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Maurice Cunningham: Why the Waltons Fund the “National Parents Union”

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Maurice Cunningham is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts who specializes in shining a bright light on Dark Money, the money insidiously inserted into political campaigns under false pretenses, where the donors try to hide their identity. In the instance described below, the identities of the donors are mostly known, so technically it is not Dark Money, but the purposes of the donors are hidden. The Waltons are part of the hard rightwing. They  oppose higher taxes, unions, or anything that might diminish their fortune of $150 billion. They advocate for vouchers and charters, never public schools. They employ one million low-wage workers. They have launched lawsuits to lower the property taxes of their Walmarts, which reduce state and local funding for public services. Their entry into Democratic politics is intended to boost conservative candidates who support their preference for low taxes on the richest. It’s actually a brilliant strategy, like DFER: the billionaires already own the Republican Party and benefit from its tax cuts and deregulation, time to use their money to gain influence in the Democratic Party too.

The Walton family, heirs to the Wal-Mart fortune, are trying to deal themselves in to Democratic primary politics. It isn’t any mystery why. Conservative billionaires feel gravely threatened by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Their vehicle is yet another new privatization front posing as a parents group, National Parents Union.

National Parents Union appears to be an umbrella for groups working in their states on privatization of public goods, primarily schools. It’s hard to tell since they haven’t published their membership list, just a claim that groups from all 50 states will meet in New Orleans. Since the headquarters is listed as Malden, MA and the co-founder is Massachusetts Parents United’s Keri Rodrigues Lorenzo, we can take that operation as representative. Here’s how I introduced Massachusetts Parents United: Old Win in an Empty Bottle last year: “Massachusetts Parents United claims to be ‘the independent voice of parents.’ But it’s entirely dependent on funding from the Walton Family’s (tax deductible) political operations.” Since then I’ve learned there are some other givers—two $100,000 checks in 2018, etc.— but the Waltons are still the chief underwriters, giving $366,000 in 2017 and $500,000 in 2018.

So we’ll await the list of member organizations but it is most likely they will be fronts for privatization interests funded by the Waltons, Eli Broad, and other billionaire privatizers. When I first wrote about NPU in Keri Rodrigues Goes Coastal with Plans for National Parents Union I wrote “Funding! There is nothing in it about who would be bankrolling this operation. There is a list of advisors (in formation) and wouldn’t some of them want to know who is funding such an ambitious proposal? Enough suspense: it will be the WalMart legatees.” In other words, this is the kind of faux Fortune 500 grassroots operation I wrote about in Massachusetts Parents United: Grassroots or AstroTurf?

The pitch Rodrigues made to the Waltons to fund NPU was calculated to activate the Walton check writing glands. It leaned heavily on positioning NPU as a voice in the Democratic Party primary season that would attack unions. Labor is anathema to the Waltons because it advocates for a livable wage and decent benefits (against the Wal-Mart business plan) and for public goods that require taxation of the rich and rich companies (see The Waltons: From Dark Money to Dark Store Theory, It’s All About Taxes).

To linger on the union question for a moment, how many corporations are big, powerful, and awful enough to get trashed by Human Rights Watch, as Wal-Mart was in Discounting Rights: Wal-Mart’s Violation of US Workers’ Rights to Freedom of Association.

One fascinating aspect of NPU’s corporate public debut has been its Right Wing Rollout. A PR firm sent out a press availability and in the past week NPU has been featured on SiriusXM Patriot (featuring Breitbart News Daily and Sean Hannity), the conservative Washington Examiner, and FoxNews. Not your typical progressive outlets but a good clue as to where the Waltons’ new operation has appeal.

In recent years the Waltons have also heavily backed Democrats for Education Reform, which has promoted itself as seeking school privatization as an “inside job” within the Democratic Party. There is evidence that younger Waltons are donating more to Democrats, as Leslie K. Finger and Sarah Reckhow wrote in Walmart Heirs Shift From Red to Purple: The Evolving Political Contributions of the Nation’s Richest Family. Partisan labels don’t matter as much as does the shared interest among the extremely wealthy to protect their incomes and wealth and to keep their public obligations (taxes) minimal, as Jeffrey A. Winters explains in Oligarchy.

So NPU is another extension of the Waltons effort to use various vehicles to protect the Waltons and increase what goes into their own bank accounts. This has already been evident during the Democratic primary season, as I wrote in Walton Family Political Front Disrupts Elizabeth Warren Speech. In that one I included a tweet by CNN’s Ryan Grim, who was covering the event: “So the nut of what happened tonight in ATL is that a pro-charter group funded by the Waltons protested a Warren speech about a pioneering union led by black women. And, bc it’s all so on the nose, Warren had been talking about corrupt systems are designed to exploit ppl in pain.”

At the end of the NPU media advisory there is this: “At the conclusion of the summit, delegates will vote in a straw poll assessing the education proposals and policies of the 2020 Presidential Candidates.” (bold in original). Bernie and Elizabeth, do not wait up late at night for a big puff of white smoke coming from the local Wal-Mart. This could be a big night for privatization champion Michael Bloomberg (any chance he’s among the NPU financial backers?).  I can’t wait for the endorsement advertisement.

Wal-Mart’s workplace practices include “a vociferous anti-unionism, embedded gender discrimination, compulsive cost cutting, and near-comprehensive control over workers and the workplace.”—Prof. Thomas Jensen Adams

[Full disclosure: as an educator in the UMass system, I am a union member. I write about dark money, not education.]

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