In Pa. Primary, AFT Hits the Streets

By David J. Hoff — April 14, 2008 8 min read
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Every day, 14 retired teachers and other school employees arrive at the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ headquarters and go to work for Hillary Rodham Clinton.

For a $600-a-week stipend plus parking and meals, the retirees do the nuts and bolts of campaign work: call union members, stuff envelopes, and deliver pamphlets to schools throughout the city.

The retirees—working with volunteers and union staff members from as far away as Alaska—are working to inform teachers’ union members why the American Federation of Teachers favors the New York senator for the Democratic presidential nomination over Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

On most issues, they are very close, but on education, there’s a clear difference,” argued Ted Kirsch, the president of the 36,000-member AFT Pennsylvania, which is based in the PFT offices in the downtown shopping district here.

Sen. Clinton has been more emphatic about overhauling the No Child Left Behind Act and has opposed merit pay for teachers, said Mr. Kirsch, who as a vice president of the national union took part in the AFT’s decision to endorse Sen. Clinton in October.

Sen. Obama didn’t “have a clear position” on the federal law when AFT leaders interviewed him last year, according to Mr. Kirsch. Speaking to the National Education Association last summer, Sen. Obama endorsed basing teachers’ pay, in part, on their “classroom success.” Last fall, the AFT and the National Education Association opposed an effort to include similar experiments in a draft bill for the now-stalled reauthorization of the NCLB law. (“Unions Assail Teacher Ideas in NCLB Draft,” Sept. 19, 2007.)

Vote Up for Grabs?

But political experts question whether such differences between the two remaining Democratic contenders will matter much for teachers voting next week in the Pennsylvania primary, which has become the latest focal point of the long fight for the party’s 2008 nomination.

In Pennsylvania, as in earlier-voting states, polls are finding that voters are choosing the candidates based largely on personal appeal, said G. Terry Madonna, a professor of political science at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

The efforts of the AFT and its Pennsylvania affiliates to persuade their members based on K-12 policy differences between the candidates are unlikely to be decisive in Sen. Clinton’s campaign to win the state, said Mr. Madonna, who is the director of the Franklin & Marshall poll of Pennsylvania politics.

“The distinctions are so subtle,” Mr. Madonna said. “This campaign has little to do with issue differences.”

In the Franklin & Marshall survey and other recent polls, Mr. Madonna said, Sen. Obama trails Sen. Clinton by 7 to 9 percentage points. The New York senator’s lead is larger than the margins of error in several polls, but it appears to be shrinking, he said.

In the race for the nomination, Sen. Obama has collected more delegates to the Democratic National Convention than Sen. Clinton. But it’s possible that he won’t secure enough delegates to win the nomination, raising the prospect that the contest would remain undecided until late August.

Sen. Clinton needs to win in Pennsylvania to bolster her case for staying in the race, Mr. Madonna said.

American Federation of Teachers members Jennifer Rodriguez, left, of Austin, Texas, and Peggy Wilcox of Anchorage, Alaska, canvas for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential candidacy last week in Lansdowne, Pa.

The AFT volunteers and staff members working in the basement of the Philadelphia local’s headquarters appear to be unanimous in their support for Sen. Clinton. But their support doesn’t necessarily reflect a consensus among teachers throughout the state—or the city.

Over the weekend of April 11-12, leaders of the Pennsylvania State Education Association interviewed both Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama. The 185,000-member affiliate of the NEA declined to endorse either Democrat.

NEA Waits

Some members of the NEA state union’s board of directors and its political action committee had strong preferences for one or the other candidate. But the state affiliate decided not to endorse either one because union officials didn’t see dramatic differences between Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama, said Jim Testerman, the PSEA’s president.

“In the issues we engage in, … both candidates are fairly close,” Mr. Testerman said. “At this point, folks are waiting for the primary process to play itself out.”

The NEA state affiliate’s stance is in line with that of its national parent. The 3.2 million-member NEA has not endorsed a candidate, although its state and local branches are free to do so.

The Illinois Education Association-NEA, for example, supports Sen. Obama. Likewise, the AFT has allowed its affiliates to go their own way; its Illinois state union and its Chicago local are among Mr. Obama’s backers. (“Teachers’ Unions Take Own Path on Election,” Jan. 30, 2008.)

Here in Philadelphia, some PFT members also are active supporters of Sen. Obama.

“Their membership has not whole-heartedly endorsed” Sen. Clinton, said Janet H. Ryder, the vice president for labor participation for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Ms. Ryder is on the April 22 primary ballot to be a convention delegate for Sen. Obama.

“I know plenty of teachers who are not endorsing Hillary Clinton,” she said.

Ms. Ryder said many teachers are supporting the Illinois senator because he’s taken a stronger stance against the war in Iraq and because they believe he understands the needs of urban communities.

“He comes from Chicago, which has the exact same problems we have in Philadelphia,” said Ms. Ryder, a PFT member and a former political director for AFT Pennsylvania.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ headquarters is the center of the AFT’s efforts in Pennsylvania. The AFT has smaller campaign operations around the state, in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Pittston, and Franklin.

In addition, the PFT has a small phone bank at the University of Pennsylvania, where the PFT is operating an effort to organize graduate students who work as teaching assistants at the Ivy League university on Philadelphia’s west side.

And the union is opening a storefront campaign office in Plymouth Meeting, northeast of the city. The PFT also places volunteers in the halls of other unions throughout the city.

‘Do-Not-Contact’ List

In the 2,000 calls a day made to members by its campaign workers from the basement of PFT headquarters, those contacted are “overwhelmingly for Hillary,” according to Jerry S. Pollack, the president of the PFT-Retired, who is one of the former school employees paid to work on the campaign.

But the callers sometimes report that members won’t support Sen. Clinton. Early last week, for example, one caller told her colleagues of a conversation in which a member said: “Hillary represents the past. I’m not voting for her, and my wife’s not voting for her, either.”

In such cases, the phone canvassers are told to offer to mail the member a brochure explaining why the AFT is supporting Sen. Clinton and record where such members stand on a tally sheet. The record is later scanned into a database that will determine whether to contact the member again.

Later in the day, two door-to-door canvassers didn’t find many supporters of Sen. Clinton when they visited union households in the working-class town of Croydon, which is north of Philadelphia between Interstate 95 and the Delaware River.

Scott Spector, the government-relations director for AFT-Wisconsin, and Bruce Senkow, the president of the Alaska Public Employees Association, that state’s AFT affiliate, set off with a manila envelope filled with maps and contact sheets.

In the package, the map of Croydon has dots marking every household that has a member of the AFT or any of the other AFL-CIO unions that are supporting Sen. Clinton.

Under federal law, a union may reach out to its members and their families or the members of unions with which it engages in a formal agreement to work together.

When they arrive in Croydon, Mr. Spector opens the trunk of his rental car, which is filled with the literature the two will distribute.

At the first several homes, Mr. Spector, who was assigned by his state affiliate to work in the Philadelphia area, and Mr. Senkow, who is using vacation time from his job to volunteer for the Clinton campaign while he stays with family in town, find no one home and leave literature in the front door.

In their first encounter with a potential voter, an elderly man complains loudly about both Democratic candidates, sprinkling his tirade with profanity, and then offers a litany of complaints about local services, from the lights that go on at the ballpark before nightfall to the teacher at the school across the street who yells so loudly, the resident says, that he and his wife can hear her.

As they leave, the canvassers check the box next to “Do Not Contact” on their tally sheet.

At another stop, a teenage girl says her parents aren’t home. When Mr. Spector asks whom they plan to vote for, the girl answers tentatively: “Hillary.”

In another driveway, they approach a woman struggling to get her Ford Mustang to start.

“He doesn’t like either one of them,” the woman says, speaking for her husband, who is the union member in the house. “I don’t like either of them, either.”

When asked which candidate she prefers, the woman says: “I guess I would have to choose her.”

Before they leave, Mr. Spector and Mr. Senkow hand her a flier explaining why the AFT supports Sen. Clinton.

Later, Mr. Spector said that such an encounter, combined with follow-up phone calls and mailings, could eventually lead the woman to vote for Sen. Clinton.

“It’s not just the one contact. It’s the repetition,” said Mr. Spector. “Maybe she goes to the polls and she’s voting for Hillary.”

Political Clout

The AFT’s efforts in support of Sen. Clinton signal that the union is increasing its political power, in the opinion of Mr. Kirsch, the AFT-Pennsylvania’s president. AFT President Edward J. McElroy, who has announced he is not seeking re-election, has invested in adding political personnel and increasing the union’s political capabilities.

“Under Ed’s leadership, we’ve become major players,” Mr. Kirsch said. “There’s no question” that the AFT will be more active in 2008 than in previous presidential elections, he added.

And the union—a longtime ally of the Democratic Party—will be active in the fall campaign, regardless of which candidate the party nominates as its standard-bearer.

In all the Pennsylvania AFT affiliates’ work promoting Sen. Clinton, the union activists have been careful not to criticize Sen. Obama, Mr. Kirsch said.

“We’ve been very pro-Hillary,” he said. “There’s nothing negative on Obama. I don’t want to put myself in a tough spot.”

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A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as In Pa. Primary, AFT Hits the Streets


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