I Don’t Where Kevin de León Will Get the Cash, But I Know Whom He’ll Ask

California Senate president pro tem Kevin de León has decided to launch a primary challenge to Dianne Feinstein for her seat in the U.S. Senate. This requires me to trot out my one and only Kevin de León story.

It was March 1998, and I was attending the California Teachers Association’s Equity and Human Rights Conference. On the ballot that year was Proposition 226, which would have required unions to annually obtain their members’ permission to use any portion of their dues for political purposes.

At the time de León was working for NEA. This is what I reported afterward:

NEA’s Kevin de León discussed the results of recent internal polling and focus group surveys of CTA members. He revealed that 70 percent of CTA members currently support Prop 226. The news brought gasps of surprise from the assembled teacher union representatives and activists. “Yes, we’ve nudged that down from 76 percent,” interjected a chagrined CTA board member standing at the back of the room.

…de León discussed the external campaign, designed to swing voters who are not members of teachers’ unions. Because most people do not belong to unions, NEA/CTA focus group research determined that discussing 226’s negative effect on union influence was counterproductive. “Therefore,” de León said, “we are not going to use the word ‘union’.” He added that campaign ads, literature and other documentation targeted at external audiences would not refer to “unions.”

That year CTA spent $500,000 on an “internal campaign,” designed to persuade its own members that wanting to authorize the spending of their money on political purposes was wrong, and millions to persuade California voters that the initiative had nothing to do with unions. This being California, CTA succeeded on both counts. Prop 226 lost 53%-47%.

The newspaper headlines wonder: “Where will Kevin de León get the cash?” de León may be a long shot against Feinstein, but the appeal of putting one of their own in the U.S. Senate might be worth the gamble for NEA.