Lobbying and political spending records offer a different, behind-the-scenes view into the group’s activities under Lasher, a seasoned legislative director who abruptly announced this week that he is leaving to become state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s chief of staff.
The records show that the group spent more than $100,000 in Albany, largely to bolster Republican legislators who frequently oppose policies that teachers unions support and who are seen as a bulwark against the erosion of mayoral control in New York City.
We previously reported this summer that StudentsFirstNY gave $5,000 to the Independent Democratic Caucus, a group of breakaway state senators who form a crucial swing vote in the legislature. But the group also sent $50,000 to the Republican party’s campaign committee to keep State Senate Republicans in power and another $5,000 to IDC leader Jeff Klein. Klein’s power-sharing agreement with Republican leader Dean Skelos managed to keep the union-backed Democrats out of power.
The spending doesn’t match the resources that teachers unions are able to contribute to political campaigns. In last year’s elections, the state teachers union spent $4.5 million on direct contributions to candidates and through independent expenditures (mostly television, radio and direct mail advertising). The union’s PAC spent some of that money on Republicans as well, including a pair of $25,000 contributions to the party’s Senate campaign committee.
The donations came from StudentsFirstNY’s political action committee, which was funded with $150,000 in contributions from conservative-leaning board members Paul Tudor Jones and Dan Loeb. The group topped off the spending with a $25,000 check to Gov. Andrew Cuomo at a fundraiser last fall. (Board members Joel Klein and David Boies chipped in $10,000 each as well.)
Senate Republicans have also been the beneficiaries of Mayor Bloomberg’s wealth in recent years. The mayor is hoping they will protect his control over New York City’s school system and allow the charter school sector to thrive after he leaves office.
In Albany, Lasher talked to lawmakers about some of the issues that Bloomberg was publicly speaking out on last year, lobbying records show. Last spring, Lasher lobbied on a controversial bill that regulated disclosure of teacher evaluation ratings, which Bloomberg criticized after it was passed, and a bill to make it easier to fire teachers in sex abuse cases, which the mayor supported.
In both cases, Bloomberg didn’t get what he wanted. But Lasher also worked to defuse a legislative effort to take away some mayoral control, which was not voted on. Another legal change he pushed for, to clarify that teacher evaluation plans must remain in place after their terms expire unless a new system is adopted instead, is in the process of becoming law this week.
StudentsFirstNY set out to boost public support for the mayor’s policies in New York City, but so far, groups that are working to oppose Bloomberg’s education agenda in the mayoral election seem to be having a larger impact.
Education advocates who have sparred with StudentsFirstNY said the group’s strength lies in the Senate lobby, not necessarily out in the streets.
“They tend to be good at things where money prevails like inside lobbying and getting media penetration with a constant, consistent message,” said Alliance for Quality Education Executive Director Billy Easton.