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The Wikileaks release of hacked e-mails to and from John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, provides a unique view into the inner workings of modern electoral politics.
As the nation’s largest labor union and an unrivaled force in shaping public education policy, the National Education Association might be expected to influence any Democratic candidate’s course in a presidential race.
Instead, the e-mails reveal how willingly the NEA contorted itself to help Clinton. Top executives and staff appear to have gamed the union’s procedure for endorsing candidates, manipulating their local representatives and activists to secure a Clinton endorsement.
The Clinton campaign has refused to authenticate the hacked e-mails.
Clinton formally announced her candidacy on June 13, 2015. Four days later, Nikki Budzinski, her director of labor outreach, sent a memo to other campaign officials discussing possible strategies for the upcoming NEA Representative Assembly, set for the first week of July in Orlando. (The RA, as it’s called, is the union’s largest decision-making body, with 7,000 members who gather for an annual meeting.)
At this point NEA had yet to take any formal steps to determine who its rank-and-file membership, or even the heads of its affiliates, preferred for the Democratic nomination.
On June 19, Budzinski warned colleagues of an impending endorsement of Bernie Sanders by NEA’s Vermont affiliate.
Carrie Pugh is NEA’s political director.
On June 22, Budzinski noted that Vermont NEA would announce its endorsement of Sanders. She wrote that NEA New Hampshire couldn’t endorse Clinton until a board meeting in August, but she would work on “options to move up the process.” (The New Hampshire affiliate ultimately stuck by its schedule, endorsing Clinton on September 14.)
The behind-the-scenes maneuvering contrasted with what NEA was officially telling its members about the endorsement process. According to a July 2016 report to RA delegates, “At the end of June 2015, NEA delivered 25 candidate questionnaires via registered mail to all announced and potential candidates from both major parties and one third-party candidate.”
Publicly, the union was still undecided — it hadn’t even ascertained the candidates’ stances on education, collective bargaining and others subject of interest to members.
On July 5, 2015, the RA delegates in Orlando approved New Business Item 79, which read:
The next day, Nikki Budzinski said in an email that “NEA delegates defeated a resolution the would prevent a [sic] early endorsement in 2016, paving the way for us to make movement toward a early October endorsement at their PAC board/Executive Board meeting.”
That wasn’t exactly accurate, since there was no agenda item that banned early endorsements, but the intent of NBI 79 was explicit: the union would talk to all candidates prior to considering an endorsement.
In other words, NEA was violating the NBI even as it was being passed.
Between August 6 and 12 the union conducted a telephone survey of 2,000 members to determine whom they supported for the nomination. Clinton was supported by 46 percent of respondents. Bernie Sanders received 22 percent support, and Joe Biden 10 percent. The remainder chose others or expressed no preference.
While the survey was still underway, Budzinski said in an email, “Anxious to lock in the teletown hall date and a Back to School event in September. After private conversations with NEA, completing these two events will allow them to recommend endorsement on October 1st.”
NEA proceeded to demonstrate that it could lobby its own people just as aggressively as it does Congress and the Department of Education. On September 10, 2015, NEA Executive Director John Stocks wrote directly to Podesta.
“We are in a full court press with our affiliates regarding the Hillary recommendation,” he wrote.
Two days later, Budzinski wrote, “The top two NEA State Presidents for high level outreach would be CA and NJ. I'd like to get these calls done next week.”
File those two states away for a minute.
On September 16, Clinton held an hour-long conference call with NEA directors and affiliate officers. A participant described it this way:
Rumors began to spread that NEA would vote on endorsing Clinton the first weekend of October. The first hurdle was the PAC Council, consisting primarily of state affiliate presidents, whose votes are weighted by how much their state contributes to NEA’s political action committee. A simple majority of these votes is enough to recommend endorsement.
The vote was taken, and 82 percent were reported as in favor.
But remember California and New Jersey, NEA’s two largest state affiliates, both targeted for “high-level outreach”? They abstained. This had the dual effect of inflating Clinton’s margin and avoiding internal conflict over the endorsement vote within those affiliates.
The NEA board of directors’ vote was next; for the endorsement to pass, 58 percent of the 180-member body had to approve. Taking no chances, NEA leaders arranged a last-minute “town hall” visit from Clinton on the day of the vote.
WikiLeaks now has a full transcript of her appearance, but you can read the exclusive highlights I published two weeks later.
Having observed all the formalities, the board voted 118–39 in favor of the endorsement, with 8 abstentions, easily clearing the 58 percent hurdle.
It had all gone according to plan, though NEA had a contingency prepared if the board vote looked chancy. Podesta described the possibility in a September 29 email to Clinton:
The endorsement battle was over, but the union knew it still faced difficulties with its members on the ground, most of whom knew nothing about the vote until after it was over. It issued talking points for leaders to use when confronted about the issue.
In an email to members announcing the endorsement, NEA president Lily Eskelsen-Garcia wrote of the process, “It was truly what democracy looks like.”
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