28 May REPUBLICAN FUNDED SUPER PAC INTERVENES IN DC’S DEMOCRATIC RACES
Featuring cameos by Tony Dungy, JFK, Democrats in Colorado, and a Clydesdale
By: Mitch Ryals | May 28, 2020
An abridged version of the article focusing on the Ward 2 race is below. To read the full article, visit:
For an organization focused on improving education for low-income and minority students, Democrats for Education Reform DC is making a lot of noise about almost anything. Except education.
DFER-DC, the local chapter of the national pro-charter school organization, has been flooding mailboxes in Wards 2, 4, and 7 with literature supporting the candidates they’ve endorsed—Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, and Ward 2 candidate Patrick Kennedy—and attacking those candidates’ opponents. DFER’s involvement in local races is not new, but, political observers say, the negative and off-topic messaging is.
DFER-DC, which is registered as an independent expenditure committee, spent $450,000 in the local 2018 primary and general elections, including $150,000 in support of three State Board of Education candidates, all of whom appeared supportive of charter schools, the Washington Post reported. Two of DFER-DC’s candidates won.
This election cycle, if voters listened to the DFER-DC’s messages, they might think Janeese Lewis George wants to fire all cops. George, a Democratic Socialist, is looking to defeat Todd, a moderate Democrat and former Republican.
This week, another Ward 2 mailer surfaced, attacking one of Kennedy’s seven opponents, Brooke Pinto. It points out that Pinto has never voted in D.C. and as recently as November listed her family’s home in Greenwich, Connecticut, as her address on her political donations.
“DFER’s latest attack is a sign that they consider our campaign the greatest threat to Patrick Kennedy,” Pinto writes in an email to LL. “Which is why they are trying to distract voters from the issue that matters most in this election—determining who is the candidate best suited to protect lives and livelihoods during and after the COVID-19 pandemic””
Ironically enough, Pinto is endorsed by Rep. Joe Kennedy and his uncle, Chris Kennedy, who are members of that Kennedy family. In a statement Pinto’s campaign distributed, Chris Kennedy, who once ran unsuccessfully for governor in Illinois and is the chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises Inc., chided her opponent’s tacit acceptance of DFER-DC’s support.
Chris Kennedy’s statement suggests that candidate Kennedy would do well to remember the advice from former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who has about as much stake in the Ward 2 race as a Clydesdale: “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage.”
Pinto called out Kennedy’s support from DFER-DC last month despite the fact that she also filled out their candidate questionnaire as a part of their endorsement process. She says she fills out questionnaires for every group that asks and, had she earned their endorsement, she “would have disavowed any support beyond that.”
For his part, Patrick Kennedy has said he’s comfortable with where his support comes from, and notes that his participation in D.C.’s public campaign financing program prevents him from taking money from political action committees.
“That aside, I legally cannot and will not get involved in outside spending efforts,” he previously told LL. Candidates are barred by law from coordinating with PACs or IECs.
Hedge fund managers founded Democrats for Education Reform in New York in 2005 with the goal of breaking “teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party,” according to one of its founders. The organization has advocated for the spread of charter schools and standardized testing and generally fights against priorities of teachers’ unions. (The Washington Teachers Union has endorsed George in Ward 4, Jordan Grossman in Ward 2, and Anthony Lorenzo Green in Ward 7.)
DFER consists of several different arms including a PAC, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and a 501(c)4 nonprofit called Education Reform Now and Education Reform Now Advocacy, respectively. The organization has offices in several states, though its work has been met with hostility in some places. In 2018, the Colorado Democratic Party demanded DFER remove “Democrats” from its name.
DFER set up shop in D.C. as an independent expenditure committee in 2015. In addition to serving as DFER-DC director, Taheri is also the director of the Education Reform Now-DC. He argues that characterizations of DFER as a monolithic charter school lobby group are inaccurate.
“We support excellent public school options with a particular focus on students of color, students from low-income families, and students who have not been served well,” he says. “In many cases, public charters provide those options, but we also support DCPS. I’m a parent of two kids in DCPS schools.”
But major DFER donors include the pro-charter school Walton Family Foundation, which has also contributed millions of dollars to Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS, another major force in the local charter advocacy scene.
In 2018, Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, gave DFER-DC $190,000, and Carrie Penner, Sam Walton’s granddaughter, contributed $10,000. Katherine Bradley, a local philanthropist who founded the pro-charter foundation City Bridge, also donated $10,000, and Patty Quillin, the wife of Nexflix CEO Reed Hastings, donated $50,000.
It’s unclear how much money DFER-DC is pouring into this local election cycle, and Taheri declined to give a dollar amount. A disclosure statement on DFER-DC’s mailers lists the organization’s (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, as one of the committee’s top donors, but the latest campaign finance report covering February through March 10 of this year doesn’t list any contributions.
DFER-DC’s only expenditure is $600 for legal services, and the committee reported almost $3,000 cash on hand, which is not nearly enough to pay for mailer campaigns in three wards.
DFER-DC’s next report, which would ostensibly reveal its donors, is not due until June 10, eight days after the June 2 primary. Even then, the public would not have access to names of individual donors to Education Reform Now Advocacy.
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