The man who has helped transform the political operations of one of the nation’s largest teachers unions is also a member of the secretive Democracy Alliance.
John Stocks, executive director of the 3 million member National Education Association, sits on the board of the Democracy Alliance, where he helps select which liberal nonprofit groups and political campaigns benefit from a multi-million dollar influx of progressive cash.
The Alliance has grown closer to the White House, abandoning the small outsider groups it was created to finance, in order to boost President Barack Obama’s reelection efforts through the Super PAC affiliated with his campaign, Priorities USA, as well as liberal institutions such as the Center for American Progress and Media Matters.
The Alliance gives Stocks an important voice in leftwing circles, since full-time members pony up $200,000 per year in contribution pledges to Alliance-backed groups. However, that figure pales in comparison to the pool of dues collected from NEA’s 3 million members.
The NEA has been a top 10 political spender in the 2012 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, spending more than $10 million on campaign-related activities. Obama has benefitted more than any other candidate, receiving nearly $30,000 from the union.
"We can’t set education policy by ourselves," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. "First on the list [of priorities]—we must do everything we can to reelect President Barack Obama."
Stocks has played a major role in that effort. A former community organizer, Idaho state senator, and lobbyist, he has made it his mission to focus union attention on electoral politics.
"Under his leadership, NEA charted a new course: mobilizing its ranks in support of key federal legislation, transforming its political organization, and building new strategic alliances to champion public education," the Alliance states in its profile of Stocks.
While that direction may have enhanced Stocks's political clout—he has visited the White House twice—and helped springboard him onto the boards of powerful political groups such as the Alliance, it also may have hurt NEA membership rolls, which have plummeted by 100,000 since 2010 and are expected to drop another 200,000 by 2014, according to union insiders.
"They are very focused on electoral politics, and I think there are people who didn’t necessarily sign on for that," a union official told edweek.org, an education trade website.
The Alliance has faced similar problems since 2010. A number of members, including cofounding insurance billionaire Peter Lewis, left the group after its board voted to start directing cash toward Democratic Super PACs.
"The whole premise was [the Alliance] would create infrastructure independent of the Democratic Party, but that’s not resonating as well today, because the election has manufactured urgency," said Jacob Laksin, author of The New Leviathan. "That changed the climate at the Alliance … it disappointed some."
The Alliance also appears to have shared office space with the SEIU several years ago when it began setting up shop in Washington D.C.
Unions also help fund Alliance operations. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the largest public employees union in the country, wrote the group a check for $120,000 in 2011, according to Department of Labor filings.
Despite his membership in the Alliance, which contributed at least $100 million to liberal causes between 2005 and 2008 according to the Capital Research Center, Stocks is publicly skeptical of secretive money in politics. He has slammed the libertarian philanthropists Charles and David Koch as a political threat.
"We face an array of forces against us who have lots of money from hedge funds and other sources," Stocks told a group of retired teachers in 2011. "They include libertarians like the Koch brothers … profiteers whose objective is to capture the money spent on public education and privatize it."
The same could be said for the Democracy Alliance, which was cofounded by hedge fund billionaire George Soros and includes dozens of business titans and extremely wealthy individuals. The group does not disclose its members or its recipients, allowing them to escape the publicity that comes with big-money donations. It also prohibits members from speaking publicly about its operations.
"The unions and Democrats cultivate this image as a party of the people," conservative elections expert Jay Cost said. "How would it look if you could peer behind the curtain and see high financiers and captains of industry that they are bashing right now?"
Neither the Alliance nor Stocks returned calls and emails for comment.
Much like his union, Stocks has expended most of his political contributions on aiding Obama’s electoral prospects. He and his wife, a former Wisconsin Board of Higher Education official, union organizer, and lobbyist, have given more than $25,000 to Democratic candidates since 2007, with about 10 percent of that money going to Obama.