May 25The email did not mince words. It came
from an officer at a California teachers union, and he was
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
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.
MONEY AND MANPOWER
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 [in that post] 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
"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
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.