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Hillary Clinton wins union endorsement, but teachers make her work for it

Hillary Clinton in Florida

Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop at Broward College in Davie, Fla., on Friday. 

(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

Hillary Rodham Clinton made an unplanned trip to the headquarters of the nation’s largest teachers union Saturday morning to lock down its endorsement and calm the jitters of union leaders under pressure from members to withhold support.

National Education Assn. leaders say Clinton came to the board meeting at their request, as the endorsement vote loomed and the 175-member body felt it needed to hear more from her. Such unscheduled appearances by a presidential candidate are exceedingly uncommon. The NEA represents 3.2 million teachers.

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NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said in an interview she could not recall another time a candidate has appeared at the endorsement meeting.

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“It was very dramatic,“ Eskelsen Garcia said. “People were saying to me, ‘I need to hear from her.’ I said, ‘I don’t know what I can do.’ But I called the campaign and [Clinton] said let’s do it.”

Eskelsen Garcia said Clinton stayed for more than hour, answering questions from board members who lined up at the microphone in the basement auditorium of NEA headquarters in Washington. They grilled her on the school accountability and student testing policies the union has been fighting over with the Obama administration. They demanded Clinton explain with specificity her position on charter schools, the growth of which they see as an existential threat to the union.

The endorsement is a major victory for Clinton, who has been struggling to impress a restive organized labor movement that feels Obama has not done enough to lift its fortunes, and worries there will be more of the same in a Clinton presidency. Earlier in the week, the International Assn. of Firefighters, one of the country’s most politically influential unions, abandoned its plans to endorse Clinton, according to the New York Times.

At the firefighters union and at the NEA, a large segment of the rank and file is vocally supportive of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. His crusade against Wall Street and support for European-style social programs plays well with union audiences. At least 30,000 NEA members have pledged their support to Sanders.

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But in Washington on Saturday, the union’s leadership voted overwhelmingly to back Clinton. Eskelsen Garcia said 75% of the board members voted to endorse the former secretary of State.

“She was able to talk so passionately, and so specifically,” Eskelsen Garcia said. “She made space in an incredibly difficult campaign to say, ‘I know you have a decision to make, I am not taking it for granted, I want that support, it is important to me.”

Still, some influential NEA leaders had lobbied against the vote. Chapter presidents in New Jersey and Massachusetts said the union would be better served by waiting. They wanted to hear candidates be more specific about their plans, and see if they would commit to walk back some of the contentious policies the Obama administration has put in place.

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Eskelsen Garcia had warned waiting would hurt the union.

“The argument that won the day was when one of the board members got up and said, ‘I need a good reason why we would not do it today. I need a good reason why would not start as early as possible impacting this race,’” said Eskelsen Garcia. “We want a candidate who will make this a centerpiece for her campaign… If you don’t get in where it counts, it doesn’t count when you get in.”

@evanhalper

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