Photo credit: Doug Curran, Special to News Journal
Lisa Blunt Rochester is poised to make history this fall. The former Delaware Labor Secretary and current Democratic candidate for Congress is super-qualified and would be the first woman and person of color The First State sent to Congress. Delaware is one of only three states that has never sent a woman to Congress. Meanwhile, Delaware’s teacher’s union (DSEA), one of the most powerful forces in Delaware politics, recently endorsed state Senator Bryan Townsend in his bid for Congress. But by overlooking Lisa’s 30+ year track record of creating opportunity in Delaware in favor of Bryan’s three union-friendly years in the legislature, will DSEA find itself on the wrong side of history? Putting union politics and narrowly-construed interests aside, should DSEA have rather endorsed Lisa Blunt Rochester in this race for Congress?
Endorsements are not determinative and are not evidence that a given candidate is better suited for a role. They do, however, come with electoral support (DSEA spent more than $480k to support endorsed candidates in 2012, for example) and they provide an important window into an interest group’s political calculation. For example, a then 31-year-old Bryan Townsend won his first election in 2012 even though DSEA opted to endorse his opponent Tony DeLuca. Perhaps Townsend, a Yale Law- and Cambridge-trained millennial seeking to serve his home state, felt a little too young and unproven in the face of a 14-year “friendly incumbent” like DeLuca. Not to worry…..in about a year and a half in office, Townsend curried DSEA’s favor and received their endorsement the next time around in 2014.
But when DSEA’s interview committee assesses candidates and issues a recommendation representing 10,000+ educators, what are the blind spots? How representative are the recommendations of these committees of the vast set of interests and perspectives in the teaching force? Do their political calculations (Who is perceived most likely to win? Who has been most friendly to them in the past?) make them less prone to side with progress?
As a supporter of Lisa Blunt Rochester and someone who works to ensure all students have access to an excellent education, here are a few reasons I believe Lisa is the better choice for Congress this fall:
Lisa is more experienced: Unions notoriously focus on years of experience and longevity in negotiations related to teacher contracts. But unless they are giving Bryan Townsend 10 years for each of his 3 years of legislative experience, they endorsed the less experienced candidate. Lisa’s career has not been a race to the top of the political food chain. This is her first run for political office after investing 30+ years in serving the state. She started as a constituent caseworker for then-Congressman Tom Carper, she served in one Governor’s cabinet as Secretary of Labor, and was another Delaware governor’s Deputy Secretary of Health and Human Services and State Personnel Director. As a member of the Senate Education Committee, Bryan is definitely savvy with education policy issues. But I contend we need someone in Congress with more than facility with the latest education-insider debates. We need someone whose depth of experiences — as a public servant and parent — allows them to craft policy that is meaningful for everyday folks.
Lisa understands the connection between women’s rights and education policy: It’s not surprising that several Delaware women legislators (some of whom are also DSEA-endorsed legislators) endorsed Lisa for Congress. Lisa has foregrounded women’s issues — access to paid family leave, equal pay for equal work, etc. — and understands these issues are inextricably linked to any efforts to improve our nation’s education system. She recognizes that women’s economic security is critical to their success as their children’s first educator. And she knows parental leave policies are essential for successful early childhood education. Lisa’s experience breaking through glass ceilings gives her a deep knowledge of the barriers to economic opportunity and advancement that women face and how this impacts society overall. In the education sector, 75 percent of K-12 educators are women but 87 percent of school superintendents are men. It would make sense then that any vetting process should consider Lisa’s experience advancing women’s rights and what that could mean for educators and families across the state.
Lisa has a track record working in the community and creating economic opportunity: DSEA consistently notes that “schools do not operate in a vacuum safe from the realities of society” such as poverty, crime, and social inequality. Lisa is the candidate with the most experience working in underserved communities and creating economic opportunity across the state. Her work at the state included overseeing the provision of services to individuals with disabilities and emergency shelter for the homeless. She has worked with diverse stakeholders -employers, organized labor, and community leaders– on welfare reform and to create a statewide Workforce Investment Board. As CEO of the Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League, she also implemented an Achievement Matters initiative that provided community and school-based interventions for children in Wilmington from grade 6 through to graduation. Her experience living and working abroad also gives her the unique ability to place local and national challenges in global context.
Lisa represents the diversity of the state and our nation: Despite the limitations of homogeneous decision-making bodies, we’re a nation that loves sending Ivy-league educated white males to represent us in Congress. Congress is more diverse than ever and is still 80 percent white and 80 percent male. Weak logic would suggest that the demographic composition of Congress is so because these individuals are just the most qualified for the job. The reality is that there are systemic barriers that qualified women and people of color like Lisa Blunt Rochester have to overcome to get elected to national office. It speaks to Lisa’s character and mettle that she’s overcome such barriers before (she was Delaware’s first African-American woman Secretary of Labor), has the highest cash on hand in the race, and was tied for the lead with Bryan Townsend in the most recent poll.
While I believe I’ve presented a strong case for Lisa Blunt Rochester, DSEA is clearly entitled to do whatever they believe to be in the best interest of their members. And as Bryan Townsend showed in 2012 sans DSEA’s endorsement — educators and the wider voting public do not have to be deferential to the political calculations and pronouncements of interest groups.
Delaware will be one of the most diverse states in the country by 2060. In this election, we have the opportunity to recognize Lisa Blunt Rochester’s unparalleled qualifications and make a decision that will have historical significance. We can make a choice that will speak volumes to the 130,000+ students in Delaware’s education system– especially the 53 percent considered students of color. We can show them, and remind ourselves, how potential is limitless and how the voices of the people can ensure progress prevails over politics.