Who’s Standing in the Dark?

By miller727@icloud.com February 22, 2016 Uncategorized 10 Comments

(Image Credit, M. Wuerker, Politico)

In American politics, the term “dark money” is used to describes funds given to nonprofit organizations—primarily 501(c)(4) (social welfare) and 501(c)(6) (trade association) groups—that can receive unlimited donations from corporations, individuals, and unions, and spend funds to influence elections, but are not required to disclose their donors.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, “spending by organizations that do not disclose their donors increased from less than $5.2 million in 2006 to well over $300 million in the 2012 presidential cycle and more than $174 million in the 2014 midterms. The New York Times editorial board opined that the 2014 midterm elections were influenced by “the greatest wave of secret, special-interest money ever raised in a congressional election.”

Dark money is certainly making its presence known in Oklahoma, most recently with the discussion relative to Education Savings Accounts, or ESAs.

Let’s first take a short trip down memory lane.

On June 24, 2014, Melissa Abdo from Jenks received the highest vote total of three candidates in the Republican primary for Oklahoma District 69 House of Representatives seat. Out of 4073 votes cast, Abdo garnered 1,845 or 45.3%; Chuck Strohm earned 1,273 or 31.3%, and Paul Bowman got 955 or 23.4%.

Since state law requires a 50% majority, Abdo and Strohm advanced to a runoff election on August 26th. In the runoff, Strohm increased his vote count to 1,375 (+102) while Abdo saw her vote total plummet by nearly a third, all the way down to 1,259 (-586).

Strohm was unchallenged in the general election and was thus elected to his first term in office on November 4, 2014.

If you’re curious as what happened in the 63 days between the District 69 primary election and the runoff election, the answer is simple. Out-of-state “dark” money poured into Strohm’s campaign and was used to disparage Abdo and paint her as a clone of Barack Obama and opponent of school choice.

As reported in the Tulsa World, Strohm benefited from a $30,000 ad campaign against Abdo by a Washington D.C.-based group that promotes state-funded scholarships and vouchers to private schools.

The American Federation for Children unleashed a highly effective mudslinging campaign against Abdo in July and August of 2014, accusing her of “surrounding herself with liberal lobbyists and special interests” and “supporting higher taxes and more government spending.”

As a Jenks resident, I received negative mailers on behalf of AFC two to three times a week during this period.

In particular, the organization claimed:

…She (Abdo) stood with big spending liberals and unions to oppose tax cuts and support new, excessive government spending that Oklahoma families cannot afford (by):

  • Supporting higher property taxes
  • Pushing for $150 million spending increase
  • Encouraging people to attend a union rally in support of higher taxes and spending, and
  • Opposing the Republican legislature’s tax cuts

The “evidence” that the Federation for Children used to substantiate this absurd rhetoric included Melissa’s Facebook posts on behalf on the Tulsa-area PLAC advertising the March 31, 2014 Education rally; an article in which Abdo voices her support of a school bond issue; a news story where Abdo called for increased funding of public education; and a Tulsa People article where Abdo argued against a tax cut until appropriate funding for public education was restored.

As I wrote back then, apparently if a person is in favor of adequately funding public schools, paying teachers a competitive wage, and maintaining quality school facilities, they are now classified a liberal in the minds of some. 

However, let me be clear. This election for Oklahoma House District 69 was all about school choice. Abdo was against the expansion of choice in Oklahoma. Representative Strohm was (and still is) firmly in favor of increased parent choice.

As a result, dark money from the Oklahoma arm of AFC was appropriated to help elect Strohm and tip the scales further to the right, all to get school choice passed in our state.

It is important to note that Abdo, as a member of the Jenks School Board, was also a plaintiff in the lawsuit seeking to invalidate the Lindsey Nicole Henry (LNH) scholarship program for special needs students.

Rep. Strohm, of course, made no public statement about the third-party attack on Abdo (he didn’t have to), but his campaign website included an endorsement of both higher teacher pay and school vouchers. He now stands solidly for passage of Education Savings Accounts in Oklahoma (House Bill 2949), of which he is a co-author.

As a result of Representative Strohm’s election, last week HB 2949 was able to pass from the House Education Committee by a vote of 9-8, with the deciding votes cast by House Speaker Jeff Hickman and Speaker Pro Tempore, Lee Denney. We don’t know this for certain, but if Abdo had been on this committee instead of Rep. Strohm, HB 2949 would likely have lost and would be done for this session.

One vote from one state representative made the difference. And dark money contributions from out-of-state made that one vote happen.

Let me take a minute to remind you of what the American Federation for Children is really all about.

According to the online site Sourcewatch (HERE):

The American Federation for Children (AFC) is a conservative 501(c)(4) advocacy group that promotes the school privatization agenda via the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other avenues. It is the 501(c)(4) arm of the 501(c)(3) non-profit group the Alliance for School Choice. Former Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen, who was charged with multiple crimes stemming from abuse of his office, is on staff at ASC as Senior Advisor to its Government Affairs Team.

In the organization’s own words, ASC is “a leading national advocacy organization promoting school choice, with a specific focus on advocating for school vouchers and scholarship tax credit programs.”

AFC is an ALEC member and is represented by former Rep. Jensen on the ALEC Education Task Force. Jensen is the former Republican Wisconsin Assembly Speaker convicted in 2005 of three felonies for misuse of his office for political purposes, and banned from the state Capitol for five years (the charges were later reduced on appeal). Jensen is one of AFC’s registered lobbyists in Wisconsin.

Jensen has proposed bills to ALEC on behalf of AFC/ASC that were adopted as “model” legislation. For example, in March 2011, Jensen presented to the ALEC Education Task Force the “Education Savings Account Act,” which creates financial incentives for families to take their children out of the public school system and put them in for-profit primary and secondary schools.

AFC is chaired by Betsy DeVos, the billionaire wife of Amway heir Dick DeVos (son of Amway founder Richard DeVos) and former chair of the Michigan Republican Party. In recent years, she has funneled tens of millions of dollars into school privatization efforts and other right-wing initiatives.

In a brochure released after the 2012 elections, the AFC discussed how their campaign spending shaped electoral outcomes and consequent legislative support for school choice. The document reveals that Wisconsin campaigns received more money from AFC than those in any other state, reaching a total of $2,392,000 for the state out of the $7,165,150 national total spending.

You should remember the name, Scott Jensen. He is a convicted felon and disgraced Speaker of the House from Wisconsin. He is also one of the key voucher wolves who was working behind the scenes to try to get ESAs passed in Oklahoma last year. I am certain he is still lurking in the shadows and pulling all the right strings to get it done this time.

If you are interested, there is lots of information to do further digging on THIS website.

The AFC also likes to tout their success with a biannual Election Impact Report. The 2014 edition proudly proclaims these Fast Facts:

  • AFC’s school choice candidates prevailed in 78% of its targeted races
  • AFC’s school choice candidates prevailed in 92% of its targeted races
  • AFC invested in 243 races in nine states

On page 21 of this brochure, the AFC wrote about their influence in Oklahoma:

2014 was the inaugural year for AFC’s involvement in Oklahoma elections, but our political action efforts made a huge impact nonetheless.

The primary and runoff elections had a great deal of positive momentum, with three Democratic and five Republican educational choice supporters backed by the OFC Action Fund winning their races.

In what was AFC’s most notable victory, GOP frontrunner Melissa Abdo, a Tulsa-area school board member, was defeated by Chuck Strohm during the August runoff election for a seat in the state House. Abdo, who had overwhelming support from the education establishment, was criticized for filing a lawsuit against parents of special needs students for participating in the state’s voucher program. The Tulsa World newspaper cited her opposition to school choice as a reason for her defeat. Rep. Jason Nelson (R), the leading advocate for education reform legislation in the state House, went into the general election in one of the most competitive districts in the state. Rep. Nelson was re-elected in his swing district with 53.2 percent of the vote despite heavy opposition from educational choice opponents.

Representatives Nelson and Strohm are now two of the most vocal supporters of the ESA bill about to reach the House floor. They both know on which side their bread is buttered . . . and who holds the butter knife.

Maybe it’s just me, but I find this whole process rather unseemly. There is little doubt that a group of wealthy Americans is seeking to profit from the establishment of for-profit schools with selective enrollment policies and limited accountability in Oklahoma. And, they are using their money and connections to influence Oklahoma elections and, by extension, the making of laws.

I don’t believe that the path to school improvement in our state involves the creation of alternate educational choices and the siphoning off of critical funding when our schools are barely hanging on. Melissa Abdo believes that too. Representatives Strohm and Nelson and their fellow voucher supporters disagree.

Money talks in America today, probably more than ever before. And much of it is happening “in the dark.”

Sadly, that does not appear to be good news for public education in particular and democracy in general.

If you are not okay with this, contact your legislator TODAY and tell them to vote NO on ESAs in Oklahoma. Share this article with friends and ask them to do the same.

This is a critical issue for the future of public education in our state. We need your voice!


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