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How Possible Democratic Presidential Contenders Have Handled Betsy DeVos

By Andrew Ujifusa — February 06, 2017 5 min read
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If Betsy DeVos ever had any hopes of getting Democratic senators to confirm her as education secretary, they probably evaporated right after her January confirmation hearing ended. But some of the Democrats most eager to oppose DeVos seem to be among those who are being floated in the media and elsewhere as possible 2020 contenders for the presidency—including one of DeVos’ recent allies.

Below, we’ve rounded up some reactions from Democrats (several of them in the Senate) to DeVos’ nomination, in alphabetical order. We drew the names on this list from a column in the Hill newspaper. Have we left any prominent White House hopefuls out? Let us know in the comments section. One note on this list: Every Democratic senator here has voted in favor of at least one of President Donald Trump’s nominees.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, of New Jersey: Booker’s position with respect to DeVos is the trickiest of anyone on the list. He previously served on the board of the Alliance for School Choice— DeVos’ signature issue is expanding vouchers and other forms of choice. And he received enthusiastic support from the American Federation for Children, the pro-voucher organization DeVos led until recently. At a speech to the AFC just last year, Booker told the group, “We have a lot to brag about in Newark, in this cauldron of educational creativity we’ve created, that has been liberating the choice of our parents. As the Brookings Institution said, Newark is now the no. 4 city in the country for offering parents real school choice.” (Booker is the former mayor of Newark.) The full speech is below:

However, Booker announced the day after her confirmation hearing that he would not vote for DeVos, and stressed that he had “serious issues” with her nomination before that hearing. That sent a signal to many that he was eager to distance himself from and oppose the Trump administration in any way possible, in possible preparation for a 2020 run. (Booker did vote in favor of James Mattis for defense secretary and in favor of Nikki Halley for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.)

  • Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York: We reached out to Cuomo’s press office multiple times to get his views on DeVos, and will update this post if we hear back. However, last month CNN noted that in a 2015 speech DeVos praised Cuomo (and Booker, as well as other public officials) for expanding school choice in their states.

    There aren’t state-level private school choice programs in New York state. However, Cuomo has been an enthusiastic backer of charter schools in the state.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York: Gillibrand cast her opposition to DeVos not just in terms of support for public schools—she also seemed to reference DeVos’ comments about the need for guns in schools to protect people from grizzly bears in her statement against the nominee:

  • Sen. Kamala Harris of California: The former California attorney general doesn’t have a particularly extensive background in education policy. But the same day the Senate education committee sent DeVos’ nomination to the full Senate, Harris made her views on the nominee very plain:

  • Gov. John Hickenlooper of Colorado: A spokeswoman for Hickenlooper told us that “he hasn’t weighed in on DeVos” and was not reachable for comment. In an interview with the Colorado Politics website last week, he did indicate surprise about some of the backgrounds of Trump’s cabinet nominees, although he didn’t mention DeVos specifically.

    “That’s why the media has taken such notice of President Trump’s appointments, because it is unusual to appoint people to be the head of agencies where they have little or no experience,” Hickenlooper said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad thing. Sometimes people can surprise you ... but there is a sense ... that it’s so startling in a way that it does seem like there’s an ulterior motive.”

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.: Sanders made it pretty clear what he thought of DeVos’ nomination: During her confirmation hearing last month, Sanders pointedly asked her if she thought she would be the nominee without the millions of dollars her family has donated to Republican politicians. DeVos responded that she thought it would be possible, given her education advocacy for 30 years. And he also pressed her on whether she would support providing free tuition to students at public colleges and universities. You can watch Sanders’ exchange with DeVos here:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.: Warren also took an aggressive approach to DeVos, questioning her mostly about higher education and student loans during the confirmation hearing. During the Senate education committee vote two weeks later, Warren said it was hard to imagine a “less qualified or more dangerous” candidate than DeVos to lead the Education Department.

    A video has also made the rounds showing that Warren, unlike other senators, did not shake hands with DeVos after the confirmation hearing.

  • BONUS: Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.: Kaine has ruled out a presidential run in 2020. We’ll see if that holds. However, it’s worth remembering that it was Kaine who initiated the exchange with DeVos about special education that arguably ignited the most controversy and backlash within the education community. That exchange took place during DeVos’ Jan. 17 confirmation hearing, when he asked her about the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Education with respect to students with disabilities.

You can watch Kaine question DeVos here:

Among the officials we’ve listed who have gotten support from teachers’ union at some point in their political campaigns are Harris, Sanders, Warren, and Kaine.

Top: screencap of Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., at a national event held by the American Federation for Children, the group formerly led by Betsy DeVos that supports vouchers and other forms of school choice.

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