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Mission Critical

Your trusted voice can help get pro-public education candidates into office. But that’s just step one.

By Greg Saitz

On Election Day this November, the direction of the nation and many states won’t depend on the results of just one race. Or two. Or even three.

But combined, the outcome of hundreds of local, state, and national races throughout the country will contribute to determining everything from the future of Social Security and public education to the fate of continued funding for public pension systems.

In other words, the stakes are high.

“It will make a huge difference who gets into office,” says Barbara Matteson, president of NEA-Retired. “If we get the wrong people in there—deficit hawks and those for privatization—we could be in trouble. It’s important to get the people in office who are like-minded and will keep what we value in place.”

That includes candidates who are allies to public education and who share NEA’s views about a thoughtful reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Matteson says. Then there’s protecting Social Security, Medicare, and the pension benefits many educators worked hard to earn, while also promoting job creation, she says.

How, though, does getting hundreds of the right candidates into office happen? In no small part through the efforts of politically active NEA-Retired members who volunteer their time and experience to make a difference.

“This year is going to be exceptionally challenging and the races are harder,” says Jake Sweeney, an NEA field staffer for the Northeast region’s campaigns and election department. “It is critical we have retirees helping us out.”

That could mean helping on a phone bank—either one run by NEA targeting other members or one for a particular candidate—canvassing for a candidate, stuffing envelopes, or attending local association meetings to talk about the reasons for supporting a favored candidate, Sweeney says.

“[Retirees] bring a wealth of knowledge that I think is really important to a campaign,” he says, “and they understand the issues. They’ve seen a lot through their careers. . . . People listen to them.”

But helping on a campaign to get the right candidates in office, while important, isn’t where the story ends. It’s where it begins.

“It’s not only getting them elected,” says Lillian Ching, a retired elementary school teacher from Hawaii. “We have to go there and lobby them to convince them the kids will do better if we have this or that.”

Many NEA-Retired members, like Ching, have been active in the political process for years. Here are some of their stories.

“Everything is political.”

Bob Henning may have spent 35 years as a math teacher, but given his experience, he probably could have done a pretty good job teaching political science as well.

The Wausau, Wisconsin, resident has been politically active for more than 40 years and despite having retired 10 years ago, Henning remains committed to helping candidates and causes that support public education and other issues important to him.

“It’s kind of been an interest or hobby of mine in understanding anything we get in education comes from the political process. Everything is political,” says Henning, who taught at what is now known as the North Central Technical College. “We have to be involved. If you’re not on the playing field you can’t be in the game.”

Henning initially served on local and state legislative committees of the association early in his career, then eventually twice ran unsuccessfully for a state assembly seat. He attended the 1984 Democratic National Convention in San Francisco as a delegate for Walter Mondale and was a paid staffer for Sen. Herb Kohl’s 2000 re-election campaign.

He hasn’t slowed in retirement. Henning is president of both the statewide Wisconsin Education Association Council-Retired and the local Central Wisconsin UniServ Council-Retired.

For the upcoming election, Henning is helping out with several campaigns, including supporting a state senator who is a former student of his. He also is doing whatever the candidates might need—from canvassing neighborhoods and attending rallies to staffing phone banks and running errands.

“We can do things during the day the full-time active teachers can’t do,” he says. “A lot of the work we [retired members] do is grassroots—our legs and time and effort are just as valuable as a monetary contribution, if not more.”

And as president of WEAC-R, Henning said he’ll be visiting local groups around Wisconsin, talking about the political agenda the association supports and encouraging retired members to get involved in helping campaigns of like-minded candidates.

“We can’t take anything for granted,” Henning says, “and it’s important to go out there and push our agenda.”

“I need to be involved.”

Sandy Amlaw has questioned Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, and various others who have run for the highest elected office in this country. So as a candidate for a seat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives herself, did the retired elementary school teacher pick up any pointers?

“Not really,” she says, laughing.

Maybe the national candidates should have been looking to Amlaw for some guidance. The Hudson, New Hampshire, resident has been involved in politics for decades, from activities with NEA to working for public candidates to running her own campaigns.

Amlaw was president of her local teachers' association for the last 13 years of her 35-year career, serving on negotiating teams and representing her district at state and national NEA functions. She also has done door-to-door canvassing, made phone calls, and put up signs for political candidates for the past 15 years.

Then there’s her time on the government relations committee of NEA New Hampshire, where she helped interview the presidential candidates, along with those running for local and state office. Amlaw also served on the state Retirement System Board of Trustees.

Retirement in 2004 didn’t result in much slowing down.

“I just am not the type of person who can sit and do nothing,” she says. “I need to be involved. I like to advocate at the state level for our retirement benefits.”

Amlaw ran unsuccessfully for a state senate seat in 2008, but is back this election to try for a state house seat. Additionally, she is helping the campaign of a congressional candidate and likely will spend her time talking about that candidate and herself at “house parties” in the area.

Although she’s involved in some higher visibility political roles, Amlaw said the smaller things she does for campaigns, such as making phone calls or hanging signs, still play a vital role.

“I wouldn’t be doing them if I didn’t think they were important and they didn’t have an impact on the final result,” she says.

“We go out in force.”

In New Hampshire and Colorado they may have house parties. But in Hawaii they have group sign waving on the highway.

Just ask Lillian Ching, a retired elementary school teacher from Kaneohe, Hawaii.

“It’s a big thing here, standing waving signs,” says Ching, who doesn’t do as much sign waving now as she did during most of her 38-year teaching career. “We go out in force and it looks good on the highway. We’re a small island so everyone has to pass us. It attracts a lot of attention and shows how much support a candidate has.”

Ching has been politically active since the early 70s, when educators unionized on the island and collective bargaining came into play. She noted there are no local school boards in Hawaii, meaning all the funding for education comes from the state.

As a result, Ching has spent decades being involved in the political process.

“It’s kind of ingrained in us,” she says. “Everything we want for the teachers and schools is decided by the governor and the legislature.”

Along with sign waving, Ching has helped campaigns in all sorts of other ways—stuffing and stamping envelopes, working phone banks or writing postcards to friends, relatives, and fellow community group members about a particular candidate or issue.

She’s also on the board of directors for the Oahu district of the Hawaii State Teachers Association-Retired and helps run the group’s elections on a statewide basis. Outside of teaching, Ching has attended a handful of state Democratic Party conventions and is vice president and treasurer of her local Democratic precinct.

Even with her political activities, Ching says she still has time to take classes and go on excursions with other fellow retired educators. In fact, it’s not uncommon for about 20 members of her group to get together to help on a campaign stuffing envelopes and telling stories.

“It’s also fun,” Ching says, “a social hour.”

“It’s just what it takes to be a citizen.”

Long before she was a teacher, La Harve Johnson was politically active. It’s just the way things were in her family growing up in Durham, North Carolina.

“My sisters and I, we had to knock on doors to ask people if they were registered to vote,” Johnson says about her role in voter registration campaigns while in high school.

So it was natural for Johnson to continue participating in the political process once she became a social studies teacher in the 1970s and later a school administrator. Is it any surprise, then, that today, six years after retiring from a three-decade career in education, Johnson remains involved?

“I just don’t see how you can live and not be a part of your government,” she says. “It’s just what it takes to be a full-fledged citizen.”

During her early years as a teacher, Johnson was involved in a political action committee formed by the Durham Association of Educators. The group endorsed candidates for the school board, which Johnson says was unusual at the time but gave teachers a big voice.

She later started doing more with her local precinct, Democratic Party, and community association. That led to candidates asking her to work on their campaigns, come to strategy meetings, and talk to groups about certain issues.

When Johnson retired in 2004, she says she hoped to slow down some. But the requests for her to be involved politically continued to pour in. She couldn’t say no.

This summer she ended a stint as president of the Durham Retired School Personnel-North Carolina Association of Educators and worked the polls handing out candidate literature on primary day in June. And of course, Johnson still encourages voter registration, manning tables at various community events to get eligible voters on the books.

This election, Johnson is helping the campaign of Elaine Marshall, a Democrat running for Senate against incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr. But beyond just supporting certain candidates, Johnson says it’s equally important for retired educators to continue being visible in front of those who’ve been elected to make sure they keep their campaign promises.

“The way to keep our benefits is we have to continue to advocate for them, lobby for them,” she says.

“. . . as long as I can walk and think.”

John Noriega may have had two knees replaced and be 80 years old, but that hasn’t stopped him from volunteering for multiple campaigns this year.

“I tell them, ‘Whatever you want, call and let me know,’” says Noriega, who retired in 1985 after teaching elementary school for 30 years in Adams County, Colorado. “I tell them, ‘Since I’m retired I can help you in whatever area you need help.”

Address envelopes? Check. Make deliveries? Check. Put out candidate signs? Check. Canvass neighborhoods? Well, not so much anymore with those knees, but sometimes.

Noriega and his wife even appeared in a television ad for Ed Perlmutter when he first ran for Congress in 2006.

Noriega’s interest in politics developed at a young age—his father served as a state senator in Colorado. Although he didn’t follow in his father’s footsteps to elected public office, Noriega did serve as president of his local association for several years while teaching and has been elected to attend the NEA convention for the past several years.

He also is a Democratic committeeman and district captain, a position that coordinates several local precincts. In addition, Noriega and his wife hosted a picnic at their home this summer for state Rep. Sara Gagliardi’s re-election campaign.

Noriega refers to himself as Gagliardi’s “sign man” and as such is in charge of getting some 500 signs planted around the district.

So how long does Noriega plan on continuing his activism? “I’ll keep going,” he says, “as long as I can walk and think.”


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