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Campaign donors bet big on education policy changes

Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in an undated

Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport) in an undated photo. Credit: David Pokress

ALBANY -- New York's largest teachers union put $4 million on the line trying to tip the balance of the State Senate in this year's elections -- and failed.

After Republicans won outright control of the Senate, New York State United Teachers is looking at potentially tough times ahead. On the other side, its charter school rivals, who spent big and won, are pushing for policy shake-ups.

It's one of the potential consequences after an unprecedented spree of spending by political action committees on state legislative races.

"NYSUT spent a lot of money to go against people who are quintessential, pro-education candidates," said Sen. John Flanagan (R-East Northport), chairman of the Senate Education Committee, adding that Republicans took notice of NYSUT's efforts to beat their candidates.

While acknowledging its losses, NYSUT dismissed the notion that the results will have a big impact on the legislative agenda going forward.

"Members of the State Senate will have to make a choice: Are they going to align themselves with parents and teachers or a handful of hedge fund billionaires," said NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn, referring to wealthy donors who largely fueled a pro-charter political action committee called New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany.

The education groups were just two of more than a dozen organizations that used "independent" political action committees that combined to spend $14 million trying to tilt the Senate, according to the New York Public Interest Research Group. The rise in so-called super PACs followed a federal judge's ruling in the spring striking down New York's $150,000 limit on individuals' annual political contributions -- the latest in a series of federal court decisions against campaign donation limits.

Real estate groups -- with New York City rent-control laws expiring next year -- poured more than $2 million into helping Senate Republicans through super PACs. Other unions' campaigns spent $625,000 to help Democrats.

Not the 'only game in town'

But no groups took bigger advantage than NYSUT and the charter school proponents.

While the union spent $4 million, New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany spent $4.2 million promoting Republican Senate candidates and attacking Democrats. The totals were as of Oct. 30, five days before the election. Final totals, which won't be reported before December, are likely to be higher.

"The teachers union historically is one of the most powerful organizations in the state," said Blair Horner of NYPIRG. "The biggest development is the emergence of these Wall Street types that are interested in policies that the teachers union opposes."

A pro-charter schools PAC says its success and NYSUT's failure make for a sea change in New York politics.

"For years, NYSUT has been the only game in town, but we stood up to them and won," said Jenny Sedlis, executive director of Students First NY, the pro-charter group that helped fund New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany. "The teachers union should not have a monopoly on state education policy. That position has been a direct result of their electoral hegemony. No longer."

Republicans lost one incumbent but knocked out three incumbent Democrats and emerged with 32 of the 63 Senate seats. Plus, they'll get one more as Sen. Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn) has said he'll continue to sit with the Republican conference as he has for the last two years.

Some tactics criticized

Along the way, NYSUT's campaign tactics fomented critics and emboldened adversaries. NYSUT not only spent about $50,000 per day over the last two months of the campaign trying to promote Democratic Senate candidates, but also aggressively attacked Republicans in key races with a controversial mailer that featured the photo of a woman with a black eye and bloody lip that implied GOP candidates wouldn't stand up to domestic violence.

The GOP was especially ticked that the union targeted Buffalo Republican Mark Grisanti, who lost in a close, four-way race.

"You'd be hard-pressed to find a colleague with a stronger pro-education record, and they went after him," Flanagan said.

Korn noted that NYSUT endorsed 14 Senate Republican candidates (though none in swing districts) and sought to minimize the potential tension.

"By the end of the [state] budget or by the end of the [legislative] session, we're confident that senators, regardless of party, will do what's best for education," Korn said.

Other big backers

Among other big spenders, real estate interests backed Republicans (as they usually do) and won. The influential Real Estate Board of New York spent $1.75 million and the New York State Association of Realtors Fund spent $500,000. Real estate is always a big player in state politics, but next year is important as lawmakers are slated to debate an extension of New York City rent-control laws.

Also helping the Republicans, a group called Balance New York, funded primarily by Washington, D.C.-based Republicans and hedge fund managers, spent $1.3 million.

For the Democrats, New York Friends of Democracy, supported by Jonathan Soros, son of financier George Soros, doled out $673,000. Also, two groups tied to unions, New Yorkers Together and New Yorkers for Good Jobs and Good Schools, combined to spend about $625,000.

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