Teaching Profession

NEA, AFT Leave Mark on Congress, Ballot Measures

By Jeff Archer — November 15, 2000 9 min read

The scene had all the trappings of a skybox at a modern sports arena: wall- mounted scorecards, imported beer, several television sets, and a victory cake. Frequent bursts of whooping, followed by hurried calls on cell phones, punctuated stretches of anxious conversation. Some wore their “lucky” clothes.

But this was no spectator sport for 40-odd National Education Association officials who spent a long night watching election results at the group’s headquarters here last week. Along with the smaller American Federation of Teachers, the NEA had invested tens of millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of hours by paid staff members and volunteers over the past several months to try to influence the outcomes of key contests Nov. 7.

Most notably this year, the 2.5 million-member NEA and the 1 million-member AFT channeled bigger shares of their political spending into activities that aren’t hampered by campaign-spending limits. (“Unions Pull Out Stops for Elections,” Nov. 1, 2000.)

So what came of their efforts? At the federal level, of course, the uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the presidential race late last week meant the bottom line had yet to be figured. What is known is that labor groups failed in their all-out drive to give the Democrats a majority in the House of Representatives, whose leadership, teachers’ unions contend, has often kept education-related legislation from going to the full chamber for a vote.

At the same time, NEA and AFT officials said they were pleased with the small gains they did make in Congress, and with the surprising number of Senate seats the GOP lost.

At the state level, meanwhile, not only did the unions contribute to the trouncing of voucher initiatives in California and Michigan, but they also helped persuade voters in Arizona, California, and Washington state to pass ballot measures aimed at ensuring more state money for public education. Moreover, of 11 gubernatorial races in which the NEA took sides, the union-backed candidates won nine.

Even some observers who normally criticize the groups for their policy positions agreed that the teachers’ unions were effective in last week’s elections.

“I think unions overall did not have a good day, but I think the NEA and the AFT were very successful in their efforts,” said Amy Kauffman, who directs the Campaign and Election Law Project for the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank. “And that’s because the education unions concentrated directly on what affected them. They had clear goals as to what they needed, and they put what money and resources they had into those races.”

Costly Gains

The NEA’s highly focused strategy for trying to change the leadership in the House centered on 27 congressional districts in which early polls indicated tight races. The Democratic candidate in each of those districts benefited from a full-time NEA staff member who helped coordinate volunteers from the ranks of union locals.

In addition, the NEA’s political action committee made an unprecedented $2 million in independent expenditures across 16 of those races.

Because such expenditures are made without any collaboration with a candidate’s own campaign, they are not subject to spending limits. Among interest groups, independent expenditures have become increasingly popular as a way to tip the scales in the final days of a close race.

But the NEA lost in many of the races where it spent the most. In the two weeks preceding the election, for example, the group spent more than $309,000 in Kentucky for radio and television ads in what turned out to be an unsuccessful bid to push Democrat Eleanor Jordon over the top in her race against incumbent Rep. Anne Northup.

Overall, though, the NEA did make advances. Of the 27 targeted districts, eight were represented by Democrats before the election. As of late last week, Democrats claimed wins in 14 of the districtswith two congressional races still too close to call.

“Going into this, I would have said that if we had won close to half of the 27, we’ve had a good day,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA’s director of government relations.

Of the races where they helped wrest a House seat from an incumbent Republican, few held as much meaning for union leaders as Arkansas Rep. Jay Dickey’s razor-thin loss to Democrat Mike Ross. A veteran member of the House appropriations subcommittee that handles education spending, Mr. Dickey has sparred with teachers’ groups over education related legislation. The NEA made more than $300,000 in independent expenditures for television and radio spots aimed at knocking him from his seat.

“It’s significant to have defeated someone who’s not just an incumbent, but who also was not even a freshman and who plays such a key role on these issues,” said Joel Packer, an NEA lobbyist. “So it does send a message to the leaders in the House that someone who has this position of power on the appropriations committee and who has consistently voted against education was defeated.”

Clout Questioned

Mr. Packer’s organization also helped manage a clean sweep of victories in all four targeted congressional districts in California, including the seat won by Mike Honda, a former San Jose teacher.

Teachers’ unions also played more than a minor role in helping Democrats post a net gain of at least three Senate seatsone race remained too close to call late last week—giving the chamber a virtual, if not ultimate, 50-50 split between the two parties.

In the last few days of the campaign, the NEA shifted additional resources—adding more direct-mail and phone-bank operations—into the Senate races in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, and Washington state. As of late last week, the Democrats had claimed victory in all but Washington, where election officials were still counting ballots.

The AFT affiliate in New York City alone helped coordinate more than 130,000 phone calls made on behalf of first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, now New York’s junior senator-elect, in the remaining few days. The 100,000-member United Federation of Teachers also tapped into its more than 20,000 retired members living in Florida to make calls promoting Vice President Al Gore, the Democratic presidential nominee, in the Sunshine State.

With the presidential race apparently hinging on the Florida outcome, that help may prove to have been especially valuable.

The AFT, in particular, also leveraged additional clout through its ties with sister unions of the AFL-CIO, of which the NEA is not a member. In California and Michigan, unions representing auto workers, plumbers, and food-service workers lent significant support to their states’ anti-voucher campaigns.

In the Great Lakes State, for example, a piece of direct mail sent to members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union pointed out that vouchers enjoyed the support of discount department store magnate John Walton. Although many food workers might not know the intricacies of the voucher debate, they do know that Mr. Walton’s chain of stores has the reputation of resisting unionization.

“They internalized our voucher issue and made it part of their campaign as well,” said David Hecker, the secretary-treasurer of the Michigan Federation of Teachers.

Mr. Hecker and other union leaders say they believe that the coordinated momentum that labor built in opposition to vouchers carried over into the Michigan U.S. Senate race, which handed a narrow victory to Democrat Debbie Stabenow. But other observers question just how much clout is demonstrated by last week’s results. The unions, for example, were stung by the loss of Virginia Democrat Chuck Robb, an important ally of teachers’ groups in the U.S. Senate.

“I think they can claim credit for the defeats of the voucher initiatives in California and Michigan, but in the House and Senate races, there were a number of other factors at play,” said Nina Shokraii Rees, the senior education policy adviser at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “Most incumbents who ran were re-elected. And overall, if you look at the House, they were not able to unseat many avid school choice proponents.”

Swing-State Blitz

Union leaders may not have known the final result of the presidential race late last week, but they were confident that without their work, Mr. Gore’s chances would have been diminished. According to forms filed with the Federal Election Commission, the NEA spent more than $1 million on phone calls, e-mail, and direct-mail efforts in support of Mr. Gore in the first 18 days of October alone.

Overall, labor groups have been largely credited with helping to put the key states of Michigan and Pennsylvania in the Gore column so early on election night.

A major boost for Mr. Gore came from the AFT-affiliated Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. It recruited a record number of volunteers for the campaign, and for the first time, ran phone banks during the day to call retirees, along with the traditional evening phone banks.

Ted Kirsch, the president of the Philadelphia union, said the recent contentious contract talks in his school district gave added motivation to his members to become involved in the campaign this year. The talks had been complicated, he said, by a 1998 state law that both forbids the extension of contracts beyond their term if settlements aren’t reached and allows for state officials to take over the district if they decide that it is in crisis.

“We were able to capitalize on that by pointing out that politics caused the difficulties that we’re having,” he said.

As for the most important swing state of all, union leaders say they did their best to leave nothing to chance. Ms. Teasley says her union sent four staff members—instead of the usual one—to Florida to help work in support of the Gore campaign. Moreover, the NEA distributed seven to nine pieces of direct mail aimed at swaying Florida members toward the Democratic nominee, and the union added phone banks there in the final days leading up to the election.

“We knew we had to put everything in Florida, and we did,” Ms. Teasley said.

Whether all their effort was enough to make the difference is yet to be seen. But putting aside the race for the White House, Ms. Teasley sees teachers’ unions scoring a major victory in last week’s elections, and not just because of their successes in the states and in closing the gap on Capitol Hill. Just as encouraging, she said, was the number of Republicans who campaigned on promises that once seemed the preserve of Democrats—at least in Congress—such as reducing class sizes and modernizing school buildings.

“Did we want to win every race? Yes,” said Ms. Teasley. “But are we better positioned now to pass our policies? Yes. Is there anything else we could have done with our resources at the state or national level? I don’t think so.”

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A version of this article appeared in the November 15, 2000 edition of Education Week as NEA, AFT Leave Mark on Congress, Ballot Measures


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