Every four years, it is a surprise to some people that the National Education Association has a presence at the Republican National Convention.
After all, the nation’s largest teachers’ union usually endorses the Democratic candidate for president, including this year, when it is backing Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois. And the union is a regular punching bag for many Republicans and conservatives.
But the NEA always has delegates at the Republican convention, though always far fewer than member-delegates at the Democratic Convention.
This year, there are 40 NEA members among the almost 2,400 delegates at the GOP convention. At the Democratic convention, 200 NEA members were among the more than 4,000 delegates.
Dennis Van Roekel, who was in his first day on Monday as the new president of the NEA, pointed out that his union has some 1 million Republican members—nearly a third of the union’s 3.2 million members.
“We want to encourage our Republican members to be active in their party,” Van Roekel said at a downtown Minneapolis jazz club, where several unions led by the NEA were hosting a “labor salute to Republican supporters.”
Days before the start of the Republican convention, the NEA invited some of its GOP members—four from every state—to a leadership conference in Minneapolis to train them in political activism.
“I know there will be criticism” of his union at the GOP convention, Van Roekel said, “but there are also voices of support among Republicans.”
One of the participants in the leadership conference was Jerome Hoynes, a social studies teacher at Glenbrook North High School in Northbrook, Ill. At the labor luncheon, he was wearing an “I am the NEA” button.
“I am proud to be an NEA member, proud to be a teacher, and proud to be a Republican,” said Hoynes, who is not a convention delegate but says he would be an elector for Sen. John McCain should the Republican win the Illinois in November.
Hoynes said he was gung-ho for McCain because of the Arizona senator’s “lifelong track record” and his status as a war hero. The teacher was less enthusiastic about McCain’s support for private school vouchers.
“I’m sure that when he’s elected, John McCain will be the type of president who listens to us,” Hoynes said, meaning NEA members.
Van Roekel is a former Arizona teacher and an ex-president of the state’s NEA affiliate. He said he has known McCain for 30 years and interviewed him for the state union’s endorsement when McCain first ran for Congress.
Van Roekel said he was disappointed McCain declined to participate in the NEA’s endorsement process for the presidential race. (Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was the only Republican who did.)
“We don’t agree with a lot of his positions” on education issues, especially on vouchers, Van Roekel said of McCain.
“And he supports No Child Left Behind pretty much the way it is,” Van Roekel said—something the NEA does not.