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Teaching Profession

Campaign Notebook

March 24, 2004 3 min read
Election 2004

AFT Joins Coalition Mounting ‘Parallel’ Campaign for Kerry

The American Federation of Teachers has joined forces with a coalition of Democratic Party interest groups to back the campaign of the presumed Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John F. Kerry, a spokesman for the union said last week.

The groups not only offer their political muscle, but also back it with millions of dollars in “soft money.” Such funding is not subject to the stringent donor limits and disclosure requirements governing candidates’ campaigns and the national political parties.

The coalition’s effort has become known as the “parallel” Democratic campaign because its activities cannot legally be coordinated with the official Kerry campaign. The AFT endorsed the Massachusetts senator in early February for the Democratic nomination.

“We have committed to helping him get elected,” AFT spokesman Alex Wohl said. “We put our money, but more importantly our person power, where our mouth is.”

The coalition’s efforts could face legal scrutiny by the Federal Election Commission, however. Federal law prohibits the national political parties from raising or spending soft money, or large contributions from corporations and unions.

So the interest groups have set up tax-exempt organizations known as “527s,” after the section of the tax law that covers them, to launch mobilization efforts and run ads with soft-money contributions. Some advocates of campaign-finance reform say the 527s still violate campaign laws, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog organization based in Washington.

Mr. Wohl said the 1.2 million-member AFT “will be involved with and contribute to one or more of these 527s.”

“It’s an important way to get the message out to voters,” he added.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association is a member of America Votes, a Washington-based voter- participation coalition that is among the groups involved in the parallel campaign.

But the nation’s largest teachers’ union has no involvement yet in campaigning for Mr. Kerry, because it has not yet made an endorsement for the Democratic nomination, much less the general election.

“We have run a few of our own ads about different issues, but we haven’t done anything directly on behalf of Senator Kerry,” NEA spokesman Daniel Kaufman said. “We haven’t actually officially recommended Senator Kerry.”

Mr. Kaufman said that doesn’t mean the 2.7 million-member NEA won’t back the senator. The union’s internal process for making an endorsement is still unfolding. The next meeting of the NEA’s political action committee is April 29, the earliest an endorsement for the Democratic nomination could be made, he said.

“We are a member of America Votes, but the purpose is to boost voter registration, and electoral-politics participation,” Mr. Kaufman said. “We have been strictly limited to trying to get out info on the No Child Left Behind Act and other issues.”

Illinois Senate Contenders

Illinois primary voters decided last week to pit Republican Jack Ryan, a Catholic-school teacher and Wall Street multimillionaire, against Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama in the U.S. Senate race to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, a Republican.

Mr. Obama and Mr. Ryan each overcame a crowded field of contenders, who included former Chicago school board President Gery Chico, a candidate for the Democratic nod in the March 16 primary election. Mr. Chico’s campaign office did not return phone calls last week seeking comment on his future plans.

Both nominees have made education issues a priority.

After a 15-year career with the Goldman Sachs investment and securities firm, Mr. Ryan, 44, left in 2000 for a very different job. In a move that he calls “one of the best decisions” of his life, he took a job teaching at Hales Franciscan High School—a Roman Catholic school on the South Side of Chicago serving African-American boys.

Without offering specifics, his campaign Web site says that, if he is elected, Mr. Ryan would work to ensure that all children receive a “first-class education and a chance at the American dream.”

Mr. Obama, 42, who represents the South Side in the Illinois Senate, is a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago law school. He also has focused on education in his campaign.

“Our public education system is the key to opportunity for millions of children and families,” Mr. Obama said on his campaign Web site. “It needs to be the best in the world.”

He said that, if elected, he would push for programs to combat teacher shortages and fix the infrastructure of rundown schools. He also calls for more funding for the No Child Left Behind Act and for Head Start, according to his campaign Web site.

—Lisa Goldstein

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