Friday, October 19, 2012

Chuck Schumer, Bill Clinton and Education Reform

My wife and I went to an Obama fundraising dinner with 30 or so people last night. The warm-up act was Chuck Schumer, who was followed by Bill Clinton, who spoke and took questions for more than an hour. He’s amazing – every time I see him, I’m in awe of his political skills. He’s just an incredible speaker and really connects with people, whether it’s one-on-one, a small group, or to a stadium full of people and a national television audience. He’s an incredible story teller – and actually mentioned this last night: he said there wasn’t a TV in his home until he was 10 years old, so he had to learn to tell good stories.

There are two parts of the evening I want to share: First, during Schumer’s Q&A (before Clinton arrived), I raised my hand and said:

“Senator Schumer, I’m Whitney Tilson and my primary political involvement is through an organization I helped start called Democrats for Education Reform. If you have a long memory, you may recall that I gave you a hard time at an event like this one a few years ago, when I asked why the Democratic party was selling out inner city kids to do the bidding of the teachers unions. And you said, “Just wait and watch this President.” And you know what, I owe you an apology. President Obama and Secretary Duncan have been incredible on this issue and I think it speaks volumes that one of their closest allies, Rahm Emanuel, was willing to take a strike in our third largest city only two months before a tight election. So thank you, and I wonder if you could comment on what’s likely to happen if Obama’s re-elected?”

He of course loved the question (my first softball question to a politician ever??? ;-) and really engaged for 5-10 minutes, giving a nice shout-out to DFER and Joe Williams by name. He underscored the importance of education and said that while Congress would have to be cutting back in many areas sacred to Democrats, he would fight hard to get an extra $100 billion for education, and specifically talked about how much he supports Race to the Top and wants to see it expanded and broadened.

My only regret is that I didn’t ask a similar question to Clinton, so the topic never came up when he was in the room. During the brief photo op, however, I said, “Hi Mr. Clinton, I’m Whitney Tilson. I was on the board of the National Charter School Alliance and I last met you when you spoke at our convention in Atlanta a couple of years ago. Thank you for all you’ve done on this issue.” He replied, “Thank you for the work you’re doing” (as we were shooed away – we only had maybe 10 seconds with him).

The second most memorable moment for me was when Clinton was talking about how the Republicans have screwed themselves by being so anti-immigrant, which has resulted them losing the Hispanic vote by a wide margin (they’re supporting Obama by roughly 70-30), which isn’t inevitable he believes, given how deeply religious and culturally conservative many Hispanics (and, he noted, African Americans) are (he specifically said many don’t support gay marriage). Given where the Republicans are today, however, he said that their strategy is to try to suppress Democratic turnout to the levels of the 2010 midterm elections, rather than the higher turnout in the last Presidential election, and that one way they’re doing this is to try to pass laws making it harder for traditional Democratic voters to vote.

This is where he got really passionate. He said,

“I DESPISE (he spit the word out) what they’re doing. I’m an older white man from a Southern state, and I can remember the old poll taxes that were used to disenfranchise minority voters. I despise (he repeated the word) this.”

(I checked and Clinton spoke the truth: he was 18 years old in 1964 when Arkansas finally abolished its poll tax; the last four states to do so, Texas, Alabama, Virginia, and Mississippi were in 1966. See:

I feel just as strongly. Every time I write about this, somebody emails me saying something along the lines of, “You have to show a driver’s license to do X, so what’s the big deal about requiring it to vote?” or “Hey, both sides play lots of dirty politics like gerrymandering districts.” My simple answer is: BULLSH*T! If you think Republicans are really concerned about voter fraud, please contact me immediately – there’s a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you. Republicans know exactly what they’re doing and who they’re targeting – and it’s despicable. Moreover, what’s the word to describe a calculated attempt to deny minorities the ability to vote? RACISM, pure and simple. And it’s not some fringe Tea Party group doing it – Republicans are passing voter suppression laws in nearly every state they control. Thank goodness the courts (for now anyway) are killing most of these laws…

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