Where WEA union money is going this election season

Jul 21, 2016

In recent years executives at Washington’s powerful teachers union, the WEA, have made the influence of the courts a central part of advancing their political agenda.  To this end WEA executives have been particularly focused on the election of supreme court justices.  In many ways the campaign strategy has worked.  Washington now has one of the most left-leaning supreme courts in the country.  In recent court decisions the justices have sought to close the state’s charter schools, strong-arm the legislature for larger school district budgets and enforce mandatory union membership for public school teachers.

The WEA’s impact appears to extend beyond the court’s final rulings.  For example, five pages of the court’s ruling to close charter schools were copied word-for-word from papers given to the court by WEA lawyers. The opinion was written by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen and signed by Justices Charles Johnson, Susan Owens, Debra Stephens, Charles Wiggins and Mary Yu. 

The legislature saved charter schools, but WEA executives say they plan to file a second lawsuit to get the popular independent public schools closed.  Naturally they expect their clout with the court to deliver another ruling against charter school families.

Using state records, I’ve looked at the political role WEA union executives have played in high-stakes judicial races.  The data shows a pattern of WEA executives giving dollars to the election of supreme court judges, and of supreme court judges accepting these contributions. State records show, for example, that the WEA gave $50,000 to a union PAC to elect Justice Susan Owens in 2006 and that seven of the nine justices now on the court have  accepted maximum contributions from the WEA in past election campaigns.   

I thought now would be a good time to update the research I did on the WEA’s political giving in judicial elections.  There are three supreme court races this year, for Justice Position 1, Justice Position 5, and Justice Position 6.  All three seats are held by sitting justices who say they want to remain in office for another term, and challengers have filed in all three races.

Public Disclosure Commission reports show WEA executives have already picked their favored candidates.  They have given the maximum-allowed $2,000 contribution to the incumbent in each race:  Mary Yu in Position 1; Barbara Madsen in Position 5; and Charles Wiggins in Position 6.  The WEA union also operates separate PACs (Political Action Committees) which may give additional money in these races.  In Washington, union membership for public school teachers is mandatory, union executives collect about $1,000 a year from each teacher, and they use this money to fund union operations.  Union executives say they strive to keep their political activity separate, but they have made it clear that any teacher who does not pay will be fired.

2016 is a key year for WEA executives.  The supreme court justices have said they plan to “retain jurisdiction” over the McCleary school funding case for years to come.  Clearly, whoever sits on the court during this unusual and controversial process is of vital economic interest to WEA union leadership.

Updated Public Disclosure reports will be filed when the WEA union’s PACs gear up to get involved in supreme court races.  This is publicly-available information, and I’ll be reporting on the course of judicial campaign financing as new facts become available.

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