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Teacher union backing of Weymouth Republican riles new super PAC

Education activists say O’Connor betrays progressive values

 Nov 4, 2018

A SCHISM WITHIN the Democratic Party that has long divided teachers unions and education reform advocates is playing out in unusual fashion this fall in a state Senate race — with a Republican incumbent at the center of the storm.

Patrick O’Connor, a Republican elected in a special election two-and-a-half years ago to a Weymouth-based Senate seat, has racked up endorsements from both statewide teachers unions as well as the Boston Teachers Union based on his support for school funding and opposition to charter school expansion. But a new super PAC formed by Democratic education activists is taking aim at O’Connor — and ripping the unions for backing a candidate the PAC organizers say betrays progressives values on everything from gun control to transgender rights.

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Liam Kerr, the state director of Democrats for Education Reform, which has tangled with teachers unions over charter schools and other issues, formed the new super PAC, Priorities for Progress, together with veteran progressive operative Roger Craver, a cofounder of the national watchdog group Common Cause, and and Keri Rodrigues, who heads Massachusetts Parents United, a statewide group that advocates on education and other issues affecting low-income urban families.

Kerr and Rodrigues say they were prompted to form the new super PAC when their groups were turned away from joining Raise Up Massachusetts, the coalition of unions and progressive political groups that organized to push for paid family leave, an increase in the state minimum wage, and an unsuccessful effort to put the so-called millionaire’s tax on this fall’s ballot. Kerr said the teachers unions seemed to be given veto power over who could join the coalition.

He said the new super PAC won’t be afraid to challenge candidates and groups that it thinks are blocking progressive change.

The PAC’s initial foray is zeroing in on O’Connor, who is facing a spirited challenge from Democrat Katie McBrine, a Hingham pediatrician. Along with reporting more $3,500 to date in campaign spending to defeat O’Connor, leaders of the new PAC are speaking out against teachers union leaders for backing him, citing several issues where they say the Weymouth Republican is out of step with the progressive values the unions claim to represent.

They point to bills O’Connor co-sponsored to thwart gun regulations and restrict food assistance benefits to low-income residents as well as concerns that he expressed about transgender rights legislation.

Earlier this year, before Kerr and his allies launched the new Priorities for Progress PAC, Democrats for Education Reform directed robocalls to Boston Teachers Union members raising alarms about their union’s endorsement of O’Connor.  

In response, BTU president Jessica Tang, in an email to the union membership in early June, accused Kerr’s group of distorting O’Connor’s positions on gun issues by implying he opposed a gun safety measure then pending on Beacon Hill that O’Connor in fact supported and by suggesting he had backing from the NRA.  

The email said O’Connor agreed with the BTU stand on “every issue on our candidate questionnaire” and added, “BTU endorsements are based on the issues we value and care about as educators, not on party affiliation.” Tang said those included O’Connor’s support for full funding of public schools and opposition to the 2016 ballot question to raise the charter school cap.

Tang lit into Democrats for Education Reform for their calls to BTU members. “They may call themselves Democrats,” she wrote, “but a Republican who is 100% with BTU on priority issues is always preferable to DFER ‘Democrats’ who attack union members with funding that would be better spent on helping the students in our schools.”

Kerr said DFER’s education agenda is the same one advanced for eight years by President Obama, who has waded into the local race by endorsing McBrine. “In our eyes, the No. 1 DFER Democrat by far is Barack Obama,” he said.

As for the issues the new super PAC cited in its criticism of the union endorsements, O’Connor received a C rating for the 2017-18 legislative session from Gun Owners Action League, the state affiliate of the NRA, but he had an A rating from the group for the previous cycle.  

In July 2016, O’Connor cosponsored legislation to strip power from Attorney General Maura Healey to regulate firearms less than two weeks after she announced new enforcement measures banning “copycat” weapons that her office said are covered under the state’s 1998 assault weapon bill.

O’Connor said the bill, filed two months after he took office, was aimed at preventing the attorney general from unilaterally imposing new interpretations of gun laws, and said that it would guard against future moves by an AG to either tighten or relax gun laws. “We said this isn’t about the regulations, this is about the process,” said O’Connor.

But the bill had strong backing from the Gun Owners Action League, which was sharply critical of Healey’s interpretation of the 1998 law, and it was squarely aimed at blocking her new enforcement order.   

The bill O’Connor filed on the state’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would ban use of food stamps to buy anything categorized as a “luxury food item” by the US Department of Agriculture. O’Connor said he initially planned to submit it on behalf of a constituent who brought the measure to him — Massachusetts lawmakers will generally file bills as a courtesy on behalf of citizens in their district even if they don’t support the measure. But when constituent then decided against filing the bill, O’Connor said he decided to sponsor the measure himself.

As for his stand on transgender rights, O’Connor was quoted in a 2015 New Boston Post article expressing concern about legislation that was pending on Beacon Hill. O’Connor said the measure “opens the door for individuals who could potentially abuse the bill’s intent,” saying it could create an opportunity for people “to do deviant things.”

O’Connor said those comments have been mischaracterized by the new super PAC, because he wasn’t referring to transgender individuals but to those who would exploit the law to enter locker rooms or restrooms. That has, in fact, been one of the principal arguments made by those working to repeal the transgender rights law, an effort that is now the subject of Question 3 on Tuesday’s state ballot.

O’Connor said his thinking on the issue has evolved and that he supports the “Yes on 3” campaign to retain the law. “I still do hope that this isn’t abused,” he said of the law. He said two years of experience since the statute was passed in 2016 “has been able to allow us to see that there is very little abuse of the law.”

Kerr said the Boston Teachers Union claims to carry the progressive mantle, so it should be held accountable for “endorsing a pro-gun, anti-SNAP benefits, transphobic, fear-mongering candidate over a first-time candidate who is an outsider, female pediatrician.”

Tang defended the endorsement and said the super PAC has misrepresented O’Connor’s views. “Patrick O’Connor earned the endorsement of the BTU for his continued support of public education, public education funding and all of our major priorities,” she said in a statement. “He has also made clear he supports question 3, an initiative we are proud to be playing a prominent role in backing.”

McBrine’s campaign manager, Melissa Smith, said it was “really disappointing” to not get any of the teacher union endorsements. “Katie’s a huge supporter of public education,” Smith said, and a committed progressive on other issues of concern to unions. “We have teachers canvassing for us right now,” she said on Sunday afternoon.

Deb McCarthy, president the Hull Teachers Association, the Mass. Teachers Association affiliate in the seaside town that is part of the Senate district, said local MTA leaders in the district met on two occasions to discuss the race. “Overwhelmingly, the consensus was to recommend a non-endorsement,” she said. “We were unanimous that both candidates would actively support the MTA’s legislative agenda.”

“Somewhere there was a breakdown in the chain of communications and the vote to endorse Sen. O’Connor happened without the collective wisdom of local leadership,” she said of the statewide union’s move.  

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