired, or that he has not done yeopersons' work for education," said George King, an IEA spokesman. "It's just that at the state level, George Ryan--whose education platforms almost perfectly match our strategic plan--has a track record of moving critical issues. He is a doer, and he is someone who wants to be known once and for all time for changing public education positively in Illinois."

The decision to back Mr. Ryan reflects a growing willingness among the NEA and some of its state affiliates to reach out to the GOP. Democrats still enjoy the bulk of the union's recommendations and campaign contributions, but three weeks before this year's midterm elections, a scorecard shows the union making progress, little by little, in its attempts to become more bipartisan:

  • While the NEA supported just one GOP congressional candidate in the 1995-96 election cycle, last week its political action committee approved a final set of recommendations that includes 15 Republicans. (The NEA had endorsed three more Republicans who lost in their primaries.)
  • The NEA's Arizona and Kansas affiliates recently announced they were backing incumbent Republicans for governor, breaking a long tradition of supporting Democrats in each state. In Connecticut, Idaho, and a half-dozen other states, the union's affiliates have opted not to take sides in their gubernatorial races.
  • The NEA has recommended at least two Republicans running for federal office who have promoted local school voucher programs, though in both cases the union says the candidates don't believe vouchers should be a national issue.

A New Focus

The 2.4 million-member NEA has long been one of the Democratic Party's most loyal boosters. The union's backing is coveted both for the money that often comes with it and for the important promise of members willing to volunteer to do much of a campaign's heavy lifting.

The $2.3 million it doled out to congressional candidates in the last election cycle made its political action committee the fifth most generous in the country. The smaller American Federation of Teachers' PAC, which also leans heavily toward Democrats, ranked 16th.

The partisan tilt, however, became less of an asset after 1994, when the Republicans gained majorities in both the U.S. House and Senate.

"The NEA had put all their eggs in one basket, and they had become identified as a wing of the Democratic Party among Republicans," said John F. Jennings, who directs the Washington-based Center on Education Policy. "They faced a situation when the Republicans came to power where their folks could not even be let in the door," said Mr. Jennings, a former education aide to House Democrats.

While this fall's recommendations reflect the changing political tide, NEA officials say the shift was the result of polls and focus groups conducted with their own members starting in 1995.

"It became clear to us that our members are Republicans, and Democrats, and independents," said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of government relations. "They reflect the general public, and they wanted their organization to be less partisan."

One result was the revamping of the questionnaires the group uses when considering which candidates to support. The new forms trimmed away questions on social issues such as gun control and abortion rights and concentrated more on issues of educational quality, said Ken Ruberg, who was brought on as a political consultant for the effort. The group also honed its system for rating lawmakers' voting records, he added.

"They tried very much to focus the endorsement criteria on the core questions of education, like school technology, teacher training, access to education, and infrastructure," said Mr. Ruberg, who also directs the Republican Mainstream Alliance, a Washington group that encourages the involvement of more women and moderates in the GOP.

While politically pragmatic for the teachers' organization, the new approach also may reflect the evolving views many Republicans hold on education.

"I think there are more Republicans putting serious efforts together on education platforms, and they deserve credit," said former U.S. Sen. William E. Brock, a Republican from Tennessee who now chairs Intellectual Development Systems of Annapolis, Md., which provides academic services to special-needs students in districts across the country.

States Out Front

Some of the NEA's state affiliates--which make their own recommendations for state-level offices independent of the national organization--were backing more Republicans long before their parent group began reconsidering its endorsement process, Ms. Teasley said.

In the Land of Lincoln, leaders of the Illinois Education Association say their recommendations for state-level races now break down almost evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Backing only one party, Mr. King said, leaves "no room on the other side of the aisle to move toward your issue."

The affiliate credits its bipartisan strategy in part with getting the state's GOP-controlled Senate and Republican governor to sign off recently on a $25.6 billion teacher-retirement package.

But turning a supertanker-sized organization like the nea takes longer than making such state-level commitments. Although lengthier than in the past, the list of Republican congressional candidates supported by the national union falls well short of the nearly 300 Democrats it's backing in House and Senate races this fall.

Trends in the union's campaign spending show similarly slow progress. Two years ago, the NEA's political action committee gave less than 1 percent of its total contributions to GOP congressional candidates, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending.

An analysis that the center released last week shows the GOP portion up to about 5 percent; the totals include contributions only through July.

"I think a move from 1 percent or less to 5 percent or so is a significant step in the right direction," Mr. Ruberg, the political consultant, said. "I don't know that the NEA will ever divide things 50-50. But an agreement has been made to continue to reach out and to continue this in the next year or two."

Never '100 Percent'

In a few cases, the NEA's choices have rankled some of its members, as when the national PAC approved the Ohio Education Association's recommendation to back George V. Voinovich in his race for the U.S. Senate. As Ohio's current governor, the Republican has been a leading proponent of the state's voucher experiment in Cleveland.

"It makes you think, because you've got our state union supporting a man who's making us battle for our positions and our students," said Kevin Zacovic, the president of the 780-member Lorain Education Association, one of the union's local Ohio affiliates.

But union leaders decided not to make the issue a litmus test, Ms. Teasley of the national organization said. Although Mr. Voinovich championed the voucher program, spending on education in Ohio has increased at more than twice the rate of inflation during his eight years as governor. Said Mike Billirakis, the president of the state affiliate: "You can never have a 100 percent voting record from anyone these days, but he's been supportive of the vast majority of our issues."

The NEA also has endorsed the re-election of U.S. Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, R-Va., who has voted in favor of a voucher proposal for the District of Columbia. Neither Mr. Voinovich nor Mr. Davis, however, advocates a national voucher plan, according to Ms. Teasley.

The union "could remain purely partisan and not get anything done," said Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia. "To their credit, they've realized that ideological purity is only for ideologues."

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Pages 1, 21

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as NEA Endorsing More Candidates From the GOP
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