Will a PAC Pick Philly’s Next Mayor?

Students First is very interested in City Council.

The pro-privatization Students First PAC has been a huge player in state politics from the moment it emerged in 2010 flush with cash, much of it from three local businessmen who together founded Susquehanna International Group, a global investment company.

Students First gave State Sen. Anthony Williams—a leading Democratic proponent of school vouchers—a staggering $3.65 million for his failed gubernatorial run. And ever since, the PAC has showered smaller sums on state representatives and senators receptive to the organization’s goal of sweeping education reform.

But what’s gone largely unnoticed is the PAC’s apparent interest in Philadelphia politics. Last year, Students First wrote big checks—$10,600 apiece, the max allowed by city law—to four members of City Council: Bobby Henon, Kenyatta Johnson, David Oh and Maria Quiñones Sánchez. Philadelphia Sheriff Jewell Williams received $10,250.

The contributions are intriguing for a few reasons.

First there’s the fact that Sánchez and Henon both oppose school vouchers (and remember, Students First is ostensibly about supporting pro voucher candidates). Just weeks ago, Henon was out there marching with the teacher’s union, warning about the dangers of privatization. And last month, Sánchez introduced a resolution in council that proclaimed “public education … should never be dismantled for the sake of further privatization and corporatization schemes.”

Council members Oh and Johnson are voucher supporters, so those donations make a bit more sense (Johnson’s doubly so, since he’s married to the PAC’s executive director).

Even so, council members don’t get to vote on voucher legislation in Harrisburg, and they have precious little influence on the School Reform Commission. Ditto for the sheriff.

So what gives? Why would an education reform PAC that gets a lot of its money from national sources want to give money to Philadelphia pols with no meaningful role in the state education debate? It’s impossible to say for sure, since Students First PAC Executive Director Dawn Chavous did not return three messages left while seeking comment.

Councilwoman Sánchez volunteered one explanation. When asked why she’d get such a hefty donation from a pro-voucher group, Sánchez replied: “That came out of the support of Senator Williams. We have a long relationship.”

And Williams has a very close relationship with Students First. Chavous, the PAC’s day-to-day boss, worked for Williams for nine years, and served for part of that time as his chief of staff. She ran his gubernatorial campaign as well.

So while giving money to council candidates and the sheriff might seem like an odd choice for a state-focused education reform PAC, it makes plenty of sense if there’s a second goal here: like, say, further bolstering Williams’s political standing in Philadelphia should he choose to run for mayor as many expect (Williams declined to comment through a spokeswoman).

Whatever the motivation, those big 2011 Students First contributions could foreshadow a bigger role for the PAC in upcoming city elections. Given the reform package put forth by the School Reform Commission last month, Philadelphia is fast becoming ground-zero for the national school reform debate, a debate where Students First has a powerful voice.