Mitt Romney appeared on NBC's Education Nation Tuesday morning to give a pitch for private schools and charter schools. During the question and answer session with Brian Williams, he was asked about the Chicago teachers' strike, and whether he thought teachers should be allowed to go on strike.
His response was quite remarkable. While he believes teachers should have the right to go on strike (or so he says), he was quite adamant that teachers and by extension, teachers' unions, should not have the right to donate to campaigns or purchase advertising in the same fashion that corporations do.
If Citizens United ruled that money is speech, then why isn't teachers' money speech? They're citizens, they vote, and they also happen to be public employees.
According to Mitt Romney, "in the case of the Democratic Party, the largest contributor to the Democratic party is the federal teachers' unions." He went on to say that "if they elect someone, then that person is supposed to be representing the public, vis a vis the teachers union, but actually most of their money came from the teachers' union." He wrapped it all up by declaring it an "extraordinary conflict of interest."
I'm going to do my best to first sort out what Mitt Romney actually said, without regard to whether he's factually correct. As I understand it, he says elected officials represent the public, but their campaigns are funded by some thing that's not the public called a union and therefore there's a conflict.
I don't think I did that very well. Or perhaps he didn't say it very well, because it's just a silly argument. Teachers are citizens. They vote. They contribute to a union which then contributes to candidates and clearly discloses that they have made that contribution. When a union pays for an independent expenditure, it's clearly understood that union members paid for that. When a corporation pays for an independent expenditure, it's not even disclosed.
A bit later, Romney clarified his remarks while calling a parent a liar and a fool in the process:
Watch Willard tell a parent who cited a recent poll about parents standing with teachers and their union by a 3:1 margin that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He tells the man directly that he doesn't believe the poll, that he knows polls, and this poll is wrong.
He then pivoted back to his campaign finance stance, saying that if teachers are giving to campaigns to elect officials who will then face teachers at the bargaining table, those officials will be too corrupt to think of the children during the bargaining process. Because clearly teachers' unions, made up of teachers who have the interests of children at heart couldn't possibly be negotiating on behalf of the children.
Yes, this is why those same teachers who belong to unions pay for kids' school supplies out of pocket, bring fruit or snacks to school to help kids who come to school hungry because there's nothing for them to eat at home, who function as counselor and comforter to kids living in difficult situations. They do all of that for about $40-50,000 per year and of course it's to serve their own self interests. Give me a break.
I would like Willard to visit McDowell County, West Virginia, where the AFT (a national teachers' union) has been actively involved in improving the entire community's life by forging partnerships to improve their internet access, roads, housing situation, and health issues. Rural poverty is a huge barrier to learning, and so the teachers have joined with those who have the means and resources to help in order to break down those barriers in order for those children to break free of the devils that inhibit their ability to learn.
Tell me more about how unions are self-interested monoliths who don't serve children's interests, Willard. Step up and look with your own eyes and then say that with a straight face. Say it straight to me.
The conflict of interest isn't with teachers' unions, who were not the largest contributors to the Democratic party anyway. The conflict of interest is the corporate interests and billionaires who can fly under the disclosure radar to push agendas which are never disclosed.
Dark money doesn't come from teachers. Via Sunlight Foundation:
As we have reported in the past, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity are responsible for over $100 million of so-called issue ads in this election cycle. Under the new legal framework resulting from Van Hollen v. FEC, issue ads that mention a Presidential candidate would begin to require donor disclosure on July 28th. Ads that mention other federal candidates would begin to require such disclosure on August 7th.
Some in the campaign finance community predicted that instead of running issue ads after these dates, dark money groups would switch to funding independent expenditures – more explicitly political ads that include express advocacy (such as saying ‘support candidate x’ or ‘vote against candidate y’). Despite the fact that they are more blatantly intended to influence elections, independent expenditures only trigger required disclosure of the total spending, but no donor disclosure.
Clearly there's a conversation to be had about campaign finance with Mitt Romney, but it's not one that includes teachers' unions. What Mitt needs to address, and what Brian Williams failed to follow through on in that interview, is how corporate interests are allowed to influence elections without ever revealing to the public at large who paid for that influence.
If that's a fight Mitt Romney wants, he can bring it on. Right now, right here. He won't win that, nor should he. If he won, interests served would not be children. Just billionaires.