The American Federation for Children tried to buy five Democratic primaries for the Wisconsin state legislature in Milwaukee. This past Tuesday, Milwaukee Democrats spoke at the ballot box -- and the AFC-backed candidates were defeated in a clean sweep.
The American Federation for Children (AFC) promotes school profitization, seeking to funnel taxpayer money out of the public schools into "voucher" and charter schools, with as little accountability for those profit-making schools as possible. Chaired and bankrolled by Betsy DeVos, Tea Party ally and billionaire wife of Amway founder Richard DeVos, AFC has funded school profitization efforts to the tune of millions of dollars. AFC is a member of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), helping to compose and promote model legislation to privatize public education in states across the country.
According to PR Watch from the Center for Media and Democracy, the AFC spent over $113,000 in five targeted Democratic primaries.
What in the world is the AFC doing supporting Democratic candidates in Wisconsin? The answer is on the other side of the Cheddar Swirl.
The first thing to know is that the city of Milwaukee is heavily Democratic, and the Republican redistricting has clustered Democrats together even more intensely, such that the GOP didn't consider it worth their while to field candidates. So the only contests in play for those districts were the Democratic primaries.
Second piece of the puzzle: Milwaukee has a peculiar history with school profitization. Under Gov. Tommy Thompson in 1990, Milwaukee embarked on the nation's first major school-voucher program for children with low-income. School vouchers have been on current Gov. Scott Walker's priority list as well. His 2011-2013 budget included a major expansion for voucher programs, while drastically cutting education funding across the biennium. However, school vouchers in Milwaukee have a mixed record at best, and have been nowhere near the panacea originally promised. The voucher-expansion in Walker's budget legislation was extreme and unexpected enough to catch some Republicans by surprise; a subsequent measure passed at the end of the session in 2012 placed some limits on the voucher expansion.
Meanwhile, an ALEC model bill called the Special Needs Scholarship Program Act (AB110), attempting to voucherize special education in Wisconsin while stripping participating students of their federal special-education rights, was narrowly blocked in the State Senate. One Assembly Democrat in particular, Jason Fields of Milwaukee, co-sponsored AB110 and gave the school-profitization lobby cover to call the measure "bi-partisan." While AB110 was blocked this year, it is rumored to be a priority for the upcoming session should the GOP regain the majority in the Wisconsin state senate.
The AFC has been especially busy in Wisconsin during this season of school-profitization opportunity since Walker's election in 2010. Their most prominent lobbyist is former Wisconsin GOP Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, convicted in 2006 on three felony counts for using state resources for campaigning (shades of the current John Doe investigation circling ever closer to Gov. Walker...) Jensen was sentenced to 15 months imprisonment and banned from the Capitol for 5 years, but never did serve due to appeal after appeal. Finally he got his case moved to Waukesha County, and all was forgiven in December 2010, just in time to ramp up the lobbying in the Walker administration. As a Capital Times article on Thursday points out the obvious,
Scott Jensen's is not a name with whom many Wisconsin Democrats want to be linked.It is within that context that the AFC set about to buy itself five Democratic seats in the August primaries. With the exception of one direct donation of $500 to Jason Fields from Scott Jensen and his wife, the spending was "soft" money, not coordinated directly with the candidates' campaigns, but clearly spent with the expectation that the buys would be worth AFC's while.
Below are the five AFC supported candidates, and the results of their primaries. The quoted text for all of the below is from PR Watch.
Jason Fields is the incumbent Assemblyman from the 11th District, representing much of Milwaukee. He has represented the 11th district since 2004, but is being challenged in the Democratic primary by Mandela Barnes, who does not support AFC's education policy. AFC has spent $32,557.35 in support of Jason Fields so far on mailing services, newspaper ads, printing, and polling.Community organizer Mandela Barnes won 68.2% of the vote to the AFC-supported Fields' 31.8%.
Jarrett Fields, the brother of Jason Fields, is also running for Assembly, and also has the support of AFC. Jarrett Fields is running to fill the seat vacated by Representative Tamara Grigsby (who is retiring following health problems), and will appear on the ballot with seven other Democrats. AFC spent more on Jarrett Fields than the other four candidates, $37,989.23, as of the last reporting period.There ended up being eight candidates on the ballot in this primary. The winner was Evan Goyke, with 37.2%. The AFC-supported Jarrett Fields took only 18.4% of the vote in this crowded field.
Tracey Dent is one of four Democrats running for Assembly in the 17th District, and there is no incumbent running in the race. AFC has spent $16,236.42 in support of Dent.La Tonya Johnson won the primary for the 17th District, with 43.0% of the vote. The AFC-supported Tracey Dent ran third with 22.5%.
Mildred (Millie) Coby is running in the 10th District and will appear on the ballot with three other Democrats, one of whom is Democratic Representative Sandy Pasch who was redistricted out of the 22nd District, which she previously represented. AFC has spent $13,138.42 supporting Coby.Sandy Pasch won this election with 60.8% of the vote to the AFC-supported Coby's 32.5%.
Elizabeth Coggs is running for Wisconsin State Senate in the 6th District. She is looking to replace Spencer Coggs, her cousin, who is leaving the Senate to serve as Treasurer of the City of Milwaukee. Elizabeth Coggs is currently the Representative in the Wisconsin Assembly from the 10th District. Coggs is facing four other Democrats who will appear on the ballot on August 14.Nikiya Harris won this 5-way primary with 47.9%, to the AFC-supported Elizabeth Coggs' 33.4%.
To put the AFC spending figures into perspective: according to the Capital Times, Jason Fields' actual campaign raised $5,585 by July 30. AFC, by contrast, spent over $30,000 to support his campaign. The AFC spending, though relatively minor given their millions in spending overall, was intended to be crushingly overwhelming at the primary level.
Another aspect of these races that adds further cognitive dissonance to the AFC support is that all of the AFC-supported candidates were African-American. There were open racial tensions in several of the primaries, and the outcomes leave the Wisconsin legislature with fewer black legislators, since two of the winners were white.
That aspect is surely a loss for the legislature, since diversity has been pretty much up to the Democrats (the Republican representation is very white and very male.) However, as a commenter on State Sen. Lena Taylor's Facebook page put it:
Take note. Those who take voucher school cash, regardless of race, ethnicity, language, gender, religion or sexual orientation will not be rewarded.Despite the divisions, this was a powerful set of wins for progressives in Wisconsin, and a decisive defeat for big-money school profitization interests.
And now, Wisconsin Democrats have our work cut out for us. On to November!
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