Lessons of a too-talkative operative

Stand for Children regroups after founder fumble

December 2, 2011

(AP/File)

An Oregon-based education reform group, whose deep pockets and skillful maneuvering made it a surprising powerhouse player in Springfield earlier this year, is regrouping after an embarrassing diatribe by its founder forced a leadership shuffle.

The Illinois chapter of Stand for Children raised more money than every other major lobbying interest in the capital last fall, but it has not raised a penny in the current election cycle and spent only $2,500 on two candidates so far, according to the most recent campaign disclosure reports filed with the state Board of Elections.

At this time last year, the group had collected checks totaling more than $3.4 million and had shoveled $610,000 to favored candidates, making it one of the most generous—and clandestine—political action committees in Springfield. Chicago’s elite, including the Crown and Pritzker families, along with Citadel Group founder Kenneth Griffin, supported the organization, and Stand for Children was able to help negotiate a bill this spring that weakened Chicago teachers’ ability to strike and changed tenure rules across the state.

Arne Duncan, the United States secretary of education, called the bill a national model. It removes teacher seniority as the top consideration during layoffs and streamlines the dismissal process for poor-performing teachers. The law also allows Chicago Public Schools to lengthen the school year and the school day, major goals of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

But Stand for Children’s clout capsized in an Aspen, Colo., conference room in June when a video camera recorded founder Jonah Edelman describing how the group used money and prowess to insert itself into the legislative process. In doing so, Edelman, the son of prominent Washington, D.C.,  social activists, committed one of Springfield’s greatest sins: He told.

Not only did he paint an unflattering portrait of Illinois politics, he twisted facts and disparaged political leaders, according to his own apology and those who worked on the schools bill.

The video, taken as Edelman spoke at a sparsely attended panel discussion at the Aspen Ideas Festival, was uploaded to the Internet. Edelman later apologized for his remarks, and Stand for Children went into damage-control.

“For him to come to Illinois, and not understanding the politics, to suggest these things and expose private conversations was very immature of him,” said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford, Democrat of Maywood and a champion of the education bill. “He showed his ethics, his morals. I knew at some point he would expose himself, and he did it right away.”

Edelman declined an interview request, saying his apology was "well documented."

Stand for Children recently hired as its Illinois executive director Mary Anderson, a former senior adviser to state Attorney General Lisa Madigan, which could help politically if Stand for Children hopes to regain the trust of her father, House Speaker Michael Madigan. In recent months, Anderson’s name has replaced Mr. Edelman’s on announcements from Stand for Children offices here.  Edelman remains the head of the national organization, but Anderson has become the face of group in Illinois.

But the organization’s agenda, and its ability to navigate Capitol corridors as smoothly as before, remains to be seen. The group’s political action committee still has an impressive $3 million left over from earlier fund-raising efforts.

Stand for Children was active in a number of other states before it came to Illinois. Elsewhere, the group started working on local issues before moving to state policy. In Illinois, the reverse happened.

Since Anderson took over, the group has hired a few community organizers in Chicago to work on local education-reform issues, such as Emanuel’s push for a longer school day. Last week, the organization moved to new Chicago offices.

Lightford, vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said she met with Anderson recently to discuss how they could work together to implement the new education legislation. By next fall, the first group of school principals must be trained in the new teacher evaluations mandated by the law.

“I’ve been involved in state government long enough to know that getting a law passed is only the first step,” Anderson said. “You’ve got to make sure it gets implemented. It’s not as sexy, but that’s where the rubber meets the road.”

She said Edelman “made a mistake and he apologized for it, but we’re focused on the work.”

During his presentation in Aspen, Edelman described how his group caught the attention of top Democrats by raising millions of dollars and shifting it toward House candidates, in turn gaining him a seat at the table in closed-door negotiations over the education bill. He described how the group hired Springfield’s most well-connected lobbyists, and he suggested teachers unions were duped into giving up certain rights.

His comments offended union leaders who, along with Stand for Children’s policy director, Jessica Handy, spent weeks negotiating the bill and building trust among the often-opposing interests of those seated around the table. Edelman attended only two meetings, and he left one of them early, Lightford said. Some union leaders have told her they want to avoid further interaction with Edelman and Stand for Children, she said.

After Edelman’s comments hit the Internet, he penned a letter.

“Having watched the video, reflected on it a lot in the past couple of days, and discussed it with my wife and colleagues, that was not only presumptuous but, in this particular case, wrong and ungenerous,” he wrote.

On his current role within the Illinois chapter, Anderson said: “I’m executive director. I’m the only who makes the calls.” She said the organization will continue to raise money for the group’s political arm and support candidates who are committed to education reform.

“We are going to be engaged in races and making key endorsements,” she said. “Our goal is to make sure that all kids, regardless of where they live, the color of their skin or how much money their parents make, have a quality education by the time they graduate.”

Rebecca Vevea of the Chicago News Cooperative contributed reporting.