(Reuters) - The email did not mince words. It came from an officer at a California teachers union, and he was irate.
President Barack Obama’s re-election team had just hired as a spokeswoman a veteran Democratic operative who had spent the last year at a nonprofit, pushing education policies that the union did not like.
The union had endorsed Obama. But Jeffrey Freitas, secretary of the California Federation of Teachers, wanted to make clear this woman’s hiring threatened that alliance. If Obama’s team thought teachers would help the campaign after this hire, “then they are seriously wrong,” he wrote. As long as she was in her post, he wrote, “we may not be able to participate.”
The threat, which the Obama campaign would not discuss, laid bare a simmering tension within the Democratic Party.
While teachers unions have long been among the Democratic Party’s most generous donors and the source of its most reliable foot soldiers, their clout in some circles is waning.
Wealthy Democrats, including Los Angeles home developer Eli Broad and New York investment fund managers Whitney Tilson and John Petry, have found common cause with Republicans in a push to apply principles of the corporate world, including free-market competition, to public education. With teachers unions bitterly opposed to such measures, Democrats in the movement say they must break their party’s ties to the unions if they’re ever to make progress.
So they are offering an alternative to the union dollars, spending freely to back fellow Democrats willing to buck the unions and advance their agenda.
“Education reform is really a fight for the heart and soul of the Democratic Party,” said Derrell Bradford, who runs a political group in New Jersey that recently helped elect two union-defying Democrats to the state legislature.
The reform movement’s goals include shutting down low-performing public schools; weakening or eliminating teacher tenure; and expanding charter schools, which are publicly funded but often run by private-sector managers, some of them for-profit companies.
Wealthy Democrats have joined Republicans in pouring millions into political campaigns, lobbying and community organizing to try to advance these goals nationwide. They can count on their side several influential Democratic mayors, including Newark’s Cory Booker and Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel.
Yet the unions haven’t rolled over - far from it.
Blasting their opponents as Wall Street billionaires who know nothing about the hard work of educating kids, they have fought back, hard. Their influence with the Democratic Party comes not just from their money but from their manpower; come summer of each election year the unions mobilize armies of teachers to call voters, stuff envelopes and knock on doors.
In 2008 the California Federation of Teachers - the smaller of the two state unions, with 75,000 members - even reached across state lines to mobilize Democrats in swing states such as Nevada, said Joshua Pechthalt, the union president. He said the email protesting the Obama campaign’s choice of spokeswoman was intended to remind the party that unions’ support is valuable - and to warn it not to take them for granted.
“We were trying to raise the point that, hey, we want to be involved, but put someone else who is not going to raise a red flag for our members,” Pechthalt said.
The Obama spokeswoman, Linda Serrato, declined to comment, but she remains on the job, and the campaign has indicated it’s sticking with her.
Meanwhile, the union’s attempt to oust her was reported by a Los Angeles Times columnist this week, sparking outrage among the emerging faction of Democrats who see teachers unions as obstructionist bullies rather than essential allies.
“They seem to be demanding a bizarre loyalty oath of every member of the president’s re-election campaign: Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of an education reform group?” said Ben Austin, an education activist and Democratic operative in Los Angeles.
“PARENT TRIGGER” DEBATE
Austin’s group, Parent Revolution, is the nonprofit that employed Serrato before she joined the Obama campaign in April. Backed by philanthropists, the organization pushes “parent trigger” laws that let parents seize control of low-performing public schools and oust the teachers or bring in a private management company. Unions have fiercely opposed such laws.
The Obama administration backs parent trigger. The president has also crossed teachers unions with other policies and public statements, such as his support for the mass firing of faculty at a struggling high school in Rhode Island in 2010.
Still, union leaders say they would rather have Obama in office than Republican Mitt Romney, who this week attacked teachers unions as “the clearest example of a group that has lost its way.”
The National Education Association, which has 3 million members, has signed up 10,000 volunteers to work for Obama’s re-election, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.
“The enthusiasm is there,” he said. But so, too, is a deep wariness about the motives - and the sheer financial might - of the groups seeking to peel Democrats away from their union allegiances. “We don’t have those resources,” Van Roekel said.
The tug-of-war between the Democratic Party’s two education camps is playing out now in a heated primary race in the 46th State Assembly District, a sprawl of suburbs outside Los Angeles.
From a field of five Democrats, teachers unions have backed Andrew Lachman, an adjunct professor of business law at Woodbury University. The California Teachers Association gave him $7,800 directly, campaign records show - and spent more than $130,000 on ads tearing down one of his opponents, Brian Johnson.
Johnson, who until recently ran a network of charter schools in Los Angeles, has the full support of the charter industry and the education reform community.
Contributions from investors, philanthropists and Silicon Valley executives, including Netflix Chief Executive Officer Reed Hastings and Laurene Powell Jobs, widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs, have flooded into Johnson’s campaign. Independent groups funded by an overlapping network of donors have blanketed the district with mailers backing him.
Just this week, StudentsFirst, an advocacy group founded by former Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, a Democrat, shifted $2 million into a California political action committee - and promptly spent more than $400,000 of it on ads and polls in support of Johnson, state records show.
Johnson also won the endorsement of Democrats for Education Reform, a national group that steers donations to candidates willing to buck teachers unions.
That drew the ire of the California Democratic Party.
The party’s vice chair, Eric Bauman, fired off a cease-and-desist letter demanding that Democrats for Education Reform stop using the word “Democrats” in its name. He accused the group of deceiving voters into thinking its endorsement was an official Democratic Party endorsement. The party has not backed anyone in the race.
Bauman said he was not beholden to the teachers unions and was not acting at their request, though the president of the California Federation of Teachers did applaud his move.
The cease-and-desist letter outraged former state Senator Gloria Romero, who heads the California arm of Democrats for Education Reform. “To me, this is political collusion,” she said, accusing her party of kowtowing to the union. “This shows the depths special interests will go to in order to prevent any Democrat from speaking out for education reform.”
Then she funneled her anger into a fundraising letter.
Reporting by Stephanie Simon in Denver; Editing by Douglas Royalty