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In Ohio, Teachers Run For Statehouse — And Could Give Obama A Boost

An attendee holds up a button at a speech by President Obama on Sept. 17 in Cincinnati.
Carolyn Kaster
An attendee holds up a button at a speech by President Obama on Sept. 17 in Cincinnati.

Teachers unions in Ohio are supporting President Obama in the race for the White House. But way down the ballot, in races for the state Legislature, it's teachers themselves who want some support on Nov. 6.

A dozen teachers, all of them Democrats, are running for seats in Ohio's House and Senate. The surge is a byproduct of last year's fight over Senate Bill 5, the state law that would have curbed public employees' collective bargaining rights.

Teachers were instrumental in the successful fight to repeal SB 5 at the ballot box last November. And a bunch of them figured the only way to make sure something like SB 5 doesn't come back is to run for office themselves this year.

"We need to protect public education," says Donna O'Connor, a special education teacher at Dublin Coffman High School just outside Columbus. O'Connor is running for a seat in the Ohio House. She insists she's a teacher, not a politician.

"Teachers are exactly what we need down at the statehouse," she says. "Because they've had many years of practice of managing unruly and immature objects and students in their classroom."

O'Connor has the support of her teachers union, the Ohio Education Association. An Ohio superPAC called Moving Ohio Forward, funded in part by the National Education Association, has been running ads attacking Republicans, including her opponent, incumbent Mike Duffey.

O'Connor says protecting union rights is among her top concerns. She also would like to see Ohio pay more attention to traditional public schools and less to continuing to expand charter schools and school voucher programs.

O'Connor says she'll miss her students if she wins, but she says as a teacher, she can only affect the kids in her class. As a legislator, she hopes to help "every student across the state of Ohio."

Other teacher-candidates already have a bit of experience with politics. Tom Schmida was the mayor of Reminderville, Ohio, a town of 3,400, for a decade. He recently retired after 40 years in the classroom, with his last assignment teaching government to high-schoolers.

Schmida says all the talk of SB 5 last year inspired him to return to politics. As the president of his local teachers union, he was at the forefront of the battle on collective bargaining. When Republican Gov. John Kasich signed SB 5, Schmida says: "Everything I stood for and worked for was at risk with the stroke of a pen."

Many of the phone banks teachers set up to cold-call voters in 2011 — urging them to vote "No on SB 5" — have been repurposed this year to make similar calls for votes to re-elect President Obama. And teachers have once again rallied around the Democratic candidate's cause, taking to the streets and knocking on doors to tell people that without Obama in office, SB 5 could return.

In the state that could determine the presidential outcome, teacher enthusiasm could help Obama, says Stephen Brooks, associate director of the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron. "Just like the teachers that are interested in going out and becoming a part of the process, their colleagues also want to be part of the political system and I think the Obama campaign is benefiting from that."

On the other hand, Brooks says, SB 5 may loom larger in the memories of teachers than it does for other Ohioans. And if that's the case, last November's Ohio vote may not have much impact on this November's. "Average voters really take on these things sequentially," Brooks says.

Ida Lieszkovszky is a Cleveland-based reporter for StateImpact Ohio. StateImpact is a collaboration between NPR and member stations examining the effect of state policy on people's lives.

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Ida Lieszkovszky
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