How Morgan Harper’s Ohio Primary Challenge Explains The House Democratic Meltdown

Originally published in The Intercept on July 16, 2019, with Ryan Grim.
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WHEN MEMBERS OF the Congressional Black Caucus took aim last week at New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the organization that boosted her primary campaign, Justice Democrats, there was no mystery as to the motive: It’s about the primaries.

Senior members of the CBC who have served in Congress for decades are suddenly facing challenges, or looking over their shoulders at one, disrupting the smooth, biennial tradition of effectively unopposed reelections.

On Friday morning, The Hill published a story quoting multiple members of the CBC, and anonymous staffers, accusing Justice Democrats of targeting members of color up for reelection.

That was followed Friday night with a controversial tweet blasting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, a co-founder of Justice Democrats. The tweet was sent from the account controlled by Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, who replaced his mentor, the ousted Joe Crowley, as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Jeffries, a CBC member, has been the subject of a reported primary effort by Justice Democrats, but no one has yet to materialize (and the group denies it was recruiting anyone).

It capped off a week in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi singled out Reps. Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley for criticism in an interview with New York Times opinion columnist Maureen Dowd, and followed it with a condemnation of Chakrabarti in a private caucus-wide meeting. Over the weekend, Democratic leaders leaked polling numbers purporting to show that Ocasio-Cortez and Omar were deeply unpopular with white, non-college-educated voters and putting the House majority at risk.

If Pelosi’s goal was to diminish the Squad and elevate the rest of her caucus, it backfired. President Donald Trump picked up on the poll, and Pelosi’s criticism, and suggested the four members of Congress all “go back” to a different country. “I’m sure that Nancy Pelosi would be very happy to quickly work out free travel arrangements!” he tweeted.

Party leaders who won back the House on a pledge to resist Trump are instead feeding him ammo to fire at members of their own party. The strange behavior is only explicable in the context of deep anxiety around the vulnerability of incumbency. To get a sense of just why incumbent Democrats are lashing out so wildly, the case of Columbus, Ohio, is instructive.

DURING THE 2010 tea party wave, Republicans won what was then a swing seat from freshman Democratic Rep. Mary Jo Kilroy. Republicans then gerrymandered the state, packing as many Democrats as they could into Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, which includes most of Columbus, and giving the Republican incumbent a new, safer seat. Kilroy and Joyce Beatty both ran in the redrawn 3rd District in 2012, with Beatty coming out ahead in the primary, with 38 percent of the vote to Kilroy’s 35. She went on to easily win the general election.

Though it’s a safely Democratic district, Beatty, who is a member of the CBC, became a fast ally of the banking industry after winning a seat on the House Financial Services Committee — known as a “cash committee” for its ability to raise corporate PAC money for its members. So far this cycle, the industries that make up her top five donors are insurance companies, commercial banks, real estate, securities and investments, and finance/credit companies, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. She’s taken more than $2 million in corporate PAC money over her four terms.

Beatty’s funding is part of a K Street strategy that exploits the large wealth gap persisting in many majority- or plurality-black districts — a gap that makes it much harder for CBC members to raise from wealthy donors the kind of money needed to safely stay in Congress. That, in turn, makes corporate PAC money attractive to fill the gap. CBC members privately bristle when Democrats from wealthy districts announce pledges to forswear corporate PAC money, but still fill their coffers with max-out checks from local millionaires and billionaires in San Francisco or Seattle.

By the old rules of Democratic Party politics, Beatty has done everything right. She got into Ohio politics in 1999, taking over her husband’s seat in the state House, and steadily rose through the machine, becoming the first female Democratic House leader in the state’s history. During that time, the Ohio Democratic Party largely collapsed, with the state moving from purple to red, but Beatty continued to rise, becoming a top official at Ohio State University, and by the time she’d arrived in the U.S. House, her seat appeared to be hers for life.

But now Beatty, who is 69, is facing a primary challenge from Morgan Harper, a 36-year-old progressive who leapfrogged the usual path to a seat, threatening the fragile machinery constructed in Ohio to guide and constrain party politics. If the elected official toward the top of the ladder isn’t safe, all of a sudden the lower rungs start to seem less reliable. If the party machinery and its business allies can’t deliver a House seat to a loyal politician who has paid her dues, the rationale for the machine itself begins to evaporate.

Harper is running on her own, without any assistance from Justice Democrats or other national progressive groups. But back in Washington, incumbent Democrats privately suspect that Justice Democrats and Ocasio-Cortez are behind it.

THE CHALLENGER IS a dangerous one for the machine. Born in Columbus, Harper spent her first nine months in foster care. She was eventually adopted and grew up in Berwick, a predominantly working-class, black Columbus neighborhood, and received financial aid to attend a local private school. Harper, who is black, would write later she “developed an intense commitment to fighting inequality after seeing how opportunities open up, no matter your upbringing, once you’re equipped with resources.”

She left Ohio for college: With more financial aid, she went to Tufts, then attended Princeton for a master’s in public affairs and Stanford for law school. She went on to become a senior official at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, whose first permanent head, Richard Cordray, is a protege of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and lost a bid for Ohio governor in 2018. Harper left the CFPB in February 2017 to take a job with Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a national community development financial institution. This past December, she moved back home to Columbus.

She launched her campaign on July 1, her birthday, with a progressive platform that includes universal child care, tuition-free public college, Medicare for All, reparations, affordable housing, and a Green New Deal. Her website says she “care[s] about nothing more than ending economic segregation” and she’s “convinced we need a new generation of bold leadership in Congress” to ensure her story is not an anomaly.

Harper said that her platform is driven by her experiences as a child in Columbus. “When you have experiences early in life when you see how much your parents are stressed for money, juggling bills, it doesn’t really leave you,” she said.

“It’s hard to ever feel like you’re all good when it’s a single parent who’s a public school teacher and there’s two kids involved,” she said of her mother, who raised her and her brother. “But my mom worked very hard with that income to try to make opportunity for us and sacrificed quite a bit, prioritizing education so that we could get scholarships, but also she could contribute to send us to private school.”

Harper wasn’t recruited by local or national groups, and while her campaign has reached out to Justice Democrats, no decision on an endorsement has been made. Other local progressive groups like Yes We Can: Columbus Working Families and Democratic Socialists of America haven’t endorsed Harper, though are considering it.

Tammy Alsaada, a top organizer with the Columbus-based People’s Justice Project, said that when Harper announced, political figures from around the city called to see what they could find out. “This was really surprising to a lot of folks,” she said. “I’ve been getting a lot of calls from folks saying, ‘Did I know this was happening?’”

Alsaada said that one of the group’s co-founders, Aramis Sundiata, was supporting the Harper campaign, but that she herself was taking a wait-and-see attitude and planned to meet with her soon. Neither Beatty nor Harper have been outspoken yet on policing, she said, which, along with community investment, is the issue she hears about most from the public.

Beatty, Alsaada added, has deep connections in the community, while Harper has been away and is largely unknown. “She’s very young, very new, and a lot of people don’t know her. … That’s gonna be something she’s gonna have to overcome. This district is a district of relationships that are long established,” Alsaada said. “Joyce has supported a lot of things in our community and built lots of strong relationships.”

But, Alsaada continued, things are in flux, and Columbus could be open to somebody new who’s willing to fight. “Joyce Beatty is from this community; I have to say, personally, that she has been a person in the community that’s been respected, but we need people who will take a bold stand,” she said. “You can’t count on folks to blindly vote party line.”

THE FRANKLIN COUNTY Democratic Party, which overlaps with the 3rd Congressional District, has been chilly to progressive challengers in the past. In 2017, when a slate of candidates aligned with the Working Families Party ran for City Council and school board, Jen House, the chair of the county party’s endorsement process, told the Columbus Dispatch the candidates were trying to undermine the work of the local party. She later expressed frustration to The Intercept at those “who call themselves Democrats standing out there and refusing to acknowledge” the positive work Democrats are achieving. She added that “being constantly negative” contributes to an attitude, prevalent in Columbus and throughout Ohio, that government can’t succeed.

That lefty uprising fell far short of its goals, with incumbents easily reclaiming their seats and progressive challengers attributing their losses to lack of funding. “The incumbents raised over a million dollars for this race,” a spokesperson for the Yes We Can slate said in the days following the election. “We were outspent 10-to-1. And yet we still garnered tens of thousands of votes across the city.”

But the progressive movement in Columbus has grown stronger over the last two years. Yes We Can continued to build its base and the Columbus DSA chapter significantly grew its membership, now claiming a much more robust electoral organizing component. The Columbus teachers union, under new leadership, has also been taking more vocal, progressive stances and recently threatened a strike. In 2017, the union took a vote of “no confidence” in the city’s seven-person Democratic school board.

During the 2016 primaries, Hillary Clinton beat Bernie Sanders in the district, 60,000 to 44,000. Beatty ran unopposed, and only about 80,000 people bothered to fill in her bubble. The March 10, 2020, primary is a ripe opportunity for Harper, given the stakes of the presidential contest; presuming Sanders and Warren are still in the race, progressive turnout could be especially high.

The Harper campaign believes it can win by turning out 100,000 voters — which would be a significant increase in the number of votes cast in the district — through a volunteer-fueled ground game. Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District is more than one-third African American. As Harper recently noted, the median age in the district is 32, with many people moving into the city from other places. Already around 200 people have signed up to volunteer, and the local press has been closely following the campaign: a break from the traditional media blackout that often greets primary challengers in other districts. “We’re getting a lot more coverage of it than we expected,” Harper told The Intercept.

The coverage is driven partly by an unexpected shake-up to what was to be a sleepy congressional primary and Harper’s compelling life story. But the attention is also likely related to her ability to operate fluently in elite spaces, something an insurgent like Ocasio-Cortez, who was a full-time bartender, initially lacked. Harper’s time at elite colleges and universities, as well as her successful career, coupled with her fiancé’s political background and his job with the Clinton-connected global consulting firm Teneo, gives her access to a universe of contributors that may help get a campaign off the ground fast, before a small-dollar network can be built. Where Ocasio-Cortez was on a shoestring budget until just weeks before the primary, Harper’s campaign expects to raise more than $250,000 this quarter.

The combination of her potential resources, connections, and progressive policy platform, which could activate a local grassroots army of support, makes Harper’s challenge highly credible. It also makes it all the more threatening to incumbents in Washington — not because it’s being driven by national agitators like Justice Democrats, but precisely because it isn’t.

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has created a permission structure that Harper is relying on to launch her bid, but otherwise, she sees the opening, and she’s doing it herself. “No one put me up to this,” Harper said.

HARPER SAID THAT she sees elected officials like Pressley, Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib as role models. “I most closely identify with the women who are pushing for the bold policies that we’re going to need to make sure people are OK, and we build a United States that works for everyone,” she said.

But, as Pelosi frequently notes, their numbers in the House are small. Expanding to a size where they can be more than a leadership punching bag will require bringing a dozen or two Morgan Harpers to Congress. They’ll have to fight the CBC to do it.

In 2018, when Pressley, D-Mass., now a Black Caucus member, ran against white Democrat with the endorsement of Justice Democrats, prominent CBC members got behind the white incumbent. Over the weekend, Pressley took what some saw as a veiled shot at the CBC while at Netroots Nation, a progressive political conference, telling aspiring candidates there that if they get to Washington, they need to be true to what brought them there:

I don’t want to bring a chair to an old table. This is the time to shake the table. This is the time to redefine that table. Because if you’re going to come to this table, all of you who have aspirations of running for office, if you’re not prepared to come to that table and represent that voice, don’t come, because we don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need black faces that don’t want to be a black voice. We don’t need Muslims that don’t want to be a Muslim voice. We don’t need queers that don’t want to be a queer voice. If you’re worried about being marginalized and stereotyped, please don’t even show up because we need you to represent that voice.

Omar, D-Minn., who was also supported in 2018 by Justice Democrats, distanced herself from the CBC’s recent attacks. “I have not seen a collective statement from the Congressional Black Caucus. As you’re aware, I’m a member,” she told The Intercept. “Individual members can and are free, I suppose, to share their opinions on how they feel about things, but that really is not in line with how I think about the statements [Ocasio-Cortez] has made. And I really think that this back and forth is a hindrance to the integrity of our caucus as we work to resist detrimental policies that are coming from this administration.”

She added that the House Democrats tweet targeting Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff was “bizarre.”

No matter how clear it is that Harper’s choice to run was all her own, some incumbents and local party leaders will see a nefarious national plot, another orchestrated attempt to knock out a veteran black lawmaker.

“It just seems strange that the social Democrats seem to be targeting members of the Congressional Black Caucus, individuals who have stood and fought to make sure that African Americans are included and part of this process,” Rep. Greg Meeks of New York, who replaced Crowley as chair of the Queens Democratic Party, told The Hill. (Meeks is facing a primary from first-time candidate Shaniyat Chowdhury.) Beatty was mentioned by CBC members in The Hill’s article last week as somebody Justice Democrats may target, along with Anthony Brown, D-Md., and Yvette Clarke, D-N.Y.

“I don’t know if Beatty is like a [Joe] Crowley in Washington but she’s certainly one of a handful of people who are a party boss in local politics,” a Columbus progressive told The Intercept. They suspect the reaction from establishment Ohio Democrats will be similar to the recent protests against primarying 10-term Rep. Lacy Clay, a CBC member from Missouri who was also challenged by a black woman, Cori Bush. Bush fell short in 2018 but is running again.

A spokesperson for Beatty did not return The Intercept’s requests for comment, and Michael Sexton, the executive committee chairman for the Franklin County Democratic Party, also did not return requests for comment about Harper’s candidacy.

In the meantime, Harper said she’s run up against some challenges already. ”It’s been tough to find a compliance firm,” she said, referring to the consultants who help campaigns file disclosure forms with the Federal Elections Commission. “People are nervous about being associated with a primary race. We had one and then we lost it.”

But she found a new firm and is plugging ahead. “This is a country that’s been based in competition,” she said, “in having open voices and people being able to express their opinions. To think that in our politics we wouldn’t give room for that, and space for that, to people who are trying to represent different perspectives — I don’t really understand it, and I think any attempt to try to suppress that is only going to backfire.”

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The Charter School Primary

Originally published in The American Prospect on July 15, 2019.
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When Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator running for president, released his wide-ranging education plan in mid-May, most of the media coverage focused on his proposals around charter schools. Commenters specifically focused on his calls to ban for-profit charters, which represent about 15 percent of the sector, and to halt federal funding for new charter schools until a national audit could assess the impact of charter growth in each state.

Many education policy experts suspect that such an audit would eventually lead to banning all new charters, but the Sanders campaign says they are just taking their cues from the NAACP. In 2016, the civil rights group called for a moratorium on new charters until existing ones were brought under the same transparency and accountability standards as traditional public schools.

Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP, told The New York Times that his organization loves that Sanders’s plan adopts their language around charters. “If we have a problem with the delivery of our education system, you don’t create ancillary systems for some of the children and not address the comprehensive problem,” he said.

To fight back, many charter supporters have sought to cast Sanders as uniquely extreme on the issue, especially in his efforts to link charter schools with segregation. But it’s hard to target Sanders as extreme when the entire 2020 field has joined and even surpassed Sanders on the issue. The charter school movement’s complete loss of clout in the Democratic Party is one of the more surprising stories of the election cycle.

At the start of July, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released an open letter, imploring Sanders to withdraw his call for a moratorium and “back away from calls for additional regulations that are not in the best interests of schools or students.” The 244 signatories defended the results from charters, citing a 2015 report from the Center for Research on Academic Outcomes, and stressed that charters are in high-demand among families of color. “District-operated public schools have systemically failed students of color for generations,” they wrote.

While the letter didn’t specifically cite Sanders’s call to ban for-profit charters, the signatories included Fernando Zuleta, the president of the for-profit charter management company Academica, and seven board members of National Heritage Academies, another for-profit charter company that operates over 80 schools across nine states.

Sanders isn’t the first mainstream Democrat to criticize charter schools—while campaigning in 2016, Hillary Clinton came out against for-profit charters, as did the Democratic Party platform for the first time. Even many charter leaders, including the president of the Democrats for Education Reform, have condemned for-profit charter schools in recent years.

The pressure to ramp up the rhetoric against charters stems not only from a fierce competition to court teacher unions—an influential Democratic constituency long hostile to charters—but also due to dwindling support among white Democratic voters. According to polling from Education Next, 50 percent of white Democrats now oppose charters, and support among white Democrats fell from 43 to 27 percent between 2016 and 2018. By contrast, charter support among black and Hispanic Democrats remained steady over those two years, and more of both groups support charters than oppose them.

Similar results were found in a recent poll commissioned by Democrats for Education Reform. The group found that 58 percent of black Democrats are favorable towards charters, while 31 percent are opposed. Among Hispanic voters, 52 percent supported charters, while 30 percent opposed. But among white Democrats, 26 percent were favorable, and a whopping 62 percent were opposed.

The candidates’ critical positions seem to be responding in part to this new political landscape. And as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains a staunch champion for both school vouchers and charters, Democrats see distancing themselves from education reform as an easy way to contrast themselves with the deeply unpopular Trump administration.

Earlier this month, at a presidential forum hosted by the National Education Association (NEA), New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio came out swinging against charters, which educate 10 percent of public school students in his city. While de Blasio has long been known as a charter school skeptic, and has battled with Eva Moskowitz, the leader of New York City’s largest charter network in the past, he also has sought to assure voters that he does not outright oppose charter schools, and can negotiate compromises with them.

At the forum he made clear he was no longer seeking such nuance or compromise. “I am angry about the privatizers,” he told the crowd. “I hate the privatizers and I want to stop them.” When asked a question about standardized testing, he responded, “Get away from high-stakes testing, get away from charter schools. No federal funding for charter schools.” His last point goes beyond what what Sanders has called for.

Meanwhile, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington state, released his education plan this month, which also called for an end of federal funding to new charter schools. He made no mention of a study or even a moratorium. Inslee also called for improvements in charter accountability and transparency, and bolstering diversity at existing charter schools.

Inslee has been critical of charters in his home state, where just a dozen currently operate. In 2012, when he first ran for governor, he opposed a ballot initiative to allow the creation of charters and in 2015 he emphasized that his position remained unchanged. “I opposed the initiative that created charter schools because I did not believe that public money belongs in schools that lack public oversight and accountability,” he said.

Hours after Sanders’s education plan was released, Elizabeth Warren told reporters that she agreed for-profit charters are “a real problem.” She has not yet released her own K-12 plan. While the Massachusetts senator has supported charter schools in the past, in 2016 she came out against a high-profile ballot initiative that would have allowed charters to expand much more quickly in her state. The measure ended up failing, with 62 percent of voters siding against it.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg also came out to say he supports Sanders’s proposal to ban for-profit charter schools, though he affirmed a month earlier that charters “have a place” in the education landscape “as “a laboratory for techniques that can be replicated.”

Beto O’Rourke, who opposes a national moratorium on new charters, told the NEA presidential forum that “There is a place for public nonprofit charter schools, but private charter schools and voucher programs—not a single dime in my administration will go to them.” O’Rourke has supported charters in the past, and his wife is a former charter school leader who now sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charters in El Paso.

Kamala Harris has not yet released any plan on charter schools, though in January a spokesperson for her campaign told me that the senator is “particularly concerned with expansions of for-profit charter schools and believes all charter schools need transparency and accountability.” California lawmakers passed a ban on for-profit charters last fall, and passed new transparency measures this year. As attorney general, Harris launched a probe into K12 Inc., a for-profit charter school company, alleging it used false advertising, saddled its California schools with debt, and inflated its student attendance numbers to collect additional state funds. K12 ended up settling with the state for $168.5 million.

Even Joe Biden has made unusually critical comments about charter schools, notable as the Obama administration was very supportive of them and the former vice president generally seeks to align himself closely with Obama on the campaign trail. “I do not support any federal money for for-profit charter schools, period,” Biden said at a Houston town hall hosted by the American Federation of Teachers. He also added that “there are some charter schools that work.” His education plan does not actually mention charters.

Cory Booker, the Democratic candidate most closely associated with supporting charter schools, has also tamped down some of his charter rhetoric. While he continues to defend the educational reforms he led in Newark, including an expansion of charter schools, on the campaign trail he’s also sought to distance his hometown from charter experiments elsewhere.

“I’ve seen charter school models that are outrageous and unacceptable. I’ve seen charter laws propagated by Republicans that just outright dangerous. And so I understand those people, I’m one of them, that wants to stop those kind of movements,” he told the Washington Examiner in response to a question about Sanders’s education plan. “But I’ve also seen in places like Newark, New Jersey, and other places where local leaders are making decisions that elevate the best educational possibilities of their children, and local leadership should be allowed to do that.”

The turn against charter schools within the Democratic primary does not offer the industry an easy way to separate Sanders or Warren from the rest of the 2020 field. It’s part of a larger sea change on education within the party, though one that’s unevenly reflected so far across racial groups.

On Beto O’Rourke and Charter Schools

Originally published in The Intercept on March 27, 2019.
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WHEN BETO O’ROURKE ran for Senate in 2018, he highlighted the importance of public education and consistently said that he stood squarely in support of teachers. Given that his opponent was Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, that was more than enough to secure endorsements from both the Texas State Teachers Association and its parent union, the National Education Association. Teachers across the country helped fuel his small-dollar donor machine.

There was little reason, then, to probe Beto O’Rourke on charter schools. In the Democratic presidential primary, he is unlikely to get the same gentle treatment — particularly given his wife Amy O’Rourke’s deep ties to the charter community.

Education in general was not a top priority for O’Rourke on the Texas campaign trail, nor did he have a robust record of tackling education issues during his three terms in Congress. Voters had a general sense of where he stood on K-12 education issues: He supported a rollback of standardized testing; he opposed the advent of private school vouchers and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos; he believed teachers should be paid more and that the federal government should fully fund the Individuals with Disabilities Act.

But O’Rourke stayed conspicuously silent on the topic of charter schooling during his Senate campaign, and his backers in the education establishment decided not to press him on it.

This is not because charter schools are not a growing issue in the state of Texas. Just this year, the Texas American Federation of Teachers called for a pause on the publicly funded, privately managed schools until the state legislature agrees to pass a series of reforms. “We’ve always been against charter expansion and school privatization, but this is the first time we’ve said, ‘Let’s take a time out,” said spokesperson Rob D’Amico.

Clay Robison, a spokesperson for the Texas State Teachers Association, told The Intercept his union is “very concerned” about charter growth in Texas, “especially the national charter chains that have been zeroing in on the state.” A recently commissioned TSTA poll found 73 percent of respondents statewide said there should be a halt on charter expansion until there’s more evidence of success. The two state teachers unions also filed a lawsuit last summer against a Texas law that encourages school districts to turn struggling schools over to charters or outside operators. That case is pending.

FOR THE LAST couple of years, the Democratic Party has been grappling with voters’ changing views on charter schools. In 2016, the party’s platform, which maintained its support for providing parents with “great neighborhood public schools and high-quality public charter schools” articulated, for the first time, an opposition to for-profit charter schools, which are a small but politically powerful segment of the movement. Other elected officials, and presidential candidates like Hillary Clinton, also began that year adopting this compromise-seeming position.

In 2016, charter advocates also suffered an expensive loss in Massachusetts, when voters across the blue state rejected a ballot initiative to lift the state’s charter school cap. The measure failed 62 percent to 38 percent, and while the initiative was being led Democrats for Education Reform, the state’s Democratic party had come out against it.

In 2017, with Donald Trump in office and GOP mega-donor Betsy DeVos appointed to lead the Education Department, the politics around charters continued to grow more thorny for liberal school choice supporters, many of whom who had long been hostile to teacher unions. That year, Gallup reported a growing partisan divide on charters, with Democratic support at 48 percent, down from 61 percent in 2012. Republican support held steady over the five years, at 62 percent. Public support for unions, meanwhile, continued to climb — climbing from 56 percent in 2016 to 61 percent in 2017, and reaching 62 percent — a 15-year high — in 2018.

Charters were further thrust in the spotlight in the 2018 midterms, as many Democratic candidates campaigned on reserved or qualified support for charters. Newly elected Democratic governors in Illinois, California, and New Mexico all said they’d back a pause on charter school expansion, and other Democratic officials grew more forthright with their critiques. The teachers strikes that swept the nation also elevated concerns around charter schools, particularly when Los Angeles educators went on strike for six days at the start of 2019.

While most Democratic candidates are likely to face questions about charter schools on the trail to the White House, that likelihood is greater for Beto O’Rourke’s than most, given his wife’s stature in the charter school movement. Amy O’Rourke is a former charter school leader and currently sits on the board of a local education reform group that supports expanding charter schools in El Paso.

“Amy is free to work wherever she chooses, that’s her choice, but I think at some point Beto is going to be asked about that and he’s going to be asked about his position on public schools and charters,” said Norma De La Rosa, the president of the El Paso Teachers Association. “He was asked during his campaign about the more pressing issues like immigration and the wall, but I can assure you, he will be asked about charters now.”

Amy O’Rourke began her education career as a kindergarten teacher in Guatemala, where she worked for one year after graduating college. When she returned to El Paso in 2004, she connected with a local community organization, Centro de Salud Familiar La Fe, and helped them launch a dual-language charter. She served as superintendent of the school, La Fe Preparatory School, from 2007 to 2012. In her application to open the school, she wrote that the local school district “failed to create an educational system that can generate true success for all students in the community” and promised to offer “a drastically different educational experience” for Segundo Barrio children. She also noted that “innovation and creativity are the backbone of charter schools” and praised other Texas charters for their commitment to “seeing the underprivileged succeed through hard work.”

Now, Amy O’Rourke serves on the board of the Council on Regional Economic Expansion and Educational Development, or CREEED, a business-backed organization that launched in 2014 to help push education reform initiatives in El Paso. Amy O’Rourke also directs CREEED’s “Choose to Excel” initiative, aimed at boosting college-readiness and which focuses, in part, on expanding charter schools in El Paso. In 2017, CREEED hosted a two-day summit, funded in part by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to strategize on how to advance education reform. Several days later, a local philanthropic group, the Hunt Family Foundation, donated $12 million to CREEED, specifically to help boost charter school enrollment El Paso. The foundation’s chair, Woody Hunt, who also serves as vice chair on CREEED’s board, told the El Paso Times that he hoped the big donation “will show large charter school backers, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that the education community in El Paso is committed to school choice.”

The donation was slammed at the time by local teacher unions, and De La Rosa of the El Paso Teachers Association told The Intercept that her organization has been upset with the way CREEED has operated in the city. “If they are as concerned about public education and the kind of education we are providing for our students, then why did they not get involved within the public school system and work with administrators and teachers to see how they could help us change direction here in El Paso and providing those resources we desperately need?” she asked. “We’ve made it clear that their philosophy does not mesh with our philosophy of what a good public school and a good public education for all our students looks like.”

One of CREEED’s focuses over the last several years has been to bring the fast-growing charter network IDEA Public Schools to El Paso. IDEA is one of the largest nonprofit charter networks in the country; it opened 18 new schools this past fall. It’s a “no excuses”-style network, with school uniforms, longer school days, a focus on enrolling in college, and strict discipline rules.

According to Chalkbeat, the IDEA charter network hopes to educate 100,000 students in the next four years and to hit 250,000 students in the next 10. In El Paso specifically, IDEA aims to run 20 schools by 2023, with the first two campuses having opened this past year. CREEED has pledged at least $10 million to help IDEA meet their growth goals.

The Intercept contacted CREEED to speak with Amy O’Rourke about public education and charter schools, and a spokesperson said they forwarded the request to the Beto O’Rourke campaign, which did not return request for comment. Beto O’Rourke’s spokesperson, Chris Evans, also did not return multiple requests for clarification on the candidate’s position on charter schools.

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, met with the O’Rourkes recently in Texas. In an interview with The Intercept, Weingarten said Beto O’Rourke asked her “some really good questions” about schools and emphasized that the “value statements he’s been saying and said during the campaign [about schools] are important.” Weingarten said they discussed the educators he met on the campaign trail who had to use their own personal funds to pay for classroom supplies and that they discussed the importance of community schools with wraparound social services.

She demurred on whether they talked about charter schools specifically. “I’ve been very careful to not repeat the content of conversations I’ve had with the candidates,” she said. “But the whole context of how austerity and competition have really hurt public school opportunities is something that he was very aware of, let’s just put it that way.”

Weingarten acknowledged that education issues weren’t so central to the 2018 Senate race, but she expects things to be different in the months ahead. “A lot of issues did not get the same kind of airing that they will in the 2020 presidential,” she said. “And education issues will get an airing.”