The Oregon governor race is turning interesting on education. A few things stand out. Notably, Tobias Read, the current state treasurer, is making education a cornerstone of his campaign in the Democratic primary. In particular he’s talking about keeping schools open and not just for academics but for other supports they provide. For instance, a recent mailing from the campaign,
In the constantly changing landscape of multiple organizations making dozens of public health recommendations, I’d forgive you if you missed the new Oregon guidelines for school extracurriculars. For now, the state isn’t mandating this, but the recommendations are to cancel or seriously restrict important non-academic activities. The goal here is commendable – keeping schools open. But restricting and canceling extra-curricular activities will only worsen the growing mental health crisis our children are facing.
Since long before the pandemic Read’s been a friend to those who want to see better public education and a sensible and principled pol. But this stance and how much he’s leaning into the school issue is notable in a state where pandering to the teachers unions matters a lot to campaign finance.
So why, then, are reformers gravitating so much toward former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof who is also in the race along with a state legislator, who is generally expected to be the teachers union candidate? I should note here that just yesterday Oregon’s Secretary of State ruled that Kristof, who is from Oregon and owns property there, is ineligible to run given he recently lived, paid taxes, and, crucially, voted in New York. I’m hardly an expert on Oregon election law so I have no idea how this will play out, Kristof can and says he will appeal the ruling. And I’d be stunned if he hadn’t gamed this out before he quit one of the few remaining great jobs in journalism. (I’m also not-anti Kristof. On the contrary, he’s written favorably about Bellwether’s work and said and written plenty of sensible things about education over the years. And he does things like go backpacking with his daughter that resonate with me personally. In national politics he might be a breath of fresh air.)
But Read’s making reform a centerpiece now. At a time that’s not the go-to move.
Reformers, more or less, “but Kristof, it’s Nick Kristof!” “He’s so cool…”
Yes, sure, he is. But…
Recently I asked whether the problem with reformers was whether they were bad at politics, or just bad at sustaining politics given the number of things that have been achieved then abandoned as fashions changed and people moved on. Maybe, though, it’s both?
Over the years I’ve heard a lot of politicians in the legislative and executive branches complain that reformers were asking them to jump into swimming pools that didn’t have water in them. The ed reform movement is based on heroes not average bears is the complaint. And given the choice, most politicians would rather be reelected than be heroes.
This post is neither an endorsement of Read or a fundraising note – though full disclosure I am donating to Read who I consider a conscientious public servant of the kind we need more of and knew before he entered elected politics – because that’s not appropriate here. It’s also not intended to minimize other important aspects of politics, broad support and good ideas that matter along with finance. Ironically, based on both evidence and ample public opinion and political behavior data the reform world has those things even as everyone puts on a show of running around in a hairshirt claiming otherwise.* And some people have done tireless work in these finance vineyards, I don’t mean to detract from that work- they’re just being asked to move mountains with trowels.
Rather, my point here is, say whatever you want about the teachers’ unions they are reliable political friends to people who carry their water. It’s why despite everything that’s happened, and is happening, since 2020, and really long before that, they still command a lot of political allegiance. It’s how you get things like this that are completely at odds with reality but whether because of Stockholm syndrome, self-preservation, or opportunism a lot of people are like, oh yeah, right that makes sense.
And people talk about the teachers’ unions as this scrappy little outfit like something out of Star Wars. They’re actually among the biggest givers in American politics. They’re the empire a lot more than they are the rebellion. They know how to play and win at the game, at least for now.
From The Oregonian,
So far, Kristof’s campaign has reported raising $2.5 million. Kotek reported raising $860,000 and Read reported raising $722,000 since 2021. Oregon’s public employee unions can spend large amounts on a race at any point so a candidate who secures their support can often more than make up for any fundraising disadvantage.
That’s the game reformers need to play, too, to get away from the kids’ table. Financially you don’t have to go toe to toe with them, a little Sun Tzu goes a long way. And if reformers can’t rally around people like Read, and a too long list of similar examples going back years, why should they expect politicians to step up? Because it’s the right thing to do? That’s not how this works. This is not “The West Wing.” And politicians notice who their political friends are – and who other people’s are.
*In politics organized concentrated interests beat generalized diffuse interests all the time across a range of issues. Having a popular issue is not enough.