Once toxic in Republican circles, teachers union money pours into GOP primaries
Campaign money from Alabama’s largest teachers union used to be so toxic in Republican circles that it triggered a party rule — still in effect — discouraging candidates from accepting donations from the organization.
In the 2018 election cycle, the Alabama Education Association has been a major player in Republican primaries. The union’s political action committee, Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education, or AVOTE, has dumped $604,500 into Republican campaigns.
That is actually slightly more than the total that the PAC has contributed to Democratic campaigns. The union could help determine dozens of nominees in Tuesday’s GOP primary.
Political observers contend that deluge of cash simply reflects the reality of a state that has marched significantly toward the Republican Party over the past two decades.
“Obviously, they’ve got to take account of partisan changes that have benefited Republicans,” said University of Alabama political scientist William Stewart.
Representatives from the Alabama Education Association declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Alabama Education Association for years operated essentially as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party — or given its enormous influence, perhaps the other way around. At any rate, the party and union shared office space and its longtime head, the late Paul Hubbert, simultaneously served as vice chairman of the party.
That cozy relationship prompted the Alabama Republican Party to play hardball after the party won control of the state Legislature, passing a rule in 2013 banning contributions to the party from the National Education Association or any of its affiliates.
The ban was not binding on candidates, but the bylaws state that, “Officeholders and candidates are strongly admonished to follow the same rule and, because the NEA is a veritable adjunct of the Democratic Party, failure to heed this admonition shall be regarded negatively by the Committee.”
Terry Lathan, chairwoman of the Alabama Republican Party, said the party is bound to remain neutral in primaries. She said the party reserves the right to speak out about AEA donations, but she added that she trusts voters to sort it out.
“We hope voters will decide to make that decision if they want to make it part of the processes,” she said.
Some Republicans critical
AEA contributions have drawn criticism from some Republican candidates, however. Former Shelby County Commissioner Ted Crockett, who is challenging incumbent state Rep. Dickie Drake (R-Leeds), criticized his opponent for accepting $25,000 from the union.
“They’ve been pouring money into his campaign. … These people like the AEA have been trying to weedle their way into the Republican Party and gain control in secret,” he said.
Crockett said he decided to run because Drake supports raising taxes and cited a bill the incumbent sponsored to put a school property tax hike for the Leeds city school system on the November ballot.
Drake said he opposed raising taxes but agreed to sponsor the referendum in order to give city residents the opportunity to make the decision.
As for AEA, Drake said he considers the party bylaw to be outdated.
“The face of the AEA has completely changed,” he said. “Now, we’re working much more closely with them.”
Jess Brown, an Athens State University political scientist in north Alabama, agreed the AEA is not the same organization it was during the Democratic Party’s halcyon days. Alabama has “shifted from a one-party state that had a ‘D’ in front of it to a one-party state that has an ‘R,’ he said.
The AEA is not the only traditional Democratic money source that has spread donations to Republicans. A PAC associated with the state’s trial lawyers has contributed to a number of Republican candidates this year, most notably Supreme Court chief justice candidate Tom Parker.
“If Paul Hubbert were alive today, I have no doubt he would be dropping huge amounts of money in Republican primaries. … They’re either gonna play ball in the Republican Party or they’re not gonna have influence in Montgomery,” Brown said.
In addition to directly contributing to candidates, the AEA has supported others indirectly. The AVOTE PAC this year has spent more than $100,000 on advertising costs.
Some of those funds have paid for fliers promoting the candidacy of Sam Givhan over Mary Scott Hunter for an open state Senate seat in District 7 in the Huntsville area. Givhan has not received any direct contributions from the PAC.
Givhan could not be reached for comment.
Hunter focuses on ‘positive, conservative message’
Hunter, who currently serves on the state Board of Education, said in a statement that she is focusing on keeping trained on a “positive, conservative message” in the closing days of the campaign.
“This is the time that backbones can begin to weaken in a campaign and mistakes are made,” she stated. “As for me and my team, we will remain disciplined and on-message through election day, and we’ll have a campaign we can be proud of.”
In the Shelby County House race, Crockett lambasted a different PAC, called the Alabama Federation for Children, which has spent $25,758 in mailers attacking his candidacy. The group, an offshoot of the American Federation for Children, promotes school choice for low-income families.
The chairman of the board, William E. Oberndorf, is a wealthy hedge fund manager from California who supported Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential bids in 2008 and 2012 and backed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in the 2016 GOP primaries. But he told The New York Times that he would support Democrat Hillary Clinton over President Donald Trump.
Crockett said the mailers make an unfair and untrue allegation that as a member of the County Commission, he led an effort to sell a municipal sewer system to Southwest Water Corp. He said he, in fact, opposed the sale.
Crockett blamed Drake for the attacks.
“He’s got a problem, so he’s attacked me,” he said.
Drake said he has nothing to do with the mailers and had not even heard of the PAC until a reporter told him Thursday night. He said his campaign was positive until he was forced to respond.
“It was never negative until he told a pack of lies about me two weeks ago,” he said.
Such intra-party squabbles likely will become more common the longer the Republican Party remains dominant, said Brown, the Athens State political scientist. He said the Democrats for years had various competing factions.
Lathan, the party chairwoman, said the GOP is in a strong position — even if a side effect is occasional difficulties maintaining party unity.
“At some point, we hope that people who run for office are good, patriot, servants who want to serve their counties and state through a conservative lens,” she said.
Stewart, the University of Alabama political scientist, said it is not surprising that Republicans are taking money from an organization they once shunned.
“Candidates need money badly, and I just think they’re flexible,” he said. “We don’t have permanent enemies. We have enemies at one time who later become friends.”