Editor’s note:  Cameron Smith’s Republican credentials can not be questioned. including a stint as executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives.  So when I saw his recent piece on AL.com about AEA rising from the ashes, so to speak, it got my attention.

When the GOP took control of the state legislature in 2010 one of their primary objectives was to gut AEA.  And they did an excellent job, especially in stopping payroll deductions to fund their political action committee.  This was a crippling blow, which, coupled with a total lack of decent leadership in Montgomery, had many calling for last rites.for the organization.

But as Smith points out below, AEA has slowly, but surely, been able to reload its PAC and how has nearly $4 million in hand.  And whereas at one time AEA almost exclusively supported Democrats alone, those days are gone and AEA now has no problem contributing to Republicans:

“Years ago, I remember watching Dr. Paul Hubbert in the gallery of the Alabama legislature. Folks huddled around him and awaited instructions like officers around a general. Even if you opposed him, it was hard not to be impressed by Hubbert’s political acumen.

As votes were called, legislators would turn around and look up to the gallery for guidance if they weren’t sure where he stood on the bill. That was the zenith of the Alabama Education Association’s (AEA) influence in Alabama politics. After a decade in the political wilderness, the AEA is back as a major political player in Alabama.

Just look at the tale of the tape for the AEA today. Campaign finance reports for the Alabama Voice of Teachers for Education (AVOTE) political action committee (PAC) show that the AEA is socking away over $100,000 per month in non-itemized cash contributions from education employees, 35,588 of them to be exact. As of June 7, 2021, AVOTE has more than $3.72 million cash on hand. I called Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill who confirmed that the AEA’s campaign finance compliance checks out and has since Republicans ended the dues checkoff program a decade ago.

“Dr. Hubbert’s lasting gift to the AEA was working tirelessly through Christmas in 2010 to convert our members’ political support into bank drafts after the legislature eliminated the dues checkoff,” said AEA Executive Director Amy Marlowe.

Almost $4 million may not sound like a lot of money for those of us accustomed to hearing about billions and trillions in government spending, but it’s a big deal in state politics. Most Alabama legislative races are won or lost over a few hundred thousand dollars or less. Because the state does not limit campaign contributions to candidates from PACs, the entire balance in AVOTE could be deployed against one candidate. That’s a massive political threat that gives legislators something to think about.

That wasn’t the case five years ago. Then-President Sheila Remington didn’t paint a pretty picture of the AEA’s condition. “We’re out of the business,” Remington told the Montgomery Advertiser. “We’re out of giving people money to run campaigns…as far as people calling and asking us for campaign contributions, I don’t see us getting involved with that anymore.”

Nobody paying attention to Alabama politics was surprised to hear that. The 2014 election cycle for the AEA was a masterclass in political failure. Executive Director Henry Mabry bet millions, including a $4 million loan, trying to replicate Hubbert’s political control of the Alabama legislature and came up radically short.

The AEA’s political Death Star that Hubbert has worked decades to perfect literally exploded.

Marlowe was there when it happened. Hubbert hired her as an AEA lobbyist in 2005, and she had enjoyed the heights of AEA’s success in the Alabama legislature. The decimation of the AEA’s influence was the bottom of the valley for her, but she learned from the experience.

“The AEA paid a political price for playing politics outside of education,” said Marlowe, “We’ve learned that we’re the most effective when we’re targeted and strategic about accomplishing our objectives on behalf of our members.”

Republicans rejoiced, and it wasn’t simply because they disagreed with the AEA over public school choice policies. The AEA was, before its political collapse, the single biggest weapon of the Democratic Party in Alabama. Even as the party fell into complete ineptitude, the AEA retained the ability to pack a political punch.

The AEA was so reviled by Republicans that the Alabama Republican Party adopted a rule banning the party from accepting funds from the National Education Association (NEA) and its affiliates including the AEA.

The AEA board effectively forced Mabry’s resignation, sought to stabilize its operations, and began to retire its political debt. It wasn’t a pretty process.

It’s also when people stopped paying attention to the AEA as a political force in Montgomery.

According to Marlowe, Dr. Hubbert’s response to Republicans who came after the AEA was clear, “Whatever rules you want to make, however you want to change the political game, we will adapt and overcome.”

Internalizing Hubbert’s mantra seems to have paid off for Marlowe.

Marlowe appears far more capable than others who have followed Hubbert. She’s laser focused on AEA being an organization that supports its 84,325 education employee members and also happens to engage in politics. “In the political arena, AEA’s focus is making sure Alabama’s education employees have a voice that’s heard in Montgomery,” said Marlowe.

Marlowe has Democratic bona fides and was part of the AEA when it aggressively went after Republicans, but she’s not afraid to support conservative candidates if she can wield influence when it matters.

“AEA doesn’t care whether you’re an ‘R’ or a ‘D,’” noted Marlowe, “as long as you vote ‘E’(ducation).”

More importantly, the AEA is strategically deploying capital. In the 2018 cycle, the AEA spread around hundreds of thousands of dollars to Alabama Republicans in spite of the party’s guidance to avoid AEA money. Since 2019, the top two recipients of AVOTE funds have been Republicans.

Not only is the AEA engaging politically, but it’s returning to form legislatively. In the last legislative session, Alabama enacted a $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget, the largest in the state’s history. Teachers received a pay raise in the pandemic. The AEA killed efforts to allow education funding to follow students to charter schools. But for Governor Kay Ivey’s veto, the AEA would have also secured a two year delay of the Alabama Literacy Act, a law which ensures third graders read at grade level before promoting them.

That’s not a bad session for a political shop that was out of business in 2016. While the AEA’s new political Death Star might not be fully operational just yet, the AEA is certainly striking back. The question is whether they’ll be a force to help pull Alabama’s children out of the educational basement or a hindrance in that effort. Will an “AEA Republican” label be a political weight or an asset? Only time will tell, but AEA is again a force to reckon with, and Alabama’s political class would be wise to start paying attention.

Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at csmith@al.com.”