These days, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis doesn’t have much to be optimistic about. Certainly her arch-nemesis, Rahm Emanuel, is dealing with the fallout from allegations of corruption against now-sidelined Chicago Public Schools Chief Executive Officer Barbara Byrd-Bennett as well as having to address the Second City’s virtually-insolvent pensions. But scandals and financial problems are the costs politicians pay for winning re-election. The fact that Emanuel still oversees the nation’s third-largest city and its traditional district means that Lewis and the American Federation of Teachers local have failed in its four-year-long goal of ending systemic reform.
So how big was the loss suffered by Lewis, CTU, and AFT? Thanks to a final tally of campaign dollars spent against Emanuel’s re-election by the ailing local boss, the local itself, and AFT, it can be quantified in financial terms.
Illinois campaign finance document shows that CTU’s political action committee spent $158,967.14 on behalf of Emanuel challenger Jesus (Chuy) Garcia during the week of Election Day. This includes $126,709.00 for one collection of phone banks used to get the word out to likely voters, as well as another $7,773.34 for field canvassing and poll watching activities. This spend is on top of the $110,299.79 CTU spent on Garcia’s behalf the week running up to the recall election, and the $152,293 poured into Garcia’s campaign since the union backed his run for the top office late last year.
Altogether, the Chicago AFT local poured $421,559.93 into opposing Emanuel’s re-election. This, by the way, doesn’t include the money spent directly by the union on Garcia’s campaign (including expenditures for so-called representational activities that are almost always political in nature). It also doesn’t include the $16,000 Lewis’ mayoral exploratory committee tossed into Garcia’s campaign early on.
The good news for Lewis, such as it can be, is that CTU wasn’t the only branch of AFT that embarrassed itself spending plenty against Emanuel’s successful re-election. The AFT’s Big Apple local, United Federation of Teachers, dumped $20,000 into Garcia’s campaign right on Election Day. The donation came a couple of weeks after a $10,000 donation by New York State United Teachers, AFT’s virtually-busted state affiliate, and a $50,000 donation by the union’s Illinois Federation of Teachers.
Then there’s the national AFT’s own spend. By the time the union cut its losses and all but conceded that Emanuel would win re-election, AFT’s political action committee had poured $902,103.20 into Garcia’s campaign. This included $649,503.20 on behalf of Garcia during the month of March before the runoff. [This doesn’t include any spending out of the union’s main coffers or outside spending by its Solidarity Fund 527 operation.]
How big was AFT’s spend against Emanuel? To put this in context, AFT spent $169,703.20 more on Garcia’s losing campaign than it did on helping Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf oust predecessor Tom Corbett last November, and $33,253.20 more than it did on every campaign it subsidized in California (including Supt. Tom Torlakson’s victory over reformer Marshall Tuck). Unlike in Chicago, AFT’s victories in the Keystone and Golden states ensure the union’s efforts to preserve the array of policies and practices that are at the heart of its influence within those locales as well as the nation as a whole. And for less money and public effort to boot.
When all the spending is put together, CTU, AFT, and the national union’s other affiliates spent a massive $1.4 million to back Garcia’s challenge against Emanuel. For all that money, they collectively garnered support from a mere two out of every five voters for their agenda. Because Emanuel no longer needs to fear threats by CTU and AFT, he can now pursue a more-aggressive reform agenda, likely for as long as he chooses to be Chicago mayor. Given the presence of reform-oriented Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner as well as a legislature that will usually do what Chicago’s mayor demands, and CTU (along with AFT and its Illini affiliate) have lost even more clout than necessary.
In the process, Lewis is now on the defensive. As Dropout Nation noted earlier this month, she now has to choose between continuing the union’s hardcore traditionalist stance that merely empowers Emanuel or take a more accomodationist that will alienate her and CTU from its base of supporters. Landing between rocks and hard places is what happens when a teachers’ union boss stokes the ire of its most-hardcore activists without achieving any tangible results. One can expect Lewis to eventually get the business end of this wrath among CTU activists against systemic reform.
As for AFT? Given the high cost of defeat, you can expect the union’s crafty president, Randi Weingarten, to turn back to the only-slightly-more-successful triangulation strategy she pushed until Lewis’ emergence as the darling of hardcore traditionalists. After all, Lewis’ hardcore traditionalist strategy has largely proven to be a failure everywhere it has been applied; it wasn’t even much of a factor in AFT’s success in Pennsylvania, where Wolf took advantage of predecessor Corbett’s widespread unpopularity and lackluster tenure as the Keystone State’s top executive. While Weingarten will continue to play a little bit to the passions of hardcore traditionalists, she will quietly go back to embracing watered-down versions of systemic reform efforts because it is the only approach that will likely keep the union from losing more influence.
More money alone doesn’t equal better results. This is true in American public education as a whole. And as seen this month in Chicago, it is even more so when it comes to efforts by AFT and NEA to oppose systemic reform.