School voucher backers help oust pro-union Republican

State Sen. John Waterman is as solid a conservative as you’ll find: a former sheriff who is tough on crime, 100 percent pro-gun, stingy with money and endorsed by Indiana Right to Life. He has just one flaw, and for a Republican politician, it’s fatal. He supports unions, including teachers’ unions that back public schools.

That was enough to get him taken out in last week’s GOP primary after representing his rural Western Indiana district since 1994. The Indiana Chamber of Commerce put a target on his back, ostensibly because he voted against the so-called right-to-work law that Indiana adopted in 2012. The Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity threw in with undisclosed funding for ads.

But key money – big, late contributions that may have helped push his opponent, Eric Bassler, over the top – came from forces whose agenda is promoting private school vouchers. Bassler won with 51.3 percent of the vote, even though the Senate Republican caucus backed Waterman.

Bassler got $15,230 in the week before the election from Hoosiers for Economic Growth, which is not funded by Hoosiers and doesn’t focus on economic growth. It functions as the Indiana arm of American Federation for Children, a national pro-voucher group led by mega-donor Betsy DeVos.

Hoosiers for Economic Growth got most of its funding this year in $175,000 from American Federation for Children. American Federation for Children reported one contribution in 2014: $166,000 from Wal-Mart heiress and school-choice bankroller Alice Walton. In 2013, it listed two contributions: $75,000 from Walton and $125,000 from Philadelphia investment manager Joel Greenberg.

Waterman voted against creating Indiana’s voucher program in 2011 and expanding it last year. Still, why would voucher advocates pull out the stops to beat Waterman? Republicans enjoy super majorities in the Indiana House and Senate. They have created the most generous school voucher program in the country. Democrats would have to win the House and Senate to undo the changes, and that won’t happen for years. Some theories:

  • It’s politics. The idea is that campaign donors must follow through when candidates don’t dance to their tune – otherwise no one will take their threats seriously. Waterman got out of line, so he had to be punished. Henry Adams’ words are still relevant 100 years after they were written: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”
  • It’s strategy. Republican lawmakers are becoming fractious. They’re fighting over topics ranging from Common Core standards to gay marriage. House and Senate districts are drawn to give the GOP an unbreakable advantage, but Democrats might pick off an incumbent here and there. If Glenda Ritz could beat Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett in 2012 despite being outspent 5-to-1, who knows what might happen? Replacing Waterman could add one more reliable vote on tough issues.
  • They’re not done yet. Indiana’s voucher program is already a middle-class entitlement, but it hasn’t yet fulfilled the Libertarian dream of a universal voucher system in which churches and entrepreneurs compete with “government schools” for all students. Robert Inlow of the Friedman Foundation recently called for “a level playing field,” apparently suggesting taxpayers should foot the bill for private school facilities and transportation, not just operating costs.

John Waterman was one of my favorite sources in the years I covered the legislature for the Bloomington Herald-Times. Big, friendly and always looking a bit uncomfortable in a coat and tie, he was far to the right on most issues – part of the “militia caucus” elected in the anti-Clinton backlash of 1994, a sort of tea party before there was a Tea Party.

He also was unfailingly open and accessible, outspoken and honest to a fault. Most of all, he has been a friend to working people, conscious of the importance of labor unions in the coal-mining district he represented. He has served Indiana well for 20 years.

 

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4 thoughts on “School voucher backers help oust pro-union Republican

  1. We have SCOTUS to thank for elections that are now purchased by the wealthy from anywhere in the US in order to serve THEIR interests. The people in Indiana need to wake up and work to get our democracy back into our hands. If they think Betsy DeVos, Alice Walton & Americans for Prosperity really care about Indiana students just ask them if they support a living wage for the parents of Hoosier school kids or the extension of unemployment benefits for their parents who are out of work & need to put food on the table.

    • In its Indiana campaign finance reports, the DeVos-led American Federation for Children lists its address as the Terre Haute law office of Republican lawyer/conservative activist Jim Bopp, a key advocate for both the Citizens United and McCutcheon Supreme Court decisions that overturned limits on campaign contributions and spending.

  2. Unions are anathema for the Republican base, which was a constant theme during the primary but on the other side, there were strong indications of support for public schools (see 2nd paragraph). Looking at the numbers, if he would have had the Knox county support he did in 2010, he would have won. What happened to his Knox county support? He had 459 votes in Knox in this primary compared to 1,356 in Knox in the 2010 primary. The rest of his vote total were about the same, but what was way different from 2010 was the votes that Bassler picked up. It does seem the base was really fired up, because it seemed that he brought everyone out of the woodwork for this one.

    All you have to do is look at the Michael Behring situation to see the anti-union, pro-public school message sent in primaries. Since Scott was affiliated with the union a lot of voters didn’t switch over and vote for him that didn’t come out and vote for Behning either). The Democrat Michael J Blinn got 37% of the vote last time in the district, but this time looks different. Patrick Lockhart uncontested got 880 votes and Michael Scott got 1,731. If you had Scott + Lockhart that would be 2,611 and more than Behning (last primary in 2012 Scott + Blinn added up to less than Behning and Behning had about 1.5 times as many votes in the 2012 primary at 3,676). If some of the Democrats had instead “poached” that Republican primary instead of voting for their own ticket, that primary would have been a different outcome. Plus, you had a string of referendum victories in Indiana schools is a win for public education

    • Thanks, Jorge – good points. I think they redrew Senate 39 in 2011, so that may account for some of the difference in Knox County, but I can’t tell for sure. As for Behning and Scott, I should have noted that Hoosiers for Economic Growth gave $70,000 this year to Behning, much more than to anyone else (including Bassler). The referendum results are a big story that I haven’t seen much written about yet; will try to get to that next week unless something more pressing comes up.

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