By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News
State Sen. Tom Butler, R-Madison, had to work for his reelection this year. First, he had a GOP primary challenger who’d previously held the seat. Then, in the general election, Butler faced a Democrat formidable enough to draw the attention and concern of GOP leadership.
Butler won both races with votes to spare, but as of the day before the general election, had spent nearly $890,000, according to campaign finance reports.
About $70,000 of that came from the Alabama Education Association’s political action committee.
Three election cycles ago, accepting contributions from the 85,000-member AEA would have been a political problem for Republican State House candidates, especially in a primary.
This year, the list of GOP candidates accepting AEA help surpassed the list of those who didn’t.
“Having supported my schools as much as I do, I’d feel hurt if they didn’t support me,” Butler said recently about the contributions.
“(Taking AEA money) is as OK as taking money from physicians, or builders or developers or Realtors, or any other profession that you can think of,” Butler said.
Many others appear to now share that line of thinking. The AEA PAC spent about $2.9 million on legislative races this year. About 65% to 70% of that went to Republicans, AEA Executive Director Amy Marlowe told Alabama Daily News.
That the AEA is an extension of state Democrats is an outdated notion, Marlowe said
“That’s just not who we are anymore and that’s not who we’ve been for a really long time,” said Marlowe, who’s been with AEA for about 20 years. “… And I think what you’re seeing is that even more elected representatives are saying that that’s just not true.”
The AEA was a spending leader in this election cycle, with about $3.2 million in total expenditures on Alabama and some local races since May of 2021. The Business Council of Alabama and the Alabama Farmers Federation, through their PACs, each spent about $1.6 million.
“There was a time … Republicans were not taking AEA money,” former Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said this week.
Marsh championed several school-choice expansion bills in his final sessions and AEA was one of the largest, and successful, opponents. Marsh, who did not seek re-election this year, said he never sought or accepted AEA money. But he understands that others in his party now do.
“The fact of the matter is, a lot of people make contributions to your campaign,” Marsh said. “And in any given year, you may have to pass legislation that may be detrimental to them. It’s just the way it is.
“… At the end of the day, regardless of contributions, you’ve got to do what is best for the state.”
But not everyone has warmed to AEA’s influence. School choice advocates support bills that AEA often, and sometimes successfully, opposes. Last year the AEA lobbied against a bill to allow local tax dollars to follow students to public charter schools. The organization has also opposed bills that would have allowed parents to use their tax dollars to send children to a school of their choice, including private schools.
“We can’t control how much AEA gives to Republican candidates or whether or not Republican lawmakers accept contributions from AEA,” said Emily Schultz, executive director of the pro-charter school group Alabama Families for Great Schools. “What we do know is that 65% of Republican voters are supportive of school choice and we trust lawmakers to be responsive to their constituents. The public charter school sector is focused on creating more high quality options for Alabama families and empowering parents to make choices that are right for their kids.”
Schultz was referring to a March poll conducted by Cygnal showing 64.5% of Alabama Republican voters support public charter schools.
“We will be asking both Republican and Democratic policymakers to support policies that expand school choice in Alabama, regardless of what organizations did or did not contribute to their political campaigns,” she said.
In its bylaws, the ALGOP still discourages AEA donations through a 2013 rule.
“The Alabama Republican Party shall not accept money, in-kind contributions, or anything of value, directly or indirectly, from the National Education Association or any of the NEA’s state affiliates or their related organizations. Officeholders and candidates are strongly admonished to follow the same rule and, because the NEA is a veritable adjunct of the Democratic Party, failure to heed this admonition shall be regarded negatively by the State Committee.”
Political consultant Dalton Dismukes told Alabama Daily News that accepting AEA donations, or any other PAC’s, is now a candidate-by-candidate decision.
Meanwhile, the AEA has changed how it operated. Gone are the days when former AEA leader Paul Hubbert would line the State House hallways with member educators and they’d holler at lawmakers from chamber galleries.
“The AEA of today is in no way, shape or form what it was when that was happening,” Dismukes said.
The yelling from State House balconies doesn’t happen anymore because it’s not effective for the nearly 170-year-old organization, Marlowe said.
“We wouldn’t still be here if we weren’t adaptive to the needs of education employees in the state and if we didn’t change our practices and habits to adjust to the current political climate,” Marlowe said.
The AEA supported several Democrats who had tight general election contests, including Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, and Dexter Grimsley, D-Newville. The group was a major supporter of Rep. Phillip Ensler, D-Montgomery, who defeated Republican Charlotte Meadows, a school choice advocate and charter school board chairman.
But the association also put a lot of money behind Republicans, like Butler, who had Democrat opponents. The organization now says it makes race-by-race decisions on who it will support. First and foremost are incumbents on both sides of the aisle who have stood with AEA on proposed legislation.
“We stay loyal to those people and they have to know we’ll be standing with them when they need us,” Marlowe said.
That’s how Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, received AEA support in his primary, which he lost by one vote to challenger Jay Hovey. In August, the association gave Whatley another $20,000. That was a previous promise to help him clear campaign debt. Whatley spent more than $1.2 million on his race.
“We upheld our commitment,” Marlowe said.
The AEA supported Hovey in the general election against a Democrat.
For that $2.9 million spent this cycle, the AEA gets, if its candidates win, vetted legislators who will take to Montgomery the interests of their local public schools, Marlowe said.
“And once they get here, we just have to have faith that they’ll have the same values as they did when they were running for office,” she said.
Butler said he’s always had AEA support and it signals to voters in his district that he prioritizes public schools. He said getting reelected is about having connections to communities, including schools.
Though the school choice movement lost two of its biggest advocates with the retirement of Marsh and defeat of Meadows, Butler expects school choice conversations to continue. Butler said he doesn’t want that choice to come at the financial expense of public schools.
“I think philosophically, (choice) is good,” Butler said. “What I want is to have public schools good enough that parents want their kids there.”