Union Called Shots on Democrats’ Agenda

Published September 1, 2001

Although then-Vice President Al Gore last year emphatically denied that he opposed school vouchers to reward labor unions that helped finance his party and his campaign, campaign documents show labor union leaders had “effective veto power” over Democratic campaign strategy in the 1996 election cycle.

Additional documents cited by the Landmark Legal Foundation in a new complaint against the National Education Association indicate possibly illegal coordinated activity continued in the 1998 and 2000 election cycles.

Landmark’s complaint, filed with the Internal Revenue Service on July 20, alleges not only that the NEA extensively coordinated campaign activities with the Democratic National Committee but also–despite reporting zero spending for political activities–that the teacher union used millions of dollars of tax-exempt funds for political purposes. Landmark filed complaints with the IRS last year about the union’s political activities and expenditures in earlier election cycles (See”Teacher Union Denies Political Activities to IRS,” School Reform News, September 2000.)

“An Appendage of the Democratic Party”

“The extent to which the NEA and its state affiliates have coordinated their political activities with the Democratic Party, and have used millions of dollars in tax-exempt general revenues to support these activities, is truly breathtaking,” stated Landmark President Mark R. Levin when the complaint was filed.

“The evidence Landmark is making public today demonstrates that the NEA has become an appendage of the Democratic Party, complete with an ATM machine that dispenses tax-exempt membership dues to underwrite that party’s political activities.”

Some of the key documents in the Landmark complaint were provided to the Federal Election Commission as part of a broader four-year investigation into Republican charges of illegal coordination between Democrats and the labor unions, primarily the AFL-CIO and the NEA. The FEC released that information to the public on May 2, 2001, but a request from the Democratic Party and the labor unions resulted in the FEC quickly withdrawing the materials.

Landmark, however, secured copies of the documents before they were withdrawn, as did Associated Press correspondents Larry Margasak and John Solomon.

Gore-Lieberman 2000

The issue of teacher union influence on the views of Democratic political candidates was a major feature of the Presidential primary debate between then-Vice President Al Gore and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley on February 21, 2000 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Panelist Tamala Edwards of Time magazine pointed out that 60 percent of the African-American community supported vouchers and questioned Gore’s “proud” opposition to vouchers while he and his children all were products of private schools.

In a later follow-up question on the same issue, panelist Jeff Greenfield of CNN noted, “one of the staunchest opponents of [school] choice are the two major teachers unions that happen to supply one in nine of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.” At the same time, he continued, there are “tens of thousands of parents, disproportionately black and brown,” who do not have the choice of pulling their children out of failing public schools.

“The question is, after 35 years and $100 billion in Title I money, with [the SAT score gap] no narrower, why shouldn’t these parents conclude that the Democratic Party’s opposition to choice is an example of supporting a special interest rather than their interest?” asked Greenfield, to applause from the audience.

In response, Gore claimed “it’s not the opinion of the NEA and the AFT that’s reflected in the policies supported by Democrats, it’s the opinion of the overwhelming majority of Americans.” (See “Gore’s Opposition to Choice Bombs in Harlem,” School Reform News, April 2000.)

The pro-voucher views of a Democrat became a major issue for the teacher unions when Gore selected Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman as his Vice Presidential running mate last summer. Until then, Lieberman had been one of the few Democrats who voted for vouchers, argued for vouchers, and cosponsored voucher bills. As a result, his voting record in the U.S. Senate consistently received one of the NEA’s lowest ratings for Democrats.

For example, in arguing for a 1997 pilot school voucher program for 2,000 children in the nation’s capital, Lieberman pointed out that 85 percent of the families living in Washington’s wealthiest ward sent their children to private schools. “Is it fair,” he asked, for Congress to force the poor and the disenfranchised to send their children to schools that Members of Congress had rejected for their own children?

However, as soon as Lieberman was offered the opportunity to run for national office, he telephoned AFT President Sandra Feldman to assure her that a Gore-Lieberman administration would be anti-voucher, according to Wall Street Journal reporter June Kronholtz. NEA officials, who said they expected Lieberman to oppose school vouchers, were not disappointed when the candidate subsequently declared he would “never publicly” support vouchers.

“Apparent Veto Power”

The FEC’s final report concluded the AFL-CIO had “apparent veto power” over election decisions made by Democrats and that the unions had “the authority to approve or disapprove plans, projects and needs of the DNC and its state parties with respect to the coordinated campaign.” Despite that extensive coordination between the Democrats and the labor unions, the FEC ultimately concluded those activities could be protected under the First Amendment and closed the case.

The union’s veto power over Democratic activities it helped finance was acknowledged by AFL-CIO general counsel John Hiatt, who told Margasak and Solomon the union “would want veto power” over what it subsidized.

The Landmark complaint shows how the NEA effected its profound influence over Democratic campaign strategy through its role as a member of the “Coordinated Campaign Steering Committee,” which set national and statewide campaign strategy for the election of Democratic candidates. In addition to the NEA and DNC, other members of the Steering Committee were the 1996 Clinton-Gore Campaign, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the Democratic Governors’ Association, the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee, the AFL-CIO, and Emily’s List.

Landmark’s complaint also reveals the involvement of NEA’s state affiliates in coordinating campaign activity with Democratic congressional candidates, specifically citing NEA affiliates in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Nebraska, Kansas, and Minnesota. The extent to which the NEA coordinated activities and commingled expenditures is illustrated by a document cited by Landmark from the North Carolina campaign to elect Democrat Bobby Etheridge to Congress:

“When the DNC and its national partners, including the . . . the AFL-CIO and the NEA agree on the contents of a plan, each national partner will give their funding commitment to the state.”

Landmark’s complaint is the latest phase of the Foundation’s five-year investigation and legal research into potential violations of federal tax and election laws by the NEA and its state affiliates. The nonprofit legal organization, which has offices in Kansas City, Missouri and Herndon, Virginia, was founded in 1976. One of its top missions is the promotion of education reform, and it has defended school choice in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

For more information . . .

The Landmark Legal Foundation’s July 20 IRS complaint, along with earlier complaints to the IRS and FEC, are available at the group’s Web site at www.landmarklegal.org.