The 11-page mailing, on expensive paper stock, was sent first class to 125,000 households across the country this week.
“I’m writing to you about Randi,” the letter began. “You probably don’t know who Randi is. Most people don’t. The terrible impact Randi has on America’s educational system is something that I hope you will give me a few minutes to explain.”
The writer, Richard Berman, is a D.C.-based corporate communications consultant who is waging a national campaign against Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Berman has run a highly personal attack on Weingarten for the past year, paying for two billboards in Times Square that featured an unflattering two-story image of her, a full-page ad in the New York Times, radio spots and, now, lengthy mailings. He also paid workers to hand out anti-Weingarten flyers during Labor Day weekend in East Hampton, N.Y., where she has a home.
In the mailing, Berman refers to Weingarten as “a vicious individual” who is “on a crusade to stymie school reform and protect the jobs of incompetent teachers — the bad apples that drain so much of our tax resources and sabotage the efforts of parents and caring teachers.”
The campaign is being waged under the auspices of the Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit Berman created that is devoted to “research and education regarding labor unions and their activities.”
Reached Wednesday, Berman declined to identify who is funding the campaign. “That’s always a question that people ask me, and I always tell them we don’t disclose our donors,” he said.
The Center for Union Facts is part of a constellation of nonprofit groups Berman created to carry out corporate messages, including one that attacks health concerns about mercury in fish and another that has fought Mothers Against Drunk Driving over its campaign to lower the legal blood alcohol content limit. His Center for Consumer Freedom has been funded by tobacco and restaurant companies to fight smoking restrictions in restaurants, and his American Beverage Institute has pushed back against restrictions on alcohol use.
Berman said he focused on Weingarten because “she has an outsized influence” in education policy. The AFT is the second-largest teachers union in the country and represents teachers in most of the nation’s urban school systems.
“She sets the policy and sets the tone for the AFT,” Berman said. He said he was not as concerned with the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association. “I just don’t find them to be as vocal and as difficult as [Weingarten] has presented herself to be,” Berman said.
Weingarten, in an e-mail Wednesday, called Berman “a well-known hired hand (though he won’t disclose who is funding his efforts). He’s attacked Mothers Against Drunk Driving and opposed raising the minimum wage. I shouldn’t be surprised, but still, after a year of ads, billboards, op-eds and now this 11-page letter, I’m left asking: Why would someone go to such depths to attack teachers and their representatives?
“Perhaps it’s because more and more Americans agree that public education is important and know the market-based, silver-bullet reforms that Berman promotes — austerity, privatization, test-fixation, mass school closings — aren’t working,” Weingarten wrote. “Parents want to send their kids to safe, and welcoming, collaborative and engaging neighborhood public schools.”
The personal nature of the campaign against Weingarten is a trademark of sorts for Berman.
In a campaign against the Humane Society of the United States last year, Berman produced an ad that compared Wayne Pacelle, the society’s president, to Bernard Madoff, the convicted financier behind the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history. In the ad, Madoff’s image morphed into Pacelle’s face. Metro riders in 2013 saw large ads hung in the Capitol South station that featured an image of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with the slogan, “Teens Who Can’t Find a Job Should Blame Her,” part of a campaign Berman ran against an increase in the minimum wage.
“Where somebody has put their stamp and fingerprint all over policy, I think it’s fair to think they’re the ones who are responsible for those policies,” Berman said.
He declined to say how much he was spending on the Weingarten campaign.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog group, maintains a Web site that tracks Berman’s activities. “His main purpose is to say things that these groups behind him will never want to be associated with publicly,” said Melanie Sloan, the group’s executive director.
As with his other nonprofit groups, Berman accepts taxdeductible donations to the Center for Union Facts and then contracts with his for-profit firm, Richard Berman and Co., to perform communications and lobbying work.
According to its federal tax filings, the Center for Union Facts received $3.5 million in contributions in 2012, paid Berman $23,288 to serve as president and then awarded a $835,940 contract to Richard Berman and Co. for advertising, research and lobbying.
In 2012, the Center for Union Facts had 14 opinion pieces and letters to the editor published and received coverage in 60 media outlets, according to its tax filings.
Charity Navigator, an independent group that analyzes nonprofit groups, has issued a “donor advisory” regarding the Center for Union Facts and four other Berman groups, saying most of their funds go to Berman’s for-profit company.
CREW and the Humane Society of the United States have both unsuccessfully challenged the tax-exempt status of Berman’s assorted nonprofits.