This time last year, Ohio airwaves were flooded with political ads urging people to vote for or against Senate Bill 5. That was the state law that would have curbed public employees’ ability to collectively bargain, and it lost – big.
After that election, many teachers decided they want to become a more direct part of the legislative process.
A dozen of those made it through their primary elections and will be on the ballot this November.
All are Democrats. Many are long-shots to get elected. And most got involved because of Senate Bill 5.
A TEACHER, NOT A POLITICIAN
“I’m a teacher, I’m not a politician.”
That’s the tag line of Donna O’Connor. She’s running as a Democrat for state representative in House District 21, northwest of Columbus.
The special education teacher hopes her lack of political experience will help her beat one-term Republican Mike Duffey.
She was encouraged by and has the financial backing of Ohio’s largest teachers union, and the National Education Association has put $1.4 million into an Ohio superPAC that is targeting Republicans like Duffey through ads like this one.
O’Connor acknowledges the fight over Senate Bill 5 got her started, and says protecting public schools and union rights are among her key issues.
“I can spend another 20, 25 years in the classroom and I can affect 15 or 20 kids every single day with the decisions I make as a teacher,” O’Connor says. “But what is motivating to me is that, as a legislator, I can affect every student across the state of Ohio with the decision I can make inside the Statehouse.”
She says the classroom will help her navigate the Statehouse.
“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.”
RUNNING FOR THE RIGHT REASONS?
Inside the Hudson library, Kristina Daley Roegner is holding office hours.
Roegner is an incumbent representing northern Summit County. She was one of the many Republicans who backed Senate Bill 5. Her Democratic opponent is Tom Schmida, who just retired after 40 years of teaching.
“He seems like a nice gentleman,” Roegner says about her opponent.
She says education issues are important to her too, but good teaching and teachers unions are not synonymous. And she worries that teachers inspired by the collective bargaining battle may be running for the wrong reasons.
“I think there is a very real concern that perhaps there might be some underlying self-interest there to protect either their own industry, their own unions,” she says. “And that would honestly not be the best for Ohio. When it comes to education we need to put the students interests first, not the unions interests.”
Schmida says there’s nothing so narrow about his candidacy. At a Young Democrats event in downtown Akron, the former mayor of a village of 3,400 called Reminderville, recalled a discussion with some seniors in a government class of his last year.
“In the course of the discussion that day I said ‘how many of you after high school graduation and whatever post-secondary education or opportunities you’re going to pursue are going to stay in this region in Northeast Ohio?’ Five hands went up.”
THE PROFILE OF EDUCATION IN THE STATEHOUSE
While Schmida believes voters care about education, he knows they have bigger concerns.
“Quite frankly the primary concerns they have are around jobs and the economy,” he says. “But that’s inexorably linked to education.”
Schmida doesn’t expect voters to have the same passions that Senate Bill 5 stirred up a year ago.
Neither does Stephen Brooks, a political scientist with the Bliss Institute at the University of Akron.
“Appropriately, I think average voters really take on these things sequentially,” Brooks says. “Once they make the decision, they assume it’s off the table.”
Brooks says it’s likely average voters care a lot less about Senate Bill 5 than these teacher-candidates do. Still, if they win, the teachers are likely to ratchet up the profile of education in the Statehouse.
“If you’re a doctor, they’re more than likely to talk to you about medical issues,” Brooks says. “If you’re a teacher you become a logical person to talk to about education issues if you want it to be a bipartisan conversation.”
Note: A previous version of this story stated that Donna O’Connor was recruited by the Ohio Education Association. O’Connor says she was not recruited, though teacher candidates were supported by the union from the beginning.