Michelle Rhee has taken her first steps onto California's political playing field, establishing a committee to make campaign contributions and hiring a lobbyist.
The former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor -- who founded the StudentsFirst education advocacy group in December -- has hired Sacramento lobbying firm Gonzalez, Quintana & Hunter, according to filings with the secretary of state's office. The firm, opened this year, also represents Facebook, the California Bicycle Coalition, clean energy groups and several Indian tribes. It doesn't count any labor unions among its clients.
Rhee made national headlines for her battles with the teachers union as head of D.C. schools from 2007 until last year. She closed two dozen campuses and fired hundreds of teachers while fighting the union over tenure and merit pay. Rhee left after her boss, Mayor Adrian Fenty, was voted out of office in September.
In creating StudentsFirst, Rhee said she wanted to develop a national advocacy presence that could counter the influence of teachers unions at the local and state levels. She aims to raise $1 billion to support candidates who share her view of school reform. So far, StudentsFirst has been active in Nevada, Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Michigan, where it has pushed for bills that eliminate the "last in, first out" layoff policy common in public schools. Rhee wants to get rid of seniority-based teacher layoffs in favor of layoff methods that look at teachers' job performance.
Whether Rhee can translate her legislative success in red states led by anti-union governors to Democratic-controlled California remains to be seen. Teachers unions are strong political forces in the Golden State. Rhee, a Democrat and the fiancée of Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, appears to be working on developing her credibility within her party and its allies in organized labor. She brought George Parker, the former president of the DC teachers union, into her organization as a fellow and just hired Hari Sevugan, former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, as head of communications.
StudentsFirst has set up shop in temporary offices in Oak Park owned by Johnson's organization, St. HOPE. Rhee's organization plans to move into permanent office on K Street in September.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michelle Rhee looks on as Mayor Kevin Johnson, delivered his State of the City address at the Sacramento Convention Center, Thursday, January 20, 2011. Bryan Patrick / Sacramento Bee