Four years ago, Republican J. Marshall Coleman forged a coalition of liberals, blacks and teachers in winning election as Virginia attorney general. But this week, Coleman, now a candidate for governor, didn't even send a surrogate to the a convention of the state's largest teacher organization here, prompting a Richmond third-grade teacher to suggest that "Marshall has written us off in favor of the conservatives."
Coleman insists that the only reason he didn't attend the Virginia Education Association meeting was that the invitation arrived too late. Coleman's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb, sent a representative, and four candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general made the pilgrimage, seeking the support of the 44,000-member VEA, which four years ago supported both Coleman and Robb.
Although Coleman says that "I haven't written off the teachers," delegates here repeatedly said they believe Coleman has decided that support from their group would give him a more liberal image than he wants in his current campaign.
Walter J. Mika Jr., a Fairfax County high school teacher who was reelected VEA president, told the convention that "our friends do not run the government today." The country is in an "antipublic-education mood," he said.
Mika urged teachers to contribute $100,000 for a political campaign treasury so that "we can put positive friends of education in all government offices."
How well they produce both money and manpower could be a key element in this fall's Virginia elections. As one of the largest interest groups in the state, the VEA's political action committee regularly has ventured into state and local elections. They won four years ago with Robb and Coleman, out lost the governorship with Democratic populist Henry E. Howell, whose cause they emotionally championed.
This week their frustration with both Coleman and the state government was evident as many of the 1,400 teacher-delegates proposed moving future meetings out of state, either to Washington or Charlotte, N.C.
While the efforts were defeated, the support they got illustrated the disenchantment of teachers, whose salary ranking among the states has slipped in the last eight years from 24th to 32nd. The average salary of a Virginia teacher last year was $14,079, compared to $16,001 nationally.
But for Coleman, the issue that the teachers found most infuriating is the lawsuit he is pursuing that could strip them, and other public employes, of the ability to have dues to their organization or union deducted from their paychecks. Coleman is contesting a Richmond city ordinance that gives fire and police unions dues checkoff rights, the same way United Fund contributions are collected.
"It's union busting, pure and simple," said an angry Norfolk teacher, sipping wine in the hospitality suite of Democratic lieutenant governor hopeful Richard Davis.
It's not that Democrat Robb is viewed as prolabor. In an interview in Richmond this week, he reiterated his opposition to collective bargaining for public employes, a main goal of the teachers, but ducked a question about his views on dues checkoff.
Collective bargaining is taken for granted as a right by public employes in many states, but in Virginia, it's such an uphill struggle that many teachers here wore badges asking "Is there bargaining before death?"
The only candidate for statewide office who answers yes is former Arlington delegate Ira Lechner. Lechner's support for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor is so strong among VEA delegates that they twice tried to override their executive board's recommendation of temporary neutrality and endorse him last night.
Lechner, a labor lawyer, received a standing ovation when he said that "They have collective bargaining in totalitarian Poland, but not in Jefferson's Virginia."
Despite his opposition to collective bargaining, Robb appears to be benefiting from a belief -- expressed by a junior high teacher from Christiansburg -- that if Robb is elected governor, "he'll do more for us than he can promise now."
Robb has carved out one position that separates him, favorably in the eyes of many teachers, from Coleman, and that is in his support of legislation creating a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. The teachers approved a resolution lauding the measure, which was vetoed by Gov. John N. Dalton, an action that Coleman supports.
And Robb's surrogate at last night's meeting of the teachers' political committee, State Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), lashed out at another target of the VEA, the New Right.
Saslaw told the teachers that Robb is opposed to tuition-tax credits for private schools, and that "he is aware that the Moral Majority doesn't have the best interests of public education in mind. But you don't need to worry about Chuck Robb running off to Lynchburg to consult with Mr. [Jerry] Falwell."
Coleman, in a telephone interview, said his record "shows that I'm with them [the teachers] on professional issues, but not on union issues." Coleman noted that as a member of the legislature, he sponsored bills that gave the teachers duty-free lunch periods and unemcumbered planning time.
As governor, Coleman promised he would seek to increase state funding of teacher salaries, so that "a teacher in Petersburg equal in skill to an employe in a state lab" would get equal pay. He said that state workers now get raises automatically but that teachers don't.
But a Blacksburg teacher, who with a master's degree and 22 years' experience makes $15,250 a year, said she will vote for Robb because "he offers the better hope of increasing salaries. Coleman is John Dalton's friend, and Dalton is no friend of education. He has not helped the teachers, or the children."