Randi Weingarten, the millionaire who runs the American Federation of Teachers, defended the union endorsement of fellow millionaire Hillary Clinton at a gathering of teachers on Monday.
The union announced its support for former Secretary of State Clinton on Saturday, one month after American Federation of Teachers met with Clinton, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Weingarten said an executive committee of union officials made the decision after holding townhalls and polling some of the AFT’s 2 million members. She said Clinton was the overwhelming choice among teachers, garnering nearly 80 percent support from sampled members.
"When we polled our members who can vote in Democratic primaries … 79 percent said we should endorse and by a 3-1 margin our members said we want Hillary," she said. The union also endorsed Clinton during her failed presidential run against Barack Obama in 2008.
The Clinton family has longstanding ties to Weingarten, who rose to prominence as head of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers. AFT gave between $1 million and $5 million to the Clinton Foundation, which charitable watchdogs described as a "slush fund" for the Clinton family.
Weingarten has personally donated $3,250 to Clinton since 2008, as well as a $1,000 contribution to the Ready for Hillary PAC in 2013, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. She also acknowledged in March that she had communicated with Clinton through her controversial private email account.
"People I saw at funeral who I want to see or who want to see me-- Randy Weingarten [sic]--reschedule dinner w her and Hillary Rosen," Clinton wrote in an August 2009 email according to public records published by the State Department in June.
A Clinton campaign spokesman did not return request for comment.
Clinton and Sanders each received massive applause from the assembled union members. Weingarten urged teachers to be politically active in 2016 to enhance the union’s political influence.
"Our voice will help determine who becomes the next president of the United States of America. … Our voices combined equal power," she said unveiling blue "Voice+AFT=Power" t-shirts. "Collective voice is power, so let’s get out there and raise our voice and raise hell."
AFT is one of the biggest political spenders in the country. The $19.7 million it contributed to mostly Democratic candidates in 2014 was the eighth largest in the country, and about double what it spent in 2012, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Weingarten on Monday criticized politicians for supporting reforms to tenure and the expansion of charter schools, as well as the No Child Left Behind Act. Clinton voted for George W. Bush’s 2001 education reform, but flip-flopped on the campaign trail in 2007.
Clinton has been tacking to the left during the opening months of her campaign as she attempts to win over unions, such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), that endorsed Obama in 2008. Building union support is also important for Clinton given Sanders’ strong ties to labor groups; the socialist’s largest campaign donors have been union during his career, while Clinton raised money primarily from Wall Street institutions and trial lawyers.
The union press release announcing the endorsement emphasized that AFT is the first union to endorse in the Democratic primary. AFT officials said this would give them a closer relationship with Clinton to win her support on education issues.
"Over the coming months, we'll have the chance to help Hillary shape a powerful platform and focus the conversation on the issues that matter to our members and the students, families and communities we serve," the release said.
The union will announce its general election endorsement after its next general convention. No Republicans have responded to invitations to meet with union leadership, according to Weingarten.