American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges Cincinnati teachers to knock on doors and phone bank on President Obama’s behalf. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten urges Cincinnati teachers to knock on doors and phone bank on President Obama’s behalf. (Photo by Sarah Butrymowicz)

Early on in George Latimer’s 2012 race for the open New York Senate District 37 seat, the momentum was swinging in his opponent’s favor. Republican candidate Bob Cohen, a wealthy real estate developer, had a reputation as an aggressive campaigner who wasn’t afraid to spend money. Two years earlier, he had nearly unseated the incumbent who was now stepping down.

“There was a substantial concern that Bob’s money could win this,” said Victor Mallison, who ran Latimer’s campaign.

But the Westchester race had piqued the interest of the United Federation of Teachers and the New York State United Teachers, who saw a unique opportunity for Democrats to take over the Senate for just the third time since World War II. Democrats already controlled the Assembly, and controlling both houses of the legislature would give the party and its union allies the power to advance their agendas with little opposition.

The unions spent big on the Latimer-Cohen race and four other contests they targeted as winnable. Through television and radio advertising, mailers, door-to-door canvassing, and phone banking, the union’s ability to mobilize voters impressed even its opponents.

“One thing you can be sure of is when the teachers unions engages in a race, they do it very thoroughly,” said William O’Reilly, a Republican consultant who worked on Cohen’s campaign. “And I mean that as a compliment.”

As a local Assemblyman representing an area that already leaned Democratic, Latimer had what many believed was an inherent advantage. But people who worked on his campaign said support from teachers helped propel him to victory. While he began the race with only a slim lead, on Election Day he won soundly, 54 percent to 45 percent.

The unions weren’t able to sway all of the races they got involved in. Two of the five candidates whose campaigns they helped support lost. And a power-sharing deal between Republicans and five breakaway Democrats soon after the election meant that the Democratic Party failed to seize control of the Senate.

Still, the victories are evidence of the powerful political organizing machines that teachers unions across the country — and especially in New York — can become during elections. During election cycles they deploy resources and teacher volunteers to organize aggressively around candidates who they believe are most closely aligned on labor-friendly education policies.

Teachers unions back many candidates, including some who don’t agree with them on every education issue. For instance, NYSUT last year endorsed Jeff Klein, who voted against a bill that required public employees to contribute more toward their pensions — even though he supported increasing the number of charter schools and ending seniority-based layoffs. But often they also lend their might to races where extra effort could tip the balance of power in favor of the Democratic candidate, even when education issues are not at the fore.

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Unions have traditionally been big donors in elections, giving directly to candidates or groups. The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association combined gave more than $59.3 million in political contributions between 1989 and 2010, 95 percent of which went to Democrats. In 2012, the NEA donated more than $13 million, putting it second in overall organization spending to the United Auto Workers at $14 million. The AFT contributed nearly $5.9 million.

The political landscape evolved with the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which held that political expenditures by unions and corporations were a form of free speech and, as such, could not be restricted. Although limits on how much any person or group can give to an individual candidate remain, no ceiling is placed on “independent expenditures.”

That means the unions find their potential power both expanded and threatened. Although they can spend unrestricted amounts of money, so can many who oppose them.

UFT President Michael Mulgrew said he did not expect that the union would be able to match the amount spent by the right in any of the races the union entered in 2012. Cohen’s campaign alone outspent Latimer’s $1.4 million to $700,000. Instead, he said, it came down to tactics.

“The strategy on the other side is to put up yard signs and then just [blanket the area] with ads,” Mulgrew said. “Our strategy is always work with the people on the grassroots piece first.” The UFT prefers to wait until the final two weeks of the campaign to unleash the “major money,” he said.

In all, NYSUT spent $4.5 million in the 2012 elections on things like polling, advertisements, and direct contributions to candidates. The UFT contributed to that total, Mulgrew said.

In addition to Latimer’s victory, the unions helped Democrat Ted O’Brien win a newly opened Senate seat in Rochester and the UFT helped reelect state Sen. Joseph Addabo (D.) in Queens. The unions were also successful in helping to oust longtime Republican incumbent Steve Saland. Despite representing the Hudson Valley, Saland traveled to New York City in May 2012 to promote a bill he sponsored that would let school districts fire teachers who had inappropriate sexual contact with students. The union argued that the proposed legislation was an attack on due process rights. “To us, that was personal,” Mulgrew said. (Saland’s support of gay marriage rights hurt him with conservatives, which also might have cost him at the ballots.)

The unions weren’t successful in every case, however. Democrats Justin Wagner and Chris Eachus, also backed by the unions, both lost.

Other education advocacy groups critical of the unions have tried to back their own candidates, with less success. In 2010, Democrats for Education Reform supported the legislative races of two incumbents who supported raising the charter school cap, and a Harlem political consultant to challenge Bill Perkins, a longtime Harlem senator who had fiercely opposed the growth of charter schools earlier that year. The lone candidate to win was Sam Hoyt, a Buffalo Assemblyman who had served for nearly 20 years.

In all the races, the UFT and NYSUT engaged with local groups, including local teachers unions, to organize grassroots efforts to support their Democratic candidates, Mulgrew said. They also sent out mailers and developed television spots. The unions put out ads calling Cohen a slumlord, which he denied and countered with ads of testimonies from tenants, and attacked Republican Sean Hanna’s record in the State Assembly, calling him “Wrong for Rochester.”

While the UFT and NYSUT were throwing their independent support behind Latimer, Cohen got help from a Virginia-based group called Common Sense Principles that sent out mailers in support of Republican candidates around the state. Mallison, who is now Latimer’s chief of staff, said he counted about a dozen mailers sent out by the organizations in support of Cohen.

Since Latimer’s campaign was legally barred from collaborating with the unions, Mallison rarely interacted with their officials. But reflecting on the race this month, he said the unions’ contributions were effective.

“The work that they did was exceptional, and I think it helped us by augmenting our efforts that we already had,” he said.

Mulgrew said he sees the work the union does as offsetting such outsiders who are “trying to buy the political process.”

He wouldn’t comment on how big of a player the union is in state elections. “That’s for others to say,” he said. “I’ve heard from many people, ‘You were the only ones who said you could go out and do certain things and went out and did it.’”