A group of liberal operatives in Washington and New York are trying to convince the Democratic Party that it has a hedge fund problem.
A new effort backed by teachers’ unions and Occupy Wall Street is trying to make a case that the unions have long sought to make: Charter schools are a wolf — or, in this case, billionaires — in sheep’s clothing. And Democrats should be wary about embracing them.
“We’re trying to make these guys’ money toxic because, as we’ve seen, their money is toxic,” Jonathan Westin, the director of New York Communities for Change, told Business Insider on Thursday. “I think it’s connecting the dots that many people don’t always connect.”
Charter schools, or independently run public schools, are often a favourite political cause of hedge fund managers and other Wall Street titans interested in education reform. At least partially because the schools are not usually unionized, they have drawn intense scorn from influential teachers’ unions, who view them as an attempt to undermine the public education system.
Michael Kink, the executive director of the union-backed advocacy group Strong Economy For All, didn’t mince words when discussing the anti-hedge fund campaign with Business Insider. Indeed, he connected super-rich education reform activists to the “robber barons” of the Gilded Age.
“I think that there is a mix of motives right,” Kink said of hedge funders who help finance the charter school movement. “I do think there’s people like Paul Singer that flat-out want to be Russian oligarchs. They want to use private money to create public institutions that they can take over and profit.”
To press this point on Saturday, a band of activists is going to the tony city of Greenwich, Connecticut, armed with a symbolic prop of hedge clippers. They’re hoping to stir up populist resentment against the 1% and translate that to the education debate, where leaders like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D) are often allied with charter schools against the unions.
All the anti-hedge fund activists who spoke to Business Insider cited Emanuel’s tougher-than-expected reelection battle as evidence to be optimistic that public opinion is shifting in favour of their cause. After failing to secure 50% in an initial vote, Emanuel was forced into an April 7 runoff against Jesus “Chuy” Garcia.
“Both with Chuy’s campaign and with the protest in New York, there is something totally new happening in Democratic politics,” said Zephyr Teachout, who waged an unsuccessful primary campaign against Cuomo last year. “This fight is coming out into the open, and I think that’s a very good thing.”
The “Hedge Clippers” campaign is being spearhead by Communities for Change and Strong Economy for All — with backing from teachers’ unions in New York and Washington, according to a source involved in the effort. A listserv helps the operatives organise their efforts and conduct potential opposition research on their political foes. The Occupy Wall Street group has also publicly endorsed the campaign on social media.
“On Saturday, we will storm their ‘Hedge Fund Haven’ in Connecticut & expose their lavish lives sucked from the wealth of working families,” the Occupy group wrote on Facebook. “It’s time to clip some hedges!!!”
For their part, hedge funders have scoffed at the criticism of charter schools as teachers’ unions simply acting in their own interest against needed education reform. One money manager previously told Business Insider that it was “a badge of honour” to be targeted by the unions.
“The teachers’ unions have been spreading around millions in campaign cash for years — all to protect the financial interests of their members at the expense of the educational needs of our children, especially the most vulnerable of them,” StudentsFirstNY, a pro-reform lobbying group, said in December after Teachout and other activists rallied against charter school financiers.
But the anti-charter activists contend their battle is part of a larger campaign to change the political system so big money donors have less influence on policy-making.
“Certainly the education aspect is important, but to me, part of this is about democracy,” Kink said. “Same with the Gilded Age. There were billionaires with all kinds of crazy ideas.”
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