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For an organization focused on improving education for low-income and minority students, Democrats for Education Reform DC is making a lot of noise about almost anything. Except education.
DFER-DC, the local chapter of the national pro-charter school organization, has been flooding mailboxes in Wards 2, 4, and 7 with literature supporting the candidates they’ve endorsed—Ward 7 Councilmember Vince Gray, Ward 4 Councilmember Brandon Todd, and Ward 2 candidate Patrick Kennedy—and attacking those candidates’ opponents. DFER’s involvement in local races is not new, but, political observers say, the negative and off-topic messaging is.
DFER-DC, which is registered as an independent expenditure committee, spent $450,000 in the local 2018 primary and general elections, including $150,000 in support of three State Board of Education candidates, all of whom appeared supportive of charter schools, the Washington Post reported. Two of DFER-DC’s candidates won.
This election cycle, if voters listened to the DFER-DC’s messages, they might think Janeese Lewis George wants to fire all cops. George, a Democratic Socialist, is looking to defeat Todd, a moderate Democrat and former Republican.
“Janeese Lewis George bragged: ‘I will divest from MPD!’” says one mailer. “That’s politician-speak for cutting police officers in Ward 4!”
Another mailer says “Our police officers have dedicated their lives to keeping Ward 4 families safe. But Janeese Lewis George calls them ‘one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.’”
The mailers pick quotes from George’s Twitter account and her answers to a Metro DSA questionnaire and place them alongside photos of smiling officers and a couple of concerned looking senior citizens. In both examples, DFER’s messages to voters either leave out important context or misrepresent George’s statements.
The first quote about divesting from the police department originates from an October 2019 tweet, which initially left little room for ambiguity (she punctuated the tweet with a “full stop.”)
George clarified in a follow-up tweet that she “would redirect some of the $550 million in funding that is currently allocated for policing toward violence prevention and violence interruption programs…”
George tells LL she doesn’t want to reduce the police force, but she is in favor of using a part of its budget to fund public health approaches to address crime—violence interrupters or putting more social workers in schools.
“It’s about how we’re using our officers that is the problem,” she says. “Officers sitting in cars is not effective. That’s a leadership problem. I’m not blaming the officers. I’m looking to leadership and asking ‘What are you doing to reduce crime?’”
Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposed 2021 budget does not include funding for the kind of violence interruption work George is talking about within the Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement or the Office of the Attorney General, where George worked as a prosecutor in juvenile court before announcing her run for office.
The second quote, which says George believes police officers are “one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life,” distorts her position entirely.
The full quote, taken from her answer to the DSA questionnaire, refers to militarization of police departments, not individual police officers.
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“We’re told the institution of policing is intended to protect all of us from some suspicious menace, but the fact is that crime is a public health problem, not a battle of military opponents,” George’s DSA response says. “The transformation of American police departments, especially the MPD, into military units trained to occupy the very communities promised protection is one of the greatest dangers to the future of urban life.”
Ramin Taheri, director of DFER-DC, says the organization crafted its mailers based on poll data. In Ward 4, for example, 68 percent of the 303 registered Democrats polled say they are less likely to vote for someone who wants to cut police officers from the force, according to a memo Taheri shared with LL.
(The poll memo also says 55 percent of those polled prefer a candidate focused on “delivering services and addressing neighborhood concerns over someone who will focus on social justice issues and issues of equity and fairness.”)
“It’s not about sticking strictly to education issues,” Taheri says. “It’s about educating voters on issues that are important to them, so we get the candidate we know will fight for those education issues.”
Asked about the misleading messaging, Taheri defends the mailers and says DFER-DC quoted George directly. “We quote her where she says she wants to divest from MPD,” he says. “There’s no other way to look at that than cutting the police force, which polling shows is deeply unpopular with Ward 4 voters, particularly among African American voters.”
George believes the mailers were only meant to spread fear.
“This also doesn’t help with voter turnout,” she says of the negative messaging. “Your goal is supposed to be about education and to put this information out this way is ridiculous. This is why we need special interests out of our politics.”
For Kennedy, running in Ward 2, DFER-DC premised one piece of mail on his non-relation to the Kennedy family political dynasty to make the point that he holds the same progressive values as John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy.
“He may not be from THAT Kennedy family, but Ward 2 D.C. Council candidate Patrick Kennedy also believes in fighting for people who need it the most,” the mailer says.
Another pro-Kennedy piece of mail calls him a “workhorse,” and compares him to a Clydesdale standing on a pile of snow in the dead of winter. The horse appears just as confused as LL about his appearance on a political flyer in a D.C. Council race.
This week, another Ward 2 mailer surfaced, attacking one of Kennedy’s seven opponents, Brooke Pinto. It points out that Pinto has never voted in D.C. and as recently as November listed her family’s home in Greenwich, Connecticut, as her address on her political donations.
“DFER’s latest attack is a sign that they consider our campaign the greatest threat to Patrick Kennedy,” Pinto writes in an email to LL. “Which is why they are trying to distract voters from the issue that matters most in this election—determining who is the candidate best suited to protect lives and livelihoods during and after the COVID-19 pandemic””
Ironically enough, Pinto is endorsed by Rep. Joe Kennedy and his uncle, Chris Kennedy, who are members of that Kennedy family. In a statement Pinto’s campaign distributed, Chris Kennedy, who once ran unsuccessfully for governor in Illinois and is the chairman of Joseph P. Kennedy Enterprises Inc., chided her opponent’s tacit acceptance of DFER-DC’s support.
Chris Kennedy’s statement suggests that candidate Kennedy would do well to remember the advice from former NFL coach Tony Dungy, who has about as much stake in the Ward 2 race as a Clydesdale: “Integrity is what you do when no one is watching; it’s doing the right thing all the time, even when it may work to your disadvantage.”
Pinto called out Kennedy’s support from DFER-DC last month despite the fact that she also filled out their candidate questionnaire as a part of their endorsement process. She says she fills out questionnaires for every group that asks and, had she earned their endorsement, she “would have disavowed any support beyond that.”
For his part, Patrick Kennedy has said he’s comfortable with where his support comes from, and notes that his participation in D.C.’s public campaign financing program prevents him from taking money from political action committees.
“That aside, I legally cannot and will not get involved in outside spending efforts,” he previously told LL. Candidates are barred by law from coordinating with PACs or IECs.
For Gray, DFER focused on two of his signature issues: food deserts and health care access.
And at the same time DFER-DC is distorting George’s views on policing, it’s also sending pieces of mail promoting Todd’s work on the Council’s emergency legislation that addressed hardships due to the pandemic.
The pro-Todd mailers highlight the fact that he “co-authored” the bill that “provides unemployment compensation and protects other safety-net benefits for residents impacted by this situation.” When asked, Todd could not say which provisions of the bill he contributed.
Hedge fund managers founded Democrats for Education Reform in New York in 2005 with the goal of breaking “teacher unions’ stranglehold over the Democratic Party,” according to one of its founders. The organization has advocated for the spread of charter schools and standardized testing and generally fights against priorities of teachers’ unions. (The Washington Teachers Union has endorsed George in Ward 4, Jordan Grossman in Ward 2, and Anthony Lorenzo Green in Ward 7.)
DFER consists of several different arms including a PAC, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, and a 501(c)4 nonprofit called Education Reform Now and Education Reform Now Advocacy, respectively. The organization has offices in several states, though its work has been met with hostility in some places. In 2018, the Colorado Democratic Party demanded DFER remove “Democrats” from its name.
DFER set up shop in D.C. as an independent expenditure committee in 2015. In addition to serving as DFER-DC director, Taheri is also the director of the Education Reform Now-DC. He argues that characterizations of DFER as a monolithic charter school lobby group are inaccurate.
“We support excellent public school options with a particular focus on students of color, students from low-income families, and students who have not been served well,” he says. “In many cases, public charters provide those options, but we also support DCPS. I’m a parent of two kids in DCPS schools.”
But major DFER donors include the pro-charter school Walton Family Foundation, which has also contributed millions of dollars to Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, or FOCUS, another major force in the local charter advocacy scene.
In 2018, Alice Walton, the daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton, gave DFER-DC $190,000, and Carrie Penner, Sam Walton’s granddaughter, contributed $10,000. Katherine Bradley, a local philanthropist who founded the pro-charter foundation City Bridge, also donated $10,000, and Patty Quillin, the wife of Nexflix CEO Reed Hastings, donated $50,000.
Since 2015, DFER’s (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, contributed more than $270,000 to the local independent expenditure committee, DFER-DC. Tax records show that the New York-based Education Reform Now Advocacy has taken in nearly $40 million in contributions since 2013.
Between July 2018 and April 2019, Education Reform Now Advocacy paid the firm Arent Fox nearly $260,000 to lobby locally for the “promotion of policies benefiting public education, particularly charter schools,” according to official records.
And, as City Paper previously reported, Education Reform Now, DFER-DC’s nonprofit affiliate, funded a text-message campaign in the spring of 2019 opposing a D.C. Council bill that would bring charter schools under the city’s public records and open meetings laws. The bill had a committee hearing last year and is waiting for a first reading before the full Council.
It’s unclear how much money DFER-DC is pouring into this local election cycle, and Taheri declined to give a dollar amount. A disclosure statement on DFER-DC’s mailers lists the organization’s (c)4 arm, Education Reform Now Advocacy, as one of the committee’s top donors, but the latest campaign finance report covering February through March 10 of this year doesn’t list any contributions.
DFER-DC’s only expenditure is $600 for legal services, and the committee reported almost $3,000 cash on hand, which is not nearly enough to pay for mailer campaigns in three wards.
DFER-DC’s next report, which would ostensibly reveal its donors, is not due until June 10, eight days after the June 2 primary. Even then, the public would not have access to names of individual donors to Education Reform Now Advocacy.
Update: This article has been updated to reflect Chris Kennedy’s statement about DFER’s involvement in the Ward 2 race that was originally attributed to his nephew, Joe Kennedy.