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Election Inflections

Election Inflections: Charter School Spending Splurge

Under state law, an independent expenditure committee can funnel unlimited amounts of money from corporations, nonprofits and wealthy donors, as long as it does not coordinate spending activity with candidates, who are under strict, albeit voluntary campaign limits. Next week Bill Raden will report on the unprecedented amount of contributions made by California’s charter school lobbies to influence nearly three-dozen state Assembly and Senate races, along with several local school board elections.

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Under state law, an independent expenditure committee can funnel unlimited amounts of money from corporations, nonprofits and wealthy donors, as long as it does not coordinate spending activity with candidates, who are under strict, albeit voluntary campaign limits. Next week Bill Raden will report on the unprecedented amount of contributions made by California’s charter school lobbies to influence nearly three-dozen state Assembly and Senate races, along with several local school board elections.

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Election Inflections

Election Inflections: Why California’s Deep-Pocketed Charter School Backers Went for Broke

Yesterday the subscriber-only political almanac California Target Book reported that spending by all independent expenditure committees (IECs) on legislative races in the general election had topped $41 million. That brought the year’s total of outside money for state Assembly and Senate seats, including primary races, to $70 million.

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Yesterday the subscriber-only political almanac California Target Book reported that spending by all independent expenditure committees (IECs) on Sacramento legislative races in the general election had topped $41 million. That brought the year’s total of outside money for state Assembly and Senate seats, including primary races, to $70 million.

But the real surprise of this election was just how much of 2016’s independent expenditure spending can be attributed to a handful of committees tied to charter school groups. According to the California Secretary of State’s Cal-Access website, charter IECs pumped close to $24 million into about 35 Assembly and Senate races, along with school board races in Alameda and Sacramento counties in the north, to Riverside and San Diego counties in the south.

Under state law, an independent expenditure is any campaign spending that is “outside” the control the candidates whom it is benefiting or opposing. An IEC can funnel unlimited amounts of money from corporations, nonprofits and wealthy donors, as long as it does not coordinate the spending activity with candidates, who are under strict, albeit voluntary campaign limits.

California’s “school choice” movement has always benefited from generous subsidies by a narrow spectrum of big-spending entrepreneurs, many of whom are billionaires. Their wealth has helped give the state the highest number of charter schools in the U.S., even as their election largess has left it with the nation’s most expensive school board elections.

Capital & Main’s analysis of the latest campaign-finance records for the five largest charter school IECs reveals that those same personal fortunes are at the center of the charters’ apparent attempt to buy some Sacramento political insurance against a growing resistance among both lawmakers and the public to the industry’s unbridled expansion in the state.

The amount spent by charter IECs represents about $40 for each of California’s 581,100 charter school students, and a 300 percent jump from 2014 charter election spending — about 570 percent over 2012. (See infographic below.)

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Why did California’s charter industry choose this election to spend its way into the electoral fray? The answer depends on whom one asks.

“They were tired of getting beat,” Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufmann asserted in an email. “They had lost nearly every election in past years and obviously this year, their strategy became, 1: Let’s see how much money our billionaire donors can put in; and then, 2: Let’s see how much can we spend to buy some legislative and school board seats. The charter industry spent $11 million in the primary and had an impact, so they [. . .] doubled down in the general election.”

Twenty-six open legislature seats — 12 in hotly contested swing districts — shared the ballot with 17 statewide propositions. With early-voter turnout already setting records, Democrats stood poised to reclaim the legislative supermajority they lost in 2014.

But the election would also decide the political complexion — and the progressive-stopping power — of the informal group of bill-killing “moderate” assembly members so friendly to big business that it has been informally dubbed the “corporate Democrats caucus.”

Charter schools are privately managed but taxpayer-funded schools that are virtually free from most of the laws — and much of the accountability or transparency — under which traditional public schools operate. Protecting that status quo, public school supporters insist, drove this year’s independent expenditure spending spree.

“Charter schools used to be a boutique thing,” Cal State Sacramento education and policy studies professor Julian Vasquez Heilig said. “Now they have incredible money and power behind them: They have Eli Broad’s very deep pockets; the Gates Foundation has spent $300 million on charter schools in the last couple years; the Walton Family Foundation. … Parents and families and civil rights folks that are asking the charter schools to reform are really the underdog in this conversation, because the money and power is on the side of charter schools.”

Most of the charters’ IE spending (88 percent) was directed by three committees that served as the 501(c)(4) political arms of industry lobbyists California Charter School Association (CCSA) and EdVoice, the charter school advocacy nonprofit founded by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings: CCSA’s California Charter Schools Association Advocates IE Committee, and the Parent Teacher Alliance (sponsored by the CCSA’s IEC); and the EdVoice Independent Expenditure Committee. (Neither EdVoice nor CCSA responded to requests to comment for this article.)

The remainder was distributed by the Govern for California Action Committee, a PAC controlled by anti-public-pension gadfly and neoliberal Democrat David Crane; and by Parents and Teachers for Student Success – StudentsFirst, the IEC of the national pro-charter group founded by Michelle Rhee.

“They’re investing heavily in maintaining a deregulated environment,” said United Teachers Los Angeles Secretary Daniel Barnhart before the election. “This really isn’t about kids. In their own words, they say it’s about market share.”

He may be right. Though the teachers union spent nearly $33 million on the election, the bulk of that (around $20 million) went to Proposition 55, the education-funding measure that aimed to benefit all California classrooms — both charter and public school students. The charter IECs spent solely on pro-charter legislative and school board candidates.

In Sacramento, where charters are represented by CCSA, the 2015-16 legislative session was a mixed bag for the industry. Lobbyists succeeded in killing two big reforms: AB 1084, a Susan Bonilla (D-Concord) bill that would have outlawed for-profit companies from operating online charter schools; and SB 322, a bill by Mark Leno (D-San Francisco) that would have reined in exclusionary suspension practices at charters by making them obey the due process rules that apply at public schools.

But two other major regulatory measures got away: Assembly Bill 709, a transparency bill by Mike Gipson (D-Carson) that would have forced charters to comply with the Brown Act and would have also barred charter school board members and their relatives from profiting from their schools; and Senate Bill 739 , by Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), which would have prohibited financially troubled school districts from authorizing charter schools to operate in other school districts that haven’t approved them.

Those bills were stopped by what has proved to be the charter industry’s most reliable failsafe in recent years — Governor Jerry Brown’s veto pen. But Brown leaves office at the start of 2019 and at least one possible successor is thus far looking very liberal and far more skeptical when it comes to giving charter schools a free hand.

“They’ve had a field day with Jerry Brown,” Network for Public Education executive director Carol Burris explained. “He has been as pro-charter as any red state governor. They’re trying to build a kind of firewall so that if the [next] governor does not have the views of Jerry Brown, it’s [more] likely that the legislation will never get to the governor’s desk to begin with.”

A post-Brown “charter Democrats caucus” could have its work cut out. In recent months, a coalition of low-income communities and civil rights groups that were once considered essential allies, have begun showing signs of discontent over the charter industry’s unregulated growth.

Late last year a takeover plan leaked by Broad and the Walton foundations to privatize a “50 percent market share” of Los Angeles Unified School District was quietly dropped following fierce local blowback.

This summer a blistering study by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California claimed that over 20 percent of California’s charter schools had widespread enrollment and discipline policies that violate state and federal laws for taxpayer-funded schools.

Almost simultaneously, the NAACP called for a moratorium on new charter schools — a demand immediately echoed by Black Lives Matter and the alliance Journey for Justice. As the charter movement’s national leadership attempted to stamp out the dissent, the opposition appeared to grow grassroots when city officials from Huntington Park, a poor community in southeastern Los Angeles County, declared their own yearlong moratorium on new charter schools — citing traffic, noise and business-environment concerns.

In the meantime, CSSA announced its own version of the Broad-Walton charter expansion in the spring — a “March to a Million” campaign that would nearly double statewide enrollment by adding over another 400,000 charter seats to a public school system that is already burdened by overcapacity and a declining school-age population.

Huntington Park’s urban planning objections to charter school expansion could be the tip of a much more worrisome iceberg. Burris, who recently spent time in the state speaking to local school superintendents while investigating the charter industry for a hard-hitting Washington Post series, said that local school districts stretching half the length of California, from Marin County in the north to Anaheim and San Diego in the south, are feeling besieged by the recent proliferation of dubious storefront startups and satellite “resource centers” within their borders and have begun to bristle at their inability to rein them in through the authorization process.

“They’re getting nervous,” said Burris. “They’re realizing, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ Their school systems are really starting to feel distressed because of all of this. So they’re going to start finding reasons not to approve charters.”

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Election Inflections

Arizona Rising: The 10-Year Crusade to Reinvent Politics in the Grand Canyon State

Co-published by The Nation
Ordinary working people, especially the young and people of color, have been so much and for so long exploited in Arizona that for many, labor and political activism have become lifelong governing passions, not just a matter of phone-banking on a weekend or two in an election season. Their long misfortunes have galvanized labor into becoming a voter registration powerhouse and a formidable organizer in the fielding of candidates.

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Maria Bustillos

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The New Southwest: Community and Labor Activists in Phoenix (All photos by Antonio Mendoza)

This feature is co-published by The Nation.

Ordinary working people, especially the young and people of color, have been so much and for so long exploited in Arizona that for many, labor and political activism have become lifelong governing passions, not just a matter of phone-banking on a weekend or two in an election season. Their long misfortunes have galvanized labor into becoming a voter registration powerhouse and a formidable organizer in the fielding, grooming and election of candidates. In this way, union activists are achieving tangible results that are improving the lives of all Arizona citizens.

Latinos comprise a 31 percent—and growing—share of the state’s population; it’s long been remarked that the demographics make electoral change here inevitable. But the speed of Arizona’s apparent political shift is owing in no small part to the hard work of a committed labor movement.

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Maria Madrid, who works as a maid at the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel, symbolizes the impact of that movement in the Grand Canyon State. The 56-year-old Mexican native describes the new union contract she helped fight for in terms of bloodied knees. Madrid went to lunch one day and discovered that the surgical incisions from her recent knee replacement surgery had burst, and blood was sticking her trousers to her skin. Madrid’s supervisor made light of her injuries. Being provided by management with long-handled scrub brushes for cleaning floors may not sound like such a big deal—until your knees are shot from years of scrubbing tile floors by hand.

“They used never to give us a raise of more than 15 or 20 cents, but now we see the difference in our checks, too,” Madrid told me during a visit to UNITE HERE Local 631 in Phoenix; the hospitality union helped organize the Tempe Mission Palms Hotel last year, staging a two-day vigil and fast in 115-degree heat. Maids at the hotel used to be required to clean as many as 17 check-outs in one day; today the maximum number is 12, Madrid said. “Our insurance rates will be lowered in November. The gains are huge.” Madrid, a grandmother, is studying now to become an American citizen. She is eager to continue to work to bring others into the union, and to persuade more Arizonans to vote.

As Rachel Sulkes, an organizer at the labor-affiliated CASE (Central Arizonans for a Sustainable Economy) and UNITE HERE explained: “While people don’t always understand unions, they do understand organizations that take on bullies in the community, and issues that they’re very passionate about.”

Arizona currently ranks dead last in the nation, by some measures, for state spending on higher education; appropriations have been cut 27 percent from 2011 levels. In Maricopa County, which is home to Phoenix and to Arizona State University, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has been accused of engaging in inmate abuse, deportations and racial profiling, leading to the recently announced federal prosecution for contempt of court relating to the racial profiling of Latinos.

Many viewed state Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s infamous anti-immigrant “show your papers” law as an attempt to take Arpaio’s methods statewide. Signed into law in 2010 by then-governor Jan Brewer, SB 1070 would have permitted law enforcement to demand papers proving citizenship or the right to legal residence of anyone they suspected of being in the country illegally. The bill was produced by the far-right American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and sponsored by former state senator Russell Pearce. The connections between Pearce, ALEC and the private prison industry, which would have earned millions by jailing undocumented Arizonans, were reported by NPR shortly after the bill’s passage.

Photo by Antonio MendozaPhoto by Antonio Mendoza

After years of litigation, what was left of the unpopular law was recently defanged in a settlement between the state and the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights organizations. The reaction against SB 1070 provided the fulcrum on which the state’s political mood finally pivoted, according to U.S. Congressman Ruben Gallego, a Marine Corps veteran of the Iraq War and Harvard graduate, who entered the Arizona State House in 2011.

“SB 1070 kicked off a generational change in terms of Latino leaders,” he told me. “Even if we were going to punch and lose, we had to push back. We were so weak that we were being preyed upon. People did it just to keep their sanity. But being willing to fight was part of the victory.”

Gallego added: “There was a core group of probably 20 Latinos and Latinas and allies who decided they were going to fight back… Now they are working in 501(c)(4)s, the school boards, the statehouse. Arizona [had been] abandoned by national groups. Now that we’re competitive, people are starting to invest [politically] in Arizona.”

I spent some hours in Phoenix with Sulkes, who explained labor’s role in local political activism, and introduced me to some key players. One Arizona, a coalition of 14 grassroots organizations, including CASE, has helped to register 150,000 new voters in this cycle—double its original target, and a substantial share of the approximately 2.3 million votes typically cast here in a presidential election. Student organizations, conservationists, churches and immigration reformers have joined labor in One Arizona to create an explosive increase in civic participation. Their template of five years’ efforts in developing collaborations between activist groups, identifying and securing joint funding, and establishing effective data analysis and leadership development ladders, is there ready and waiting to be exported to other states.

Sulkes is a New England transplant and the mom of two young girls. She is very fair, with pale blue eyes — a confidence-inspiring, quick-witted, fast-talking lady, whether in English or in her elegantly phrased, heavily accented Spanish.

“Our state was sort of the vanguard of the ALEC legislation machine; SB 1070 went to the Supreme Court,” she told me, going on to speculate that the state’s politics were irrevocably altered as the law’s profound effects on citizens began to sink in. “It really felt like this line being drawn in the sand.”

Russell Pearce, she explained, was driven out of office in 2011, and out of his position as first vice chairman of the state GOP in 2014. (A public outcry following his call for the forced sterilization of poor women as a condition of receiving Medicaid ended in his resignation from the latter position.) “There was a triumvirate that was Pearce, Arpaio and Andy Thomas, the Maricopa County Attorney,” Sulkes said. “Thomas has been disbarred. You could see: It is possible to take this on. Resistance to it was a conclusive success, and that is inspiring to people.”

She introduced me to Betty Guardado, the secretary-treasurer of Local 631, who brought her husband and their baby boy with them. Once a housekeeper at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, Betty is a charming, bespectacled woman who wore a sapphire-blue top and who radiates the brains and drive of a trailblazer. She rose year by year, canvassing for Gray Davis in 1998, eventually leading her own team in that gubernatorial campaign, and then another, and another. In the summer of 1999, her union asked her to take a six months’ leave from her hotel job to help organize the New Otani, a hotel they’d been working on for many years. “Those housekeepers are so negative and they need someone young, someone like you. We really want to train you.” It was then that Guardado decided, “All right, if I’m going to commit to this, I’m going to commit to it for the long term.” But the New Otani campaign failed. The hotel was sold in 2007—it’s now the Doubletree by Hilton—and was unionized only in 2015.

Hard-fought efforts like these developed the chops of many organizers like Guardado, who came to Arizona from California, Nevada and other more labor-friendly states.

“In California, everyone knows that your union has your back,” she said. “In Arizona, people had no idea what it was to have a union—and being a right-to-work state, they think, If you join the union, you’re going to lose your job. People don’t like unions here.”

So what do you tell them? I asked.

“It’s like: ‘Okay, what’s your plan for the next five years? How much longer can you work cleaning dirty rooms? How much money are you putting away for your kids’ education? Do you even know what do, to get your kids to college?’

“My own parents didn’t know what to do with me. They had no idea. They only thing they knew how to do was put food [on the table] and a roof over my head. I had to figure out the rest. It was through the union that I learned how to do this.

“People here have no idea. They have no hope. They’re like, ‘Well this is life, Betty. This is what it’s like for us here in Arizona. The companies don’t like us, Arpaio doesn’t like us. We’re disliked in the community and we’re disliked at work. The only thing we can do is just survive. We just put our heads down and we just keep working.'”

“So it was exciting – My god, there’s all these workers who just need grooming. You just give them a path and you tell them, ‘Follow me and you are going to get to a better place.’”

We were joined by Phoenix City Councilman Daniel Valenzuela, a union member and longtime activist first elected with union support in 2011, and re-elected in 2015. He is a gentle, strong-looking young guy who looks like a movie firefighter, and is in fact a real-life firefighter. He’s a native of Phoenix with grown kids.

Overall turnout in Valenzuela’s district more than doubled in his 2011 election, he told me. “The Latino voter turnout increased by 488 percent,” he said, a result stunning enough to attract the notice of Time magazine and other media. “Those successes that were built, that were realized in November 2011, didn’t happen because the work started in January 2011. Those things don’t happen overnight.”

Valenzuela is passionate about redefining what it means to be a Phoenician to the rest of the country. “I have friends now who are on the L.A. City Council. I remember when NCLR [National Council of La Raza] and several others called for a boycott of doing business in Arizona. That hurt – I’ve explained that to NCLR. You had Latinos like me who grew up in these neighborhoods. Whose neighbors are being deported. Who’s raising his kids in these neighborhoods. Who love this city, and this state, so much. The last thing we needed was for people to boycott, or call the retreat.”

It’s brave to take on all the hostility here, I can’t help remarking.

“It was a matter of just proving that this is not who we are, [but] who we really are.”

Sena Mohammed is an Ethiopian-born refugee whose family has known terrible grief. A tiny young woman in a dark hijab and jeans, with a clear, brilliant gaze, she is a sophomore at ASU, where she majors in justice studies. Her father was long an activist on behalf of the Oromo people of Ethiopia, nearly 700 of whom are reported to have been recently massacred in Bishoftu. For all her slight stature, Mohammed is a commanding and persuasive speaker.

“At 4 years old I watched as my dad basically got snatched by the military,” she said. “It was like two in the morning and they came and took him, they shot our watchdogs and then shot bullets into the doors to get in… [After a year] my dad and his friends escaped from prison, and they went into Kenya. He built a case, saying that he wanted to come to America. Only eight of the 13 kids could come. So my mom ended up choosing the youngest… And that was really tough for her because she would be leaving some of her kids back there where it wasn’t safe.”

Five years later, the part of the family that had made it to Kenya was able to emigrate.

“I feel like I’ve come from a family of fighters. My dad was a fighter—he fought for what he believed was right. I feel like it’s my duty. For the things that I’ve gone through. When I came to America we had big aspirations, big dreams. We were like, Okay, we’re gonna be able to prosper, and just, do amazing things. And being where we feel safe… because we haven’t felt safe ever in our lives.”

Mohammed volunteers as a political organizer at CASE Action, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with CASE, that is permitted to engage in partisan political activity. She and her growing group of student canvassers go out almost every day: They’re up to 40 contacts per day. “Our job is to sway them,” she told me. “Our job is to show them, ‘Look, I’m standing in front of you as a Muslim, and I want you to hear me […] And same thing with Latinos. Like, I’m not a rapist, I’m not a criminal.'”

When I arrived at the Phoenix home of Lucia Vergara, an airport worker who has served as president of Local 631, we found a hotbed of party activity, with hairdressers, cousins and friends bustling around, doing makeup and nails, trying on clothes and having fun; her daughter’s quinceañera is only a few days away. She showed us her daughter’s scarlet ballgown, tiara and the custom-made dolls that would be given as gifts at the party.

Vergara herself had first been married at 16, she told us in her cozy kitchen over bottles of iced tea. She was born in Mexico and came to Arizona as a young child, and eventually her mother was able to obtain legal residency. Otherwise she, like hundreds of thousands of Arizona residents, would have grown up facing the possibility of deportation at any moment, though she’d never lived in Mexico and had no connections there. “When I put myself in their shoes, I understand — it would be starting all over.”

Her whole life was just work, she told me. And then, through work, came her political education — joining the union, eventually becoming president and then a trustee. She too is a natural leader, a passionate speaker.

“If we let fear imprison us…” she says, then stops. “Even if we go and speak with people, with a stranger, and maybe this person is white and might shut the door on us… no. We are human and we live in the same country, the same state, the same city. We have to have the courage, push ourselves. Believe in ourselves, and then inspire others… What we’ve been able to do in 10 years here in Phoenix… bit by bit… nunca me imaginé llegar adonde estamos, la verdad. I never imagined we would get where we are now, truly.”

The recurring theme that emerges in talking with Phoenix’s new labor activists is that each of them has come to the realization, that not only is his or her own contribution worth making, but that it might be of real and lasting use to Arizona, as Maria Madrid explained at the end of our talk. There was a larger lesson in her words, for me: an exhortation to put aside the cynicism of many years of disappointment in progressive politics. Her face glowed as she described her enjoyment of going out canvassing or gathering support for her union, sometimes until 11 at night, because she’d learned how it would lead directly to a better life—and not only for herself. Yo lo que hago no lo hago para mí nadamás, es para todos, she said. “What I do I don’t do for myself alone, it’s for everyone.”


This feature is co-published with The Nation.

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Election Inflections

Election Inflections: Expanding the Electorate

The phone bank on Florence Avenue near Western is fully staffed on a Thursday afternoon. Its 20 callers could be hawking solar paneling or copper water pipes to anyone who answers. Instead, the men and women here are selling change in the most populous city in the most populous state in the nation. On this day, shortly before the election, they are contacting potential voters about three of California’s 17 ballot propositions.

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Bobbi Murray

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SCOPE call center (Photo: Bobbi Murray)

The phone bank on Florence Avenue near Western is fully staffed on a Thursday afternoon. Its 20 callers could be hawking solar paneling or copper water pipes to anyone who answers. Instead, the men and women here are selling change in the most populous city in the most populous state in the nation. On this day, shortly before the election, they are contacting potential voters about three of California’s 17 ballot propositions.

About This Series

The callers have been organized by the Los Angeles community organization SCOPE (Strategic Concepts in Organizing & Policy Education). Outside it’s blazing hot but it’s cool inside the phone bank room in the basement of the converted fire station where SCOPE has offices. The aroma of fresh coffee wafts around and walls hold images of past SCOPE victories. There are also photos of activists with now-Congresswoman Karen Bass and smiling community people — arms draped over each other’s shoulders after a successful minimum wage vote at the L.A. City Council.

Phone bank laptops automatically dial up the registered voters that SCOPE has been in contact with over several years—nearly 150,000 of them. The caller waits for a beep signaling a connection, then speaks into a headset mic and goes into action.

The mission this evening: ask each voter what that person thinks about three particular propositions–Prop. 55, which continues a flow of $6 billion to schools and other social infrastructure; Prop. 56, which passes a $2 per-pack tobacco tax to reduce young peoples’ smoking and Prop. 57, which reforms sentencing policies for nonviolent juveniles.

The callers ask voters to vote yes on these three measures. The program records the answers, which go into SCOPE’s database. The “yes” votes will receive another contact, maybe two or three, to make sure of Election Day turnout. That will be recorded as well—data for the next election.

Reba Stevens is working the phone bank. She’s been a SCOPE activist ever since someone knocked at her door years ago to ask her opinion about what her community needed.

She smiles before responding to each pickup on the other end.

“Well, I’m hauling oats, Sugar Pie,” she laughs in response to a how-are-you question. “He called me ‘sugar pie,’” she says softly to her co-worker with a little laugh. Then she’s all business and talks up the three propositions.

Connection is key and, Stevens says, When she’s phone-banking from a script, “I don’t share the info as it’s written. What I’m sharing is my own personal experience. Even at a phone bank. You just have to have the information and provide accurate information.” But it’s critical to connect with a voter’s own experience.

Conversations like Stevens’ are going on by phone and on front doors across California. Outside the glare of presidential election coverage, from the Bay Area to the border, local organizations like SCOPE, Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) and Communities for a New California, and over a dozen more, are fielding thousands of volunteers and staff in modestly-funded but well-equipped operations to reach out to local voters.

The local organizations are all part of the statewide alliance known as California Calls, which was formed in 2003 to coordinate a winning strategy that shifts the California electorate to reflect the Golden State’s increasingly young, Latino and immigrant demographic. That year, Anthony Thigpenn, a nationally recognized organizer, brought California Calls together by convening organizations from the Bay Area, San Jose, Los Angeles and San Diego. Separately from SCOPE, which is a California Calls anchor organization, he later created successful field campaigns for former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Congresswoman Karen Bass and State Senator Kevin de León.

Reba Stevens, SCOPE (Photo by Bobbi Murray)Reba Stevens, SCOPE (Photo by Bobbi Murray)

California Calls’ target group comprises the most voters with the most to lose – but with the least connection with the present electoral system. A March 2016 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that likely voters in California tend to be older, white, college-educated, affluent and homeowners, which affects their views— voters who favor paying down state debt over restoring services.

Many disengaged voters are renters, many work several jobs and struggle with language issues. It takes a concerted effort to connect in a way that speaks to issues in a way robocalls every four years can’t.

So California Calls goes grassroots. It doesn’t do mailers that arrive every election season only to be tossed. Affiliate organizations are in touch with residents year-round—what organizers call the “secret sauce” that boosts turnout. By November 8, 2016 the local organizations affiliated with California Calls —16 organizations in 14 counties — will, based on their projections, have contacted over 250,000 new and infrequent voters by phone and face-to-face, and anticipate moving 135,576 to the polls in support of Propositions 55, 56 and 57. Their voter mobilization work is supported by the California Calls Action Fund, (a 501(c)(4) nonprofit entity that is permitted to do electoral work.

During each election cycle California Calls has inched up the numbers of voters in the areas where member organizations have been working.

Thigpenn’s alliance, in turn, became a partner in the Million Voters Project, a consortium of six statewide groups pledged “to engage and turn out one million voters by 2018.”

The Million Voters partners, Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), Mobilize the Immigrant Vote (MIV) and PICO California (People Improving Communities through Organizing) all represent constituencies under-represented at the polls—but who will get there if they feel connected.

“Our model is to is to do large-scale voter outreach even when there’s not an election,” says Karla Zombro, California Calls’ field director. “That’s why it’s possible in 2016 to reach a quarter of a million people. We’re not creating a machine—we already have the machine and keep it well-oiled.”

The other part of the machine is equipping local organizations with technical support—high bandwidth, technical support, data management. California Calls supplies that. “No one organization could do it—but when you scale it up small organizations can afford it,” Zombro says.

The organizing model is not aimed at a single victory but rather changing the electorate to look more like California’s young and growing “minority-majority”—part of California’s changing demographic.

Those are the people frequently left out of the policy discussion, says Raphael Sonenshein, Executive Director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs, who follows California Calls’ work.

“As everyone knows, Prop. 13. has a stranglehold on public investment,” that affects the young people whose families depend on schools and other social infrastructure, Sonenshein observes. “Nobody has asked them their opinion on public investment, on tax policy.”

The state electorate, he says, has been divided on tax policy: bring in a new block of voters and election outcomes can shift along with the demographics.

“The issue of politics often comes down to investing in the younger generation,” says Tom Hogen-Esch, political science faculty at Cal State Northridge, whose course work and writings cover California public policy, race, ethnic and urban politics. Researchers have seen the trend throughout the world in countries that have become more diverse: “If the younger generation is not seen as sufficiently similar, we are not going to invest.”

That sums up the voter dynamic in California—the younger generation is too “different”—Latinos, low-income renters—where white voters make up 60 percent of likely voters in a state where the adult Latino population is 34 percent but with a dismal turnout of 18 percent. Same for young adults–at one-third of the state population they vote at a rate of 18 percent.

“Demography is not destiny,” Sonenshein says. To get voter turnout that reflects the real electorate, organizers need to create nontraditional, not once-in-four-years ways to engage. “You have to hunt where the ducks are. If you ask young people what they care about they’ll talk about everything but the election.”

California Calls has seen a steady response to their ongoing engagement work. In 2010 voters deliberated on Prop. 25, a measure to allow the legislature to pass a budget with a simple majority and 63 percent of those California Called identified as supporters turned out – four percent higher than overall state voter turnout. During the 2012 elections California Calls Action Fund mobilized 440,000 voters in support of the funding measure Prop. 30 to restore funding for education and health care. Along with the Reclaim California’s Future coalition, the alliance says it increased voter turnout six percent to provide the margin that won 55 percent of the vote.

Since then, California Calls has identified 620,000 voters who support tax equity in the state—and who will be contacted and cultivated again before the next election cycle.

It may take long-term persistence — Prop. 47 on the November 2014 ballot reclassified some felonies -drug possession, forgery– to misdemeanor offenses—it reduced sentences and some of the stigma that makes it tough to land a job after incarceration. Supporters identified by California Calls organizations turned out at 54 percent rate of the people they contacted. The overall turnout was 42. 2 percent.

“Civic engagement!” exclaims Pablo Rodriguez, executive director of Communities for a New California, a California Calls affiliate that works in the rural farming communities in the San Joaquin, Imperial and Coachella valleys.

He’s speaking on the phone from his Fresno office, where phone bankers call for three and a half hours a night with a goal of reaching 40 voters each. But organizers and activists knock on doors between elections to talk to neighbors “about curbs, gutters, street signs or –” Rodriguez says wryly, “the lack of them.” When the election comes around “We’ve already been there. We’re a trusted messenger.”

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Election Inflections: Mega-Donor Bill Bloomfield’s Journey From GOP Champion to Charter School Rainmaker

For two decades businessman Bill Bloomfield has poured millions of dollars into political campaigns, and supported George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. He has also used his personal wealth to back former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the gubernatorial effort of GOP candidate Meg Whitman.

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Joel Warner

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Bill Bloomfield (Photo: Ted Soqui)

Over the past two decades, businessman Bill Bloomfield has poured millions of dollars into political campaigns, becoming one of California’s most prolific donors. A supporter of Republican presidential candidates George W. Bush, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain – he served as McCain’s national volunteer director – he has also used his personal wealth to back former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the unsuccessful gubernatorial effort of GOP candidate Meg Whitman.

In 2012, Bloomfield funneled $7.5 million into his own race against the venerable Congressman Henry Waxman, who prevailed despite his opponent’s spending spree. In 2014 and 2015, he bankrolled the campaigns of two state Senate candidates, contributing more than $2 million to help propel them to victory.

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Bloomfield has continued to spend big in this year’s election cycle, but much of his money –more than $2 million and counting – has gone to the independent expenditure committee of the charter school powerhouse EdVoice, which is backing incumbents and office-seekers who support an aggressive expansion of charters in California. EdVoice’s IE has contributed nearly $9 million to pro-charter candidates this year – part of a blizzard of spending by California charter school advocates that now stands at more than $23 million.

Bloomfield, former CEO of a commercial laundry equipment firm previously known as Web Service Company, and founder of an Internet hosting company, is not as well known as other deep-pocketed charter school advocates such as Eli Broad and the Walton family. But he’s become one of the charter movement’s biggest spenders, and California’s fourth-largest political donor.

Bloomfield has also played a pivotal role in the rise of a new breed of California Democrats who frequently align themselves with big business. He was a champion of – and a major contributor to – several ballot measures that changed the face of California politics. The first, 2008’s Proposition 11, set the stage for far-reaching state-level redistricting, and was followed two years later by another measure, Prop. 20, that extended the changes to congressional districts. In 2010 voters also approved Proposition 14, which created open primaries, with the top two vote-getters facing off in November regardless of party affiliation.

The top-two system promoted by Bloomfield and others has been a boon to powerful special interests that traditionally backed Republican candidates but found that strategy becoming increasingly obsolete as the GOP lost influence in California. And while Bloomfield has positioned himself as a moderate reformer working to counteract special interests and partisan gridlock – he even joined the board of a respected watchdog group that monitors the influence of money in politics – critics see a different pattern.

To them, Bloomfield’s choice of candidates and issues — including his financial support of pro-charter efforts – exemplifies little more than a pragmatic conservative strategy in a liberal state. “He has figured out how to be a Republican in the bluest state of them all,” says Karen Wolfe, a California parent and founder of PSconnect, a community group that advocates for traditional public schools. “If you are looking for the best illustration that the charter movement is really just an effort to deregulate and shrink government, you see Bill Bloomfield.”

Steven Maviglio, a Democratic political consultant, agrees. “I think he is part of a larger group of Republicans in California who have realized there is little sense in investing in the Republican Party because they are so in the minority. They realize it makes more sense to put money into Democrats who are likely to adopt the ideals of Republicans.”

Over the years, Bloomfield has invested in a variety of social causes, starting with the anti-smoking billboard he and his father erected on Santa Monica Boulevard in Westwood in 1987 that’s been keeping a running tally of smoking-related deaths annually ever since. As described in his detailed personal website, he helped open the West Coast office of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, and he’s a board member of California Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group that advocates for political transparency. (While a recent investigation by California Hedge Clippers, a coalition of community groups and unions, concluded that Bloomfield was among a group of wealthy Californians who, in 2012, used the dark money networks California Common Cause strenuously opposes, Bloomfield insists he’s never given to such networks. “That was an incorrect report by someone who may have confused me with my mother,” he told Capital & Main in an email.)

For years, Bloomfield was a member of the Republican Party. But that changed when he registered as an independent in 2011, after then-Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said his main priority was unseating President Barack Obama, not solving problems.

“The Republican Party shifted; I did not,” says Bloomfield now. “I have always been socially liberal and fiscally moderately conservative, as I am today. I have, however, become more aware of the corrosive influence special interests hold over both political parties.”

Bloomfield points to his role as one of the early co-founders of the “No Labels” movement, which advocates for bipartisan problem-solving, as evidence of his moderate reformer credentials. But critics contend that these efforts are still largely about advancing conservative ideals. The No Labels movement, founded by right-leaning Republican and Democratic political operatives, has been called a repackaging of corporate-friendly concepts, such as Social Security reforms.

“It is a way to keep these very anti-growth, anti-government ideas in the spotlight. And it’s a way to package old ideas that have been rejected by voters of both parties,” says Richard (RJ) Eskow, a writer and policy analyst. “They tend to emphasize issues like balanced budgets that really have more to do with the financial agenda of the one percent than the agenda of the majority.”

Some people say these shifts are necessary to counter progressives’ political dominance in California, especially since studies have found that “moderate liberals” and “conservative liberals” make up a sizable chunk of the state’s population. But others contend that such electoral reforms haven’t really had much impact on election results, just like the No Labels program is often seen as more of a conceptual exercise than an effective political movement.

“There are always going to be a few exceptions, but in general, [open primaries] have led to unintended consequences, such as denying access to one of the two largest parties, while minor parties have been shut out altogether,” says Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “We haven’t seen a reduction of ultra-liberals in favor of moderates. Perhaps even more dramatic, we have a large number of elections where people from the same party are facing each other. Almost always, the incumbent still wins, but it has increased the cost of elections.”

Gerston doesn’t question the well-meaning objectives of open-primary supporters like Bloomfield. But he notes, “Like so many reforms, people have good intentions, but there are often unexpected consequences that in some ways may do more harm than good. You could make that argument with charter schools.”

Indeed, many of the education efforts backed by Bloomfield over the years haven’t proven especially successful. He calls himself a major supporter of the pro-charter lobbying group StudentsFirst, which launched in 2010 with the promise of raising $1 billion its first year, but collected less than a tenth of that amount. Recently, after supporting staunch conservative candidates and facing criticism for not disclosing its donors, the Sacramento-based StudentsFirst downsized and merged with another education organization, 50CAN. Bloomfield also backed Students Matter, the well-funded legal endeavor to weaken tenure and other teacher job protections whose efforts were rebuffed by the California Supreme Court and a California Superior Court in the past few months.

Bloomfield also supported Parent Revolution, the Los Angeles advocacy group that created controversial “parent trigger” laws to take control of struggling local public schools. Since the organization was bankrolled by the Walton Family and other pro-charter interests, many assumed its ostensible goal was to transform these schools into charters. But after turning only one school into a charter after seven years of work (Desert Trails Elementary in Adelanto, California, whose transition was marked by community upheaval and controversy), Parent Revolution has shifted its focus to advising parents on school choices. “Bloomfield is really, really gullible if he’s still backing this failed hustle,” says Caroline Grannan, founding member of the grassroots advocacy group Parents Across America and a longtime parent trigger critic.

Bloomfield says such stumbles haven’t dampened his enthusiasm for charter schools. “Our country was founded on the principle of equal opportunity for all. Until that exists for all inner-city kids to the same degree as for kids from wealthier ZIP codes, the future of our country is bleak. I’ll leave the specific approaches to the policy experts, but I don’t think anyone should give up on trying to help kids.”

Bloomfield claims that he’s agnostic about which type of public school offers the best approach to education, as long as it’s nonprofit. “I think the well-run, quality public charter schools do a great service for many children lucky enough to get into them,” he says. “Likewise, I think poorly run, bad charter schools should not be tolerated any more than poorly run, bad traditional public schools.”

Bloomfield is proud of his own public school education. “I’m a product of L.A. public schools: Canyon Elementary, Paul Revere Junior High and Palisades High School. And I attended a public university,” he says. “My public education was first-rate.”

It’s why, he says, he’s passionate about giving all children similar access to good schools. “Unfortunately, many inner-city kids today do not have the opportunity to receive that same quality education, which strikes me as grossly unfair,” he says. “My wife and I want all children to have the opportunity to receive a quality public education.”

Nevertheless, Bloomfield has put his considerable financial resources squarely behind the charter school movement. He contributed more than $3.5 million to former charter school executive Marshall Tuck’s failed 2014 campaign to become California’s superintendent of public instruction and has also donated large sums to other pro-charter candidates.

According to longtime Democratic political consultant Gale Kaufman, whose clients include organizations and candidates who have been critical of charter schools, Bloomfield’s current funding of EdVoice looks to be part of a larger trend this campaign season,  where wealthy charter supporters have joined forces within several political action groups to push their charter agenda like never before. “You have some extremely big donors who came together this cycle and decided there is safety in numbers,” she says. “In the case of Bloomfield, who is somewhat new to the scene, it looks like he has been casting about. So he was certainly one who was ripe for the picking. He is not a full-time ed-reform person, but he is willing to spend money on efforts that he is not controlling.”

Bloomfield states that the change from direct support for candidates to patronage of independent expenditure committees like EdVoice represents a step back from the political fray. “While I don’t necessarily agree on everything, I trust EdVoice to support candidates who will serve inner-city kids well,” he says. “And I’m a better grandparent when I’m not so focused on politics.” Those disagreements could be over whether or not to go negative; while Bloomfield has in the past insisted he doesn’t engage in ugly attacks, EdVoice has been called out this election season for the hit pieces it’s produced against anti-charter candidates. “A good deal of [Bloomfield’s] money is being used in highly negative ways,” states Kaufman.

The larger issue, says Wolfe at PSconnect, is that many charter supporters, including Bloomfield, are anything but moderate. After all, Bloomfield put nearly half a million into the California Republican Party between 2006 and 2010, and as recently as 2014 donated nearly $150,000 to the gubernatorial race of Neel Kashkari, an economic conservative who called for cuts to Social Security and Medicare and praised Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union policies. Both Bloomfield and Kashkari were backers of 2012’s Proposition 32, which would have dramatically tilted the political playing field in California toward big business, with Bloomfield throwing $300,000 into the campaign to pass the ballot measure.

“People have the perception that charters are part of a progressive system of values, but they are not,” Wolfe says. “That is why the Walton family is the biggest backer of charters. It’s why Bill Bloomfield is for charters. What we need to do to move the conversation forward is to stop with the labels and look at these individuals’ actions.”

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Election Inflections

Election Inflections: Readings for November

A New Series This week Capital & Main continues to look at issues and individuals that are playing a part in this month’s election.

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This week Capital & Main continues to examine issues and individuals that are playing a part in this month’s election.

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