Imagine if you will a time when gaming was not the most important organization you needed on your side to be successful in your election campaign. In fact, while we’re at it, think about winning a campaign while having gaming completely AGAINST you.
More than a decade ago, this amazing dream was possible — when the Nevada State Education Association, aka the Teacher’s Union — was in its prime.
Politicians running for office today have no concept of how powerful this organization was a little more than a decade ago. An endorsement that is rarely sought after today (some pols even run from it), it was the most important support group from 1988 to 1994.
Want a sampling of how strong it was? In 1991 the union was able to get a pay raise for teachers during an abysmal economic time when no other entity saw any increase in its funding. Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio and Assembly Speaker Joe Dini were both strong supporters of the teacher’s cause because they knew this organization had the power to take them out of the majority.
Why were they so strong? Their leadership understood extremely well the age-old political phrase “money is the mother’s milk of politics.” While other organizations were passing out $500 and $1,000 donations, the teachers would weigh in with $5,000 and $10,000 in key races.
If you were an endorsed candidate, you could also expect tremendous volunteer help and at least one staffer assigned full-time to help coordinate your campaign. Especially in the smaller races, this kind of help was invaluable.
They were also the first group to effectively utilize the referendum process. In 1992, angered by what they thought was a less than proper wage increase, they collected enough signatures to put on the ballot a “corporate tax initiative”. The measure would have taxed businesses like casinos and put the extra revenue into the education budget.
Scared by what would certainly have been a successful effort to further erode their profits, gaming and other business entities made a deal with teachers union leadership that the governor would propose, and the legislature would pass, a less hurtful tax package but one that would raise enough money to increase funding for education (and, of course, teacher salaries).
The union was one of the first to bridge the gap between the parties in order to successfully lobby its issues. Executive Director John Cummings was able to deal with Republican leader Raggio by lending support to the leader’s caucus at a time when most unions were still strongly Democratic. Raggio even threw Cummings’ 40th birthday party, a testament to their close friendship.
Why are the teachers no longer the force they were in the early 90’s? When Cummings and local union boss Joe Lamarca left in 1994, the board of directors greatly curbed spending on campaigns. They also cut ties Cummings had made with local power brokers such as R&R Partners boss Billy Vassiliadis and uber-lobbyist Harvey Whittemore of Lionel Sawyer & Collins. These alliances had made the teachers a larger force at the Legislature, and they lost a significant amount of clout. These two factors, and a myriad of other smaller reasons, reduced the impact the union had to effectively lobby state lawmakers.
The demise of the teacher’s union as a strong political force had a definite impact on the state, but especially on the Democratic party. A strong source of funding and volunteer efforts had been erased, and has never really been replaced.