This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It is amazing that with all of the advances in technology, it was so darn hard for constituents to reach Pennsylvania’s Republican U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey or even his staff to tell him that they opposed Betsy DeVos as education secretary.
In the end, of course, Toomey did what everyone (especially big donors and Republican leaders) expected. He voted to approve DeVos, against the wishes of thousands of his constituents.
For weeks, people upset about DeVos’ nomination were calling Toomey’s offices. Those calls usually were met with a full voicemail box that would receive no more messages. Constituents lined up outside Toomey’s offices, also to no avail.
Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a longtime education supporter, and a group of disability activists did get to meet with some of Toomey’s staff last week, just hours before he announced that he would be voting to confirm DeVos – despite her poor performance testifying before senators, allegations of plagiarism on her written responses to their questions, and a lack of experience in public education.
As you may have heard, DeVos has never attended a public school, never had a child in a public school, never had any education training, could not answer basic questions about education policy in her Senate hearing, is a strong proponent of vouchers, and has supported anti-gay causes.
The lack of response from Toomey – and his declaration of support for DeVos – did little to deter those interested in making their feelings known about the potential education secretary. Toomey’s office received more than 17,000 faxes during the week starting Jan. 29. On Super Bowl Sunday, a contingent of teachers, students, and their supporters showed up at his house to remind him “not to drop the ball” on DeVos.
You have to wonder, with all those calls, emails, faxes, and personal visits by thousands of constituents from public, private and charter schools, why would Toomey be so unwilling to even talk to the people who oppose DeVos, let alone consider their wishes?
The answer is probably what you think it is.
Just like five of the 12 Republican senators who voted to move DeVos’ nomination on for a full Senate vote, Toomey has received political campaign contributions from DeVos.
According to the Center for American Progress, DeVos has given more than $60,000 to Toomey. In fact, she has given nearly $1 million to 21 Republican senators who will be voting to confirm her.
DeVos herself conceded in her Senate hearing that she and her family have donated more than $200 million to Republican campaigns conservative causes. According to an article in New Yorker magazine, DeVos wrote about her family’s desire to influence politics with their money.
“My family is the biggest contributor of soft money to the Republican National Committee,” she wrote in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, according to the New Yorker. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return. We expect to foster a conservative governing philosophy consisting of limited government and respect for traditional American virtues. We expect a return on our investment.”
Taking a page out of DeVos’ playbook, Philadelphia educator Katherine Fritz received national attention when she launched an online fundraising campaign to “buy Toomey’s vote” for DeVos opponents. In four days, more than 4,000 people donated nearly $69,000. All the money collected is going to charity.
For his part, Toomey told a radio host that he thought Fritz’s campaign was “funny.”
We are not laughing. First Toomey dodges his constituents for weeks, then he blithely dismisses more than 4,000 people offering up their hard-earned money (probably not a lot of billionaires among those donors) to get his attention.
In the end, however, Toomey may be right that there is a joke in the DeVos appointment. Unfortunately, it is on all of us.