[JK: This is a guest post by Jane Weihe. Most of you know that I am married to Jane]
There seems to be a lot of misunderstandings about Political Action Committees (PACs) in general and teacher PACs in particular. The term PAC has come to conjure up in many people’s minds big corporate money (think Koch Brothers) used to buy lawmakers to enact legislation that will fill the pockets of so-called “special interests” (another abused term) and thwart the “public interest”.
I think it is unfortunate that the terms “special interests” and “PACs” tend to be used only pejoratively when in fact both can denote a wide range of groups and funds that are active in the democratic political arena many representing what a lot of us would term progressive causes and candidates.
Wikipedia defines “PAC” as follows:
The first PAC in fact was established in 1943 by the CIO, the progressive coalition of unions that broke off from the more conservative AFL.
I suspect many readers actually contribute to a variety of PACs as I do in an effort to support “special interest groups” who are lobbying for legislation and supporting candidates who we hope will support our stands on particular issues. In my case I regularly write checks to the Planned Parenthood PAC and to the NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC as well as the Sierra Club PAC. Many of you may make very different choices as to which PACs you send your money to, but I bet a good portion of the readers out there regularly support PACs of one sort or another maybe without fully realizing it. My checks are made out to NARAL for instance. The word PAC does not appear on my check, but on the back of their donation form is a request for donor information needed to comply with federal laws for contributions to the “NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC” [my emphasis].
I’m betting too that most of us don’t think of the groups we support as “special interest groups” but in fact these groups do have a special focus or “interest” whether it is women’s health or the environment or some other area.
This brings us to the hot issue of PAC involvement in this year’s Saratoga Springs School Board election. So far the focus has been on the “PAC” established by Saratoga Parents for Safer Schools. This group is actually not a PAC but has some of those characteristics. The formation of this group, its endorsement of candidates, and the amount of money they have raised has been the subject of much vitriol and concern particularly on the part of my liberal friends who frequently use the word PAC to describe SPSS and automatically labeled this as being unacceptable in our local political arena even before the more recent controversy over how that money is being spent.
What has been overlooked and seems to be less controversial, so far anyway, is the role of an actual PAC that has just announced its support for a slate of candidates in this unusually contentious School Board race.
On Friday the Saratoga Teachers Association, a New York United Teachers (NYSUT) union local, announced their support for three candidates. I don’t know how many readers realize that the Saratoga Springs TA has supported candidates for School Board in every race that I can remember here in Saratoga. While Kathryn Gallien in a recent blog comment finds it “a little silly” to characterize the teachers as a “special interest” in a school board race, and argues that “their endorsement is hardly the same as seeking or taking PAC money”, I would beg to differ on both counts.
I spent 34 years teaching in the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District and was an active member of the BHBL Teachers Association, also a NYSUT local, during my entire career and am still active in the area NYSUT retiree chapter, RC10. Some of the responsibilities I took on in my local included raising PAC money, lobbying state legislators, and working to get out the vote for our endorsed candidates on the national, state and local level. We organized teachers were and are very much I’m proud to say a “special interest group” just as the Sierra Club and, yes, the NRA are. In our case our “special interest” is and was, of course, education but while we share certain goals with say the PTA and our priority was certainly the well-being of our students, as a professional organization we also were concerned with our working conditions, our relations with our employers, our retirement and more.
I just returned from attending the NYSUT Representative Assembly where delegates from locals across the state convene to adopt resolutions to guide the legislative priorities for our union’s lobbying efforts and also to guide candidate endorsements. The range of topics included the tax cap, arbitration decisions, and temperature standards in classrooms for example. And when I lobbied state legislators with NYSUT’s Committee of 100 in March we talked with state legislators about money for education and a mental health curriculum and teacher evaluation standards and charter schools. And yes, we wanted to know particularly where officeholders we had supported stood on these issues and yes, we were listening to their answers and evaluating their support for our issues and evaluating whether or not to support them in the next election. So yes, I would say like the Sierra Club and many other groups we have our “special interests” and thus we organized teachers are indeed a “special interest group”.
I again would disagree with Kathryn when she says “An endorsement is hardly the same as seeking or taking PAC money.” If an endorsement is indeed meaningful it comes with resources that will be put into the campaign on behalf of the candidate. In the case of a NYSUT local’s endorsement there will be quite a bit of resources made available, all of it funded by NYSUT’s PAC, VOTE/COPE.
Union dues cannot be used to support candidates or campaign committees so NYSUT has a PAC called VOTE/COPE which uses voluntary contributions from members to support endorsed candidates. Some of that money can be returned to locals to support local school board candidates. One of the responsibilities I took on as an active teacher was to run our annual VOTE/COPE campaign and to participate in the decisions on local school board endorsements in Burnt Hills. Once we endorsed we had the PAC resources to be able to mail to every NYSUT member in the district and had access to NYSUT phone banks to make calls to NYSUT members active and retired to urge support for those we had endorsed.
So I find it unfortunate that Dr. Brueggemann has stated that :
“I’m running the old fashioned way. No PACs. No outside money. No special interests. I’m not beholden to any partisan agenda.”
In spite of the above statement Dr. Brueggemann sought and I assume will accept the endorsement of the Saratoga Teachers Association which I would argue is indeed a “special interest group” and one that will be spending a good deal of PAC money to promote him in the School Board race. I fully support my union’s participation in the democratic process by endorsing and supporting candidates with the money collected from many small donors. “Special interest” and PACs are not for me automatically pejorative terms. Unfortunately this does not seem to be the case with Dr. Brueggemann.
Words matter. It would be good if Dr. Brueggemann’s words more closely aligned with his actions.