Wealthy base helps Emanuel take on Chicago teachers union
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel received far more money in campaign donations from wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs backing school reform than from unions, leaving him freer to confront the city's teachers than some fellow Democrats, an examination of donations to his 2011 campaign shows.
The city's 29,000 teachers have been on strike since Monday, halting classes in the country's third-largest school district, over contract negotiations that are snagged on job security and Emanuel's plan to rate teachers based on students' standardized test scores.
Emanuel, a former congressman and top White House aide to President Barack Obama, raised $14.3 million for his mayoral bid in 2011. He easily fended off five poorly funded candidates for mayor.
Donations to Emanuel from the labor movement, closely allied with Democrats since the National Labor Relations Act was passed in 1935, were few and far between, a review of filings with the Illinois Board of Elections showed.
"Urban Democrats have historically been closely linked with the unions, but Emanuel comes from a different place with a very different base," said Harley Shaiken, University of California, Berkeley, labor professor. "He views the unions through a different lens and is simply not that beholden to them."
Emanuel did not receive any money from the Chicago Teachers Union in his mayoral run, and the union was openly hostile to his bid. Most city unions backed Democratic rivals Gery Chico and Miguel del Valle.
Emanuel in fact has built a strong base of donors outside the labor movement, including corporate and cultural icons and even some prominent Republicans. He received a $50,000 donation from real estate magnate Donald Trump, who flirted with a bid for the Republican presidential nomination, a disclosure to the elections board showed.
He also received a $50,000 donation from deceased Apple founder Steve Jobs, whose widow Laurene Powell Jobs has actively supported education reform.
Emanuel has enjoyed substantial support from wealthy backers of the national education reform movement, which aims to transform public schools -- in part by weakening teacher unions.
ISSUES AT HEART OF STRIKE
The reform movement's agenda includes rating educators in part by their students' test scores and weakening job protections such as tenure and seniority. Those are the very issues that prompted the teacher strike in Chicago now in its fourth day.
Some of Emanuel's major donors also gave generously to Stand for Children IL PAC, the statewide political action committee of the education reform group Stand for Children.
Stand for Children lobbied for an Illinois state law passed in 2011 that overhauled policies on teacher tenure, hiring, the length of the school day and year and teacher evaluations. Mayor Emanuel's allies in the Chicago school district have cited that law in explaining why they feel they must stand their ground against the teachers' union.
According to the regulatory filings, common donors to the Stand for Children PAC -- which raised nearly $4 million in the last four months of 2010 -- and to the Emanuel campaign include Kenneth Griffin, the founder and chief executive of hedge fund Citadel, and Paul Finnegan, a co-chief executive of private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners.
Other common donors include members of the Pritzker family, one of Chicago's most prominent business families, and the well known Crown family of Chicago, who have a long history of philanthropy.
Some striking teachers have carried signs mocking Penny Pritzker, an executive of the family conglomerate and one of President Barack Obama's biggest Democratic fundraisers.
Stand for Children Chicago director Juan Jose Gonzalez said many of its donors give generously to various groups and not too much should be read into the same names appearing on its PAC filings and those of Emanuel.
"I would say that Emanuel backs our position and is supportive of our agenda," he said.
But the similarities between the donations to Emanuel and Stand for Children were not lost on the Chicago Teachers Union, which highlighted them during the 2011 election campaign and called the group an "out-of-state organization responsible for the latest legislative attacks" on the union.
Other education reform groups have made it their mission to provide financial cover for Democratic politicians willing to buck teachers unions and push big changes to public schools. They include Democrats for Education Reform, a coalition of wealthy financiers and entrepreneurs, and StudentsFirst, which is run by Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of the Washington D.C. public schools.
The groups have directed donations to, or made independent expenditures to, political candidates in several states, including California, Florida and Michigan.
Rebeca Nieves Huffman, who runs the Illinois branch of Democrats for Education Reform, said donors will "absolutely" be watching to see whether Emanuel can hold his own against the union.
"One of the things that's very attractive for us is here's a Democratic mayor with a very bold education reform agenda," Huffman added.
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