“Money is the mother’s milk of politics,” Gloria Romero tells me on the phone. “It’s flowing to both sides. Government isn’t about drawing lines. It’s not about saying you’re on that side and you can’t come over.”
Her voice is friendly, somewhat placid, but it’s clear Romero is not thrilled with having to answer questions about her political alliance with the Koch brothers and other wealthy supporters of Proposition 32, and she conspicuously avoids bringing up their names. When pressed about the Kochs and the money behind behind Prop. 32, she falls back upon her experience in Sacramento.
“I have sat in the belly of the beast,” she says. “I have seen the realities of money and its influence.”
With Election Day still one month away, the battle to pass Prop. 32 has seen its share of political shockers, including the sudden injection of $4 million of Koch brother money to the Yes on 32 campaign, along with millions more from Charles Munger Jr. But nothing has been more surprising than the decision of Romero, a former California State Senate Democratic majority leader, to serve as the measure’s frontwoman.
A liberal Latina firebrand from East Los Angeles, Romero was Occupy Wall Street before that movement existed. In 1990, as a member of the Latino Community Justice Center and a professor at Cal State Los Angeles, she co-authored an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in support of striking Century City janitors who had been beaten by police. She used the cred acquired from that op-ed and several others to win a hotly contested run for the California Assembly in 1998, largely by decryingProp. 32′s progenitor, Proposition 226–the first ‘paycheck protection’ initiative.
In 2001, she was elected to the State Senate — largely with the grateful backing of labor. In 2007 she received a 97 percent rating by Capitol Weekly for her positions on progressive issues. Now she’s seen as carrying water for the Kochs and anti-gay culture warriors like Howard Ahmanson and Larry T. Smith. Romero, however, casts Prop. 32 in terms of uplifting historical pageantry.
“We’re saying as Democrats we want to form a more perfect union,” she says. “It’s a civil rights movement and our schools are the ticket out of poverty.”
Despite her rightward ideological swing, Romero isn’t backing the entire Koch agenda. Instead, she’s become Prop. 32’s human face on behalf of the seemingly progressive political action committee (PAC) Democrats for Education Reform (DFER), where she serves as director of the organization’s California operation. An examination of DFER’s backers, however, shows that right-wing billionaires aren’t her only Prop. 32 bedfellows.
New York University Research Professor of Education Diane Ravitch, who has followed the lobbying efforts of DFER since its inception in 2005, is blunt about Romero: “She’s working for Wall Street hedge fund managers. That’s where her interest lies.”
Indeed, DFER is the brainchild of Whitney Tilson, founder of the hedge-fund firm T2 Partners – an LLC that, like other hedge fund contributors to DFER, is conveniently exempted from Prop. 32′s proposed donation restrictions. In a 2010 New York Times interviewabout charter schools, Tilson suggested that privatized education was a potentially lucrative investment target for Wall Street.
“[H]edge funds are always looking for ways to turn a small amount of capital into a large amount of capital,” he said of his interest in the charter school movement.
And, in a 2010 documentary, A Right Denied, Tilson suggested that DFER was created because of Walmart patriarch John Walton’s support of vouchers and “school choice.”
In the film, Tilson recalled a meeting he had with Walton at the Harvard Club:
“We told John Walton, ‘Thank you, you’ve inspired us to do this and we’re going to create an organization with quite a similar mission to what you’re doing…You’re our friend. We’re doing something you would support, but we can’t take a penny of your money.’ Because the moment we take any Walmart money – that’s ‘anti-union,’ etcetera, etcetera – then it becomes a partisan issue again.”
Democrats for Education Reform takes pains to avoid such overt financial ties to right-wing backers like Walton. Tracing its finances isn’t easy, though. According to Form 410 documents that DFER filed with the Secretary of State’s office, it qualified as a political action committee in the state of California on November 21, 2011—meaning it had either raised or spent $1,000 for political purposes.
According to California Fair Political Practices Commission spokesperson Tara Stock, when a committee “qualifies,” it is supposed to file Form 460finance disclosure documents.
“Once a committee hits $25,000 they are required to file electronically,” she explains. “Before that, they file on paper. From what it looks like, I don’t see that they have done either.”
Despite qualifying as a committee, DFER missed two necessary deadlines to file their 460 financial forms on January 31 and July 31 of this year. This lack of disclosure makes it impossible to tell where its money is coming from and where it’s going in the state.
Romero insists DFER’s activity in California is above board: “We’ve made no contributions in California at this time. We are not actively fundraising. We don’t even have an open bank account. The bulk of our work in California is done under our non-profit Education Reform Now.”
Interestingly, Despite Tilson’s protestations to the contrary, Education Reform Now has no problem accepting Walmart cash. In 2011, the non-profit lobbying wing of DFER received $1.1 million from the Walton Family Foundation.
That same year, Education Reform Now spent more than $36,000 onlobbying expenses to eliminate teacher protections in California and make it easier to privatize schools. In the organization’s filings, Romero is listed as the “responsible officer” behind these activities. Furthermore, that same year, she was given a warning by the FPPC for personally lobbying for these same measures extra-legally.
More recently, Education Reform Now spent $1 million on ad buys pushing Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s talking points in September’s Chicago teachers’ strike.
Romero denies that her support for Prop. 32 is a move to foist a privatization agenda upon California’s schools.
“Do Democrats for Education Reform and myself support charters? Absolutely. Do I think 32 will help put more charters into place? No.”
However, as it turns out, this wouldn’t be the first time Romero has fronted for a conservative agenda in the state of California. Romero authored California’s 2008 “Parent Trigger” law, which allows parents in low-performance schools to vote on whether to hand over their administration to a private charter company.
“I call it the ‘parent tricker,” says Ravitch. “It tricks parents into handing control of their school to a corporation. It’s the equivalent of a group of people on a public bus who are unsatisfied with their ride, so they take it over and give it to a private company. Public schools belong to the community, not to the current crop of parents.”
Ravitch credits the Parent Trigger concept as originating from the neoconservative think tank American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), noting the issue has become part of ALEC’s “model legislation” that the group is lobbying for in multiple states.
Romero disputes the ALEC connection.
“When I wrote this law,” she says, “I didn’t know who ALEC was, quite frankly. Whoever picks it up and supports it, I respect that. The U.S. Conference of Democratic Mayors also supports the law.”
Ravitch says Prop. 32 shares much in common with the Parent Trigger. “I would see Prop. 32 in the context of the privatization movement. They want to kill off the unions because they are the guardians of public education.”
Romero did not win labor backing for her unsuccessful 2010 run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction, but did garner support fromcharter school advocates. Some political observers believe her embrace of Prop. 32 is payback for the endorsement snub, although Romero denies being anti-union. And despite blistering criticism of Prop. 32’s corporate loopholes and anti-union agenda from the editorial boards of California’s papers of record, she maintains that the measure is purely about campaign finance reform.
“I was against previous paycheck protection measures in California because it only targeted one side. Now that it goes after both sides, I feel comfortable putting my name behind it. This will change the culture of Sacramento.”
That seems unlikely. Even Prop. 32′s supporters argue the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling makes it impossible to remove money from politics. What Prop. 32 will fundamentally alter is the balance of power in Sacramento.
One thing that will undoubtedly change, regardless of the outcome of the election, is Romero’s reputation as a stalwart progressive.
The Frying Pan
Published: Friday, 5 October 2012