Curriculum Campaign Notebook

NEA Gets Political Under Color of Campaign Law

By Michelle R. Davis — September 27, 2004 2 min read

With the election season in full swing, the National Education Association is geared up to have an impact. The 2.7 million-member teachers’ union makes endorsements, and its political action committee donates millions of dollars to candidates.

With all that effort, the union has found a creative way to make sure it complies with federal election laws.

The Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 bars organizations such as the NEA from coordinating their communications about federal candidates with the candidates’ campaigns. For example, while the NEA has endorsed Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for president and may urge its members to vote for him, the union’s efforts can’t be made in tandem with the Kerry campaign, said Peg McCormick, an NEA lawyer.

To ensure compliance with the law, the NEA has split about 30 employees who deal primarily with political issues into red and blue teams. The red team takes on public communications, which can involve advocating the win or defeat of a federal candidate, but only if it’s paid for by the NEA’s PAC. The blue team can also discuss those issues, but only with NEA members, Ms. McCormick said.

The distinction is the audience to which each team is speaking, she said. No one working on the red team has any contact with any federal candidate or party committee, according to Ms. McCormick. The staff on the blue team might, at times, have discussions or meetings with campaign workers, she said, but not to coordinate efforts.

Red- and blue-team members aren’t allowed to talk to each other about work, though they can still say hello in the hallway, Ms. McCormick said.

“To avoid even the appearance of illegal coordination, the NEA decided to adopt the team structure that makes it impossible for coordination to occur,” she said.

Blue-team members, for example, went to both the Democratic and Republican conventions to deal with NEA members who were delegates and alternates. Red-team members had to stay home. The NEA’s other employees officially steer clear of such political communications.

“We jokingly tell them they’re green, because some feel left out that they didn’t get a color,” Ms. McCormick said.

But, generally, the union’s system seems to be working well and even creating more camaraderie in the workplace.

The red team, for example, has T-shirts (red, of course) and a mascot—a red Beta fighting fish named “O,” which is “short for the nickname of the head of the red team who wants to remain anonymous,” Ms. McCormick said. The blue team has no shirts, mascots or pets.

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