Is It Astroturfing? Maybe Just Turf-Patching?

This is an opinion article about the “Strong Schools for Alameda” campaign expenditure committee, primarily formed to support the 2020 Alameda Measure A Parcel Tax initiative.

Enacting a new tax is a difficult and thankless task. This is especially true when the threshold to enact is two thirds of voters and many of those voters must vote for a new tax on themselves. It gets even more awkward when you will be the chief beneficiary of the new tax and are also doing most of the spending to get that new tax passed. Even if you are never troubled with cognitive dissonance, it can’t hurt to give yourself a little cover; maybe manufacture a third-party to do some of the work on your behalf.

Which brings me to “Strong Schools for Alameda”. According to its website it “is a grassroots organization of parents, teachers and community leaders leading the campaign to pass Measure A to attract and retain quality teachers and provide our students with the outstanding education they deserve”. This might well be true. What is definitely true is that it is a “Committee Primarily Formed to Support a Ballot Measure”. This is a legal term of art for a group that collects and spends money in a political campaign. In this case, the committee exists to support the 2020 Alameda Measure A, which would add a new parcel tax to the bills of Alameda residents to fund raises for Alameda teachers (as well as other district staff).

Is Strong Schools a “grassroots” organization? I would say no. Grassroots is a term that has no rigorous definition but is normally used to connote an organization that has been built by individuals in a community to enact some kind of positive (in their opinion) change. Given that this is a campaign expenditure committee (often called a PAC), asking whether it is grassroots is really asking where its money is coming from. You would expect that such an organization would be getting most of their money from small cash contributions from members of the Alameda community. In terms of what I can verify from filings made with Alameda County where Strong Schools (FPPC #1422449) does its reporting their contributors are as follows:

Alameda Education Association (AEA): $2000 (cash)1
Alameda Education Association (AEA): $1800 (in-kind)1
Alameda Firefighters’ Local 55: $1000 (cash)

That’s it. $38001 from the teacher’s union and $1000 from an allied union. Now, it’s possible that there have been small contributions not yet reported, because they are being made late and past the reporting deadline (we won’t know until after election day). Of course it’s also possible that a group of highly-motivated citizens incited merely by excitement at teacher pay increases, gathered on the Saturday directly following the district’s vote to ratify a labor agreement giving teachers raises, rushed out and registered the domain name “strongschoolsforalameda.org”. You know, just in case it might be useful someday. I do it all the time.

It is tempting to call this astroturfing, a tactic whereby a special interest group funds a fake grassroot organization to create the appearance of broader interest in that group’s goals than might really exist. I think this a bit of a harsh label here. For one thing, it would be overly dramatic and a little unfair to lump a local teacher’s union in with Big Tobacco and Walmart. That’s why I’m going to try to coin the term “turf-patching”.

Anyone who has ever maintained a lawn (which are mercifully going out of style in drought-prone places) knows about turf-patching. Maybe the family dog has given extra special attention to a specific area of grass and it’s gone yellow or brown; an eyesore in the middle of your otherwise perfect green patch. In order to resolve this, you would typically come in and give some new grass roots a hand: by scarifying or stripping the dead patch, laying a bit of soil and re-seeding the area. Oh and keep the dog off it.

That’s what Strong Schools is. There might be some real grass growing out of those roots in the form of motivated parents and students. But for the patch to exist and the roots to have a chance of growing, it takes a motivated gardener with the resources and self-interest in having it succeed.

Correction

  1. A previous version of this article stated that AEA had given Strong Schools $2800 in cash and $1000 in-kind and added that amount to $2800, all in error.  The numbers stated in the article are now the correct ones as stated in AEA’s January 23 Form 460-A amended filing.

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