School & District Management

Unions Provide Money and Personnel for Key Races

By Vaishali Honawar & Bess Keller — October 31, 2006 7 min read
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In the lead-up to Election Day next week, the two national teachers’ unions have set their sights on swaying several state gubernatorial contests, as well as a crop of federal races that could help determine control of Congress.

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There are close races for the top job in several states, including in Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, and Ohio, where Democrats stand a chance of defeating incumbent Republican governors.

Diane Shust, the director of government relations and a senior political operative for the National Education Association, said the union recognized “how critical the governors and the legislatures are to the affiliates and their viability to elect pro-public-education candidates.”

Thus, this past spring, the NEA for the first time drew up a list of target states based in part on gubernatorial contests that might be won by the union-backed candidate.

Meanwhile, as polls showed the fortunes of the Republican Party slipping over the summer and into the fall, the union more than doubled the number of congressional races it would target. While it had expected to engage in just 10 U.S. House and Senate contests, the NEA ended up targeting 23 races.

For the 3.2 million-member NEA and the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, the stakes of this year’s elections are high. The unions are interested in such issues as the scheduled reauthorization of the federal No Child Left Behind Act next year, rising health-care costs, and the increase in the expense of federal student loans, as well as state-level issues like the “65 percent solution” on several state ballots this year.

Both the NEA and the AFT have opposed plans that call for directing at least 65 cents of each dollar in school funding toward classroom instruction, because union officials believe such measures would force cuts in other vital services affecting student achievement.

Mobilizing Members

The unions say they have mobilized large numbers of their members as volunteers to get out the vote. The unions also expect that their political action committees will collect and spend record amounts of money for this cycle.

“This is an important year. … There is an awful lot of intensity,” said Elizabeth Smith, the political director of the AFT, which is seeking to influence state and federal races in states such as California, Colorado, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

As is typically the case, the vast majority of the unions’ money and organizational heft is going in support of Democratic candidates, although some Republican candidates in federal and state races will receive funds.

Political analysts say that the teacher unions wield considerable electoral clout.

“The NEA and the AFT are very influential in party politics,” said Larry J. Sabato, a professor of politics and the head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. He said that the unions’ great strength lies in their ability to provide money and mobilize their members.

“The most important element is actually manpower and womanpower. Volunteers in the campaigns and people getting out the vote—that counts far more than money, although money is also important,” he said.

By September, AFT members had contributed $7.1 million to the union’s political action committee, called the Committee on Political Education, or COPE. By the end of this election cycle, the figure was expected to surpass the $7.5 million that the union’s PAC had collected by the end of the 2004 cycle.

PAC Power

The two national teachers’ unions have collected and given varying amounts to state and federal candidates through their political action committees.

National Education Association’s PAC
2002* 2004 2006**
Funds collected $6.9 million $4.3 million $4.6 million
Funds spent 6.9 million 4.4 million 4.5 million
American Federation of Teachers’ PAC
Funds collected 6.0 million 7.5 million 7.3 million
Funds spent 6.3 million 5.6 million 6.3 million

*Figures cover the two-year period preceding election of the year listed
**Through September

SOURCE: Federal Election Commission

The NEA’s PAC, the Fund for Children and Public Education, had collected more than $4.6 million by September, surpassing the $4.3 million it collected for the whole 2004 cycle.

The NEA’s political resources also include another $4 million in a so-called 527 fund, named after a section of the federal tax code. Such groups typically can collect and spend unlimited amounts of money to sway voters, such as with ads on issues, short of advocating the victory or defeat of a particular candidate.

While the AFT does not have a 527 fund of its own, Ms. Smith said that the union contributes to the 527s that share its electoral goals.

The NEA also has a separate war chest just for state ballot measures that comes from a special dues assessment first approved in 2000. In this election cycle, the NEA will spend about $7 million to weigh in on ballot measures, such as fighting a tax-relief measure in Maine and a “65 percent” plan in Colorado, said Dennis M. Friel, a political field manager for the union. AFT members two years ago approved a similar fund for ballot initiatives, called the Solidarity Fund. The union declined to disclose how much has been collected in the fund for this cycle.

The special dues assessments have been one way the unions have sought to get around efforts backed by union opponents since the 1990s to restrict the unions’ use of payroll deductions to collect money from members for political efforts.

For example, in 1992, Washington state voters passed a measure that required public-employee unions to ask all members annually for permission to deduct PAC funds from their paychecks. That measure led to a drop of 75 percent in the number of members who gave to the PAC of the Washington Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

The Colorado Education Association averted what might have been a serious blow to its political action committee when a Colorado state court ruled in September that Secretary of State Gigi Dennis had overstepped her authority when she tried to require that unions get annual written permission from their members to channel a portion of the unions’ paycheck deductions to PACs. She has dropped the matter.

The ruling presumably freed up thousands of dollars for statehouse races, mostly for Democratic candidates, though Lynne Garramone Mason, the political director of the 37,000-member state teachers’ union, would not give the amount the PAC has raised.

Labor unions have typically been among the largest contributors to federal political campaigns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group, unions as a group have given more than $44 million from their political action committees to federal candidates so far in this election cycle.

The teachers’ unions have contributed a significant percentage of that amount. The AFT, which has given $1.7 million to federal candidates so far, ranks among the top 20 givers to such candidates in this cycle. The NEA has given $1.3 million.

Organized labor typically backs Democrats, and according to the center, 99 percent of the AFT’s federal candidate contributions and 88 percent of the NEA’s contributions have gone to Democrats in this election cycle.

Union officials have often come under criticism from conservative groups that say the unions tend not to reflect the views of a significant minority of their members.

Mike Antonucci, a teacher-union watchdog and blogger based in Elk Grove, Calif., said that the reason the unions support Democrats becomes clearer when one looks at the composition of the unions. In a survey he did last year, Mr. Antonucci found that 51 percent of NEA members described themselves as conservative or leaning conservative, and only 40 percent described themselves as liberal. But that demographic shifts considerably as one looks at members who hold higher positions in the unions.

“By the time you get to the higher levels—presidents of large unions and locals—they are almost exclusively Democrats,” he said. “It only stands to reason that they’re going to support Democrats.”

For state offices, union affiliates tend to give to both Democrats and Republicans, Ms. Smith said, because the unions tend to work closely with politicians at that level.

Buckeye State Battles

In Ohio, the AFT affiliate is supporting Republicans in the legislature who are closely aligned with the union’s viewpoint, said Darold Johnson, the director of legislative and political action for the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

For instance, Mr. Johnson said, the union is supporting state Sen. J. Kirk Schuring and state Rep. Scott Oelslager, both Republicans, because they have introduced legislation that would require greater accountability for charter schools.

When it comes to Ohio’s gubernatorial race, the AFT is working to see a Democrat elected. Many state voters are disillusioned by the scandal-plagued administration of outgoing Republican Gov. Bob Taft, who was convicted on misdemeanor charges last year after he failed to disclose several free golf outings and other gifts. Polls show the Democratic candidate, U.S. Rep. Ted Strickland, leading over the Republican nominee, Ken Blackwell, Ohio’s secretary of state.

The Ohio Federation of Teachers has contributed $20,000 to Mr. Strickland.

Mr. Strickland is particularly attractive to the teachers’ union because of his strong support for early-childhood education, Mr. Johnson said.

“We see the need for a good-quality program to close the achievement gap, and that was one of the first plans that the congressman articulated,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 2006 edition of Education Week as Unions Provide Money and Personnel for Key Races

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