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September 07, 2016

Is Democrats for Education Reform going to pour money into supporting the millionaires’ tax ballot initiative in 2018, or not? I’ve listened to the debate between DFER’s state director Liam Kerr and Senator Pat Jehlen twice now, and I can’t figure it out. It’s a principal-agent problem alright.

Last week Senator Jehlen, who faces a Democratic primary challenge from Cambridge city councilor Leland Cheung, noticed that DFER was spending more than Cheung to defeat her. She had an inspired idea. Rather than debate Cheung again, she challenged Kerr to a debate and also offered to debate John Petry, the chairman of Education Reform Now Advocacy, which funds DFER. Petry is a New York hedge fund manager. ERNA is also a dark money organization so for those scoring at home, dark money ERNA funds dark money DFER. Petry didn’t respond to the invitation but Kerr did, and WGBH’s Mike Deehan served as moderator. (Below are my own transcriptions, but I’m not a professional. Listen in yourself)

Here’s the principal-agent issue. In such relationships, a principal (Petry) hires an agent (Kerr) to take actions on his behalf. The principal delegates certain powers and responsibilities to the agent, who must act within those confines, though he may have some discretion within the boundaries set by the principal.

Last Friday though, we had a debate between one principal, Senator Jehlen, and Petry’s agent, Liam Kerr. We can’t know the exact parameters of Mr. Kerr’s directions, but we can say this: he hasn’t been authorized to reveal the true source of the funding behind ERNA or DFER. When pressed on where the money is coming from, he resorted to two tactics. First, blame the Massachusetts Teachers Association, which started it all (more on them in an upcoming post). Alternatively, he challenges Senator Jehlen to avow full disclosure for a group like Planned Parenthood (which she does.). Anything but discuss DFER’s funding. For examples, check out approximately minute 8:00 and minute 26:00. Watching Kerr evade the dark money question is like watching old footage of Bobby Orr ragging the puck to kill a penalty.

Here’s a good expression of the principal-agent issue, from Senator Jehlen just past the 37:00 minute mark: “Let me just say who my bosses are. . . .   Your (meaning Kerr) bosses are the people you are responsible to, the people who have the power to hire you and fire you and give you advice. . . .  I am responsive to 160,000 people in my district.”  

It would be better for John Petry to debate Senator Jehlen. He might be able to throw more light on the millionaires’ tax campaign exchange, which occurs just past the 26:00 mark when Senator Jehlen and Kerr are saying that they agree on ninety percent of the issues:

Kerr: We’ll be fighting together for the millionaire’s tax.

Jehlen: If you will commit to spending the same kind of money on that question in 2018 as you are spending  in 2016 I say , Congratulations. . . .  And how about the millionaires that are funding your campaign right now, how about the New York billionaires, are they going to contribute to that? . . . Will you ask them?

Kerr: We’re structured the exact same way as Planned Parenthood which is also based in New York . . .

Thus my confusion on whether New York hedge fund money will be deployed in favor of the millionaires’ tax. It isn’t likely that Mr. Kerr is authorized to make that commitment so we’ll need to hear from Mr. Petry.

The Jehlen-Kerr debate was surely novel. Will we see additional debates featuring political candidates and representatives of the dark money interests seeking to defeat them? How far is an agent authorized to go in a debate? Will we see principals rather than agents? How does all this impact the candidate sitting at home? Independent expenditure organizations like DFER can’t coordinate with the candidate, so his fate is in someone else’s hands. Kerr is not Cheung's agent and the interests of the candidate and DFER may diverge. Nonetheless, if Petry is the boss, then Kerr is middle management, and where does that leave Cheung?

[Addendum to original: A cautious and wise friend has advised me that since I am a union member I should divulge that fact and I am happy to do so, as I have before. In a post on April 22, Dark Money Funding for the Department of Dubious Research, I wrote this: "(Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member)." I thought the disclosure was important in that instance because I was writing specifically about a union issue. Today, and in other posts, I write about dark money, and not charter schools. I've never written about charter schools, nor taken a position on them. I have taken a position against plutocracy and in favor of democracy, and thus against dark money.]

Louis D. Brandeis: "We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can't have both."

Democrats for Education Reform, dark money, Pat Jehlen, Liam Kerr

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