Democrats for Education Reform is reuniting with an old Albany friend as it prepares to resume a larger presence in the state.
The political action committee’s New York chapter named former state Senator Craig Johnson as board chair, Executive Director Joe Williams said. Johnson’s role on the board, which is unpaid, will primarily be to fundraise, an area that has lagged in recent years as the state’s education advocacy field has grown more crowded, Williams said.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get the donor base engaged again,” said Williams.
Johnson, who won his seat in 2007 in a Long Island district long dominated by Republicans, aligned with DFER on successful legislative efforts required to qualify for federal Race to the Top funding.
The most notable was a revision to the Charter Schools Act that more than doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operate in the state. Snubbing pressure from his Democratic colleagues, Johnson “single-handedly” blocked an early version of the bill that would have banned school building co-locations and slowed down the authorizing process.
Johnson was ousted from his seat just months later, but has stayed active in state politics. He raised nearly $500,000 in 2012 for Jeff Klein’s Independent Democratic Committee, which formed a tenuous power-sharing coalition with Republicans after last fall’s elections. Earlier this month, Johnson was hired by the law firm McKenna Long & Aldridge LLP to oversee national governmental affairs with a focus on education policy.
Update: Johnson did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A press release about the announcement says Johnson is “a product of public education and a public school dad.”
Johnson said in a statement that “creating and supporting highly-functioning public schools has always been something that I considered to be one of the most important Democratic principles.”
DFER took a back seat in New York in recent years and focused on growing nationally. It has launched chapters in 13 other states, and grown its staff from five in 2010 to more than 30 this year, Williams said. Last year, the PAC raised more than $9 million for political spending that included President Obama’s reelection bid. DFER spent $17 million on candidates from 2007-2010, which included support for Obama in the 2008 presidential race.
It ceded the spotlight to StudentsFirst NY, which launched last year with a pledge to raise $10 million and serve as a political counterbalance to the city and state teachers unions. Its board includes Joel Klein, the former city schools chancellor who decamped from DFER to join StudentsFirstNY.
But StudentsFirst NY stumbled out of the blocks when Hakeem Jeffries publicly rejected its support during his Congressional primary campaign. The rejection signaled that many candidates might not want to be associated with StudentsFirst, the national organization that often backs conservative candidates to advance its legislation.
Founding Executive Director Micah Lasher left earlier this year, leaving StudentsFirst NY’s future in doubt. For now, it is looking for someone to replace Lasher and is also considering a former state lawmaker for the spot. Michael Benjamin, a former Democratic assemblyman who broke from his conference’s ranks often on education during his seven years in office, said he’s spoken to Klein and StudentsFirst CEO Michelle Rhee about the job. Since resigning in 2010, Benjamin has worked as a political consultant and penned columns about education for the New York Post.
Williams said there has been “a lot of confusion about what group is supposed to do what” but said that he wants DFER to resume a preeminent role in education advocacy in the state, beginning with the 2013 city elections.
He said he believed DFER needed to begin advocating for new issues than expanding the number of charter schools. When Republican candidate Joe Lhota proposed to double the number of charter schools in the city if elected mayor, Williams said he was unimpressed.
“The UFT contract, to me, is much more important than the number of charter schools any mayoral candidate is pledging to open.”