Cover Story: Close Calls
By Kristen Loschert
Joe Higgins and Fran Enright knew they were in tough fights. On Election Night, they found out how tough.
Joe Higgins was depressed. It was election night, and Higgins, a former Nebraska State Education Association-Retired president, had run a tough campaign for Nebraska ’s Board of Education. Now he was sitting in a hotel restaurant outside the hall where his supporters were gathering for the “victory party”—only the early results put him 1,500 votes behind.
“I thought, ‘maybe I’ll just go home,’” he recalls.
But one ardent campaign supporter just couldn’t believe those numbers, phoned the election commission, and learned it was all a mistake.
“They had transposed a couple of numbers. I was actually ahead,” says Higgins. And he stayed ahead, squeaking out a 600 vote margin out of 52,000 votes cast.
This fall, after four years in office, Higgins is running again.
“With 114,000 registered voters to communicate with, it is a daunting task,” Higgins says. “I will be as visible as possible in all education settings and working with local school board members, school administrators, PTA groups, and, of course, all my education association friends to communicate my message.
“You can’t do this on your own.”
Fortunately, political leaders who support public education don’t have to go it alone, thanks to involved NEA members, especially retirees, who often make the difference between a solid win and a near miss.
“Retired members are so valuable to NEA,” says Dennis Friel, an NEA government relations field manager. “A lot of them were activists when they were teaching, and they’ve stayed activists when they’ve become retired leaders. Now they are dangerous because they have all kinds of time.”
Take Fran Enright in New Jersey. In 1998, Enright organized a grassroots campaign to support Rush Holt, a strong public education advocate running for the U.S. House of Representatives.
“He was a long shot,” says Enright, treasurer of the Monmouth County Retired Educators. “Nobody thought he was going to be elected, but we really worked hard for him.”
Enright and her volunteer team wrote letters, made calls, visited every local Association in New Jersey ’s 12th Congressional district, and later traveled door to door to educate members about Holt.
The effort paid off when member votes helped put Holt in office, and then secured his re-election two years later by fewer than 700 votes. NEA has recommended Holt for Congress every year since.
“I feel very strongly that we need all of our legislators to understand education and what’s happening in the education world,” says Enright. “If I can do that by helping Rush Holt—or helping NJEA get our message to Rush Holt—that’s what I’ll do.
“It gave me a lot of personal satisfaction to know we had somebody [in Congress] who was working for us.”
In fact, Enright feels so strongly about getting involved in the political process that she decided to run for a seat on her town council this November.
“Teachers who say they don’t need to be involved in politics, it’s ridiculous,” says Enright. “Our salaries, how our schools are run, that all depends on politics, so they need to be involved.” Strong voter turnout and active Association support helped elect Tim Kaine governor of Virginia last year in one of the more pivotal races of the season.
Virginia ’s teachers, both active and retired, knew the stakes. Kaine supported raising teacher salaries, protecting the state retirement system, expanding opportunities for early childhood education, and fully funding the state Standards of Quality program. Meanwhile, Kaine’s opponent, Jerry Kilgore, supported vouchers and merit pay.
“We just worked as hard as we knew how to get Tim Kaine elected,” says Ernest Holley, President of the Virginia Education Association-Retired. “If I had to do it again, I would exert just as much energy as I did in this campaign.”
With assistance from NEA, the Virginia Education Association organized a massive campaign to inform voters about Kaine’s pro-public education views. In addition to mobilizing members, VEA conducted a series of statewide press conferences to highlight its “Gubernatorial Report Card,” which graded Kaine and Kilgore on key issues such as teacher pay, vouchers, and public school funding. Prior to the press events, Kaine trailed Kilgore in many of the voter opinion polls, says Rob Jones, director of government relations for VEA. But after the events, Kaine’s popularity soared. Kaine’s campaign manager partly credits VEA for the win, says Jones.
“The best thing we did was define the education issues,” says Jones, “and we delivered our members.”
Marjorie Clark, a retired librarian from Chesterfield, Virginia, was one of them. Clark, who also chairs the 7th District Democratic Committee, helped at the grassroots level, recruiting volunteers for phone banks and bringing voters to the polls on Election Day. Retirees often have the greatest impact locally, she says, since they have time to volunteer in a campaign office, extensive knowledge about local issues, and strong relationships with members of their community.
Some volunteers, like Mimi Dash, president of the Fairfax Education Association-Retired, bring years of campaign experience. Dash was no stranger to political activities when she campaigned for Kaine’s predecessor, Virginia Gov. Mark Warner in 2001. In fact, she credits her social studies class when she was a middle school student for developing her initial interest in political activism.
Then “when I became a teacher, especially when I became active in the Association, I realized how much of what I do, and did, on a day-to-day basis was decided by people who needed my help making that decision,” says Dash, a retired elementary school teacher.
“I knew if we wanted to make any progress in education we had to get people in office who would be supportive of our issues.”
Dash worked on campaigns throughout her teaching career and continues to do so today. But Dash stresses that retirees shouldn’t let a lack of campaign experience dissuade them from getting involved.
“For the retired person, now would be a good time to start. A lot of people don’t feel they have the time when they are in the classroom. Having that little bit of extra time and knowing the next day isn’t a work day relieves a lot of the pressure,” she says.
“Personally, I don’t have a place to complain if I’m not willing to do something about it. So I’m going to do something, and I think other people should, too. When they complain to me, that’s what I tell them.”
Even if you don’t want to run for public office, you can make an important difference on the political scene. Here’s how:
Register to vote. It’s your right, so use it.
Don’t forget to vote. On Election Day, retirees typically turn out in higher numbers than younger voters. Make your voice heard!
Know the candidates. If you aren’t sure who favors defined benefit retirement plans and who wants to raid your pension fund, check out the October NEA Today and your state publications for information about the Association’s recommended candidates.
Talk to your family and friends. Encourage them to vote for candidates who support public education.
“There is nothing more effective than a respected colleague saying, ‘I hope you vote for this candidate,’” says Dennis Friel, NEA government relations field manager. “That type of thing changes minds.”
Volunteer to help a campaign. “Retirees have time during the day when a lot of other volunteers are still at the workplace,” says Marjorie Clark, chairman of Virginia ’s 7th District Democratic Committee. Volunteers call prospective voters, distribute campaign signs, and meet with local Associations and other groups to promote their candidates. Contact your state Retired president for information on campaign efforts in your community.
Become a cyber-lobbyist. Register for NEA’s weekly legislative e-mail newsletter to receive the latest news on education issues facing Congress. You can also check the voting records of your members of Congress on issues affecting education.