AFT members were glued to their seats—and proud of what they saw—when Hillary Clinton, the union's endorsed presidential candidate, took rival Donald Trump to the rhetorical woodshed in a ratings-shattering televised debate on Sept. 26.
From debate watch parties in several cities, on social media and in living rooms around the country, AFT members praised Clinton's command of the issues and her display of the knowledge, preparation and temperament essential for anyone vying to be the nation's next commander-in-chief. And it was precisely those qualities, they said, that stood in stark contrast to the qualities demonstrated by GOP rival Donald Trump, who looked peevish, petulant and thoroughly unprepared for the job he was seeking.
"It was illuminating," says Broward County, Fla., special education teacher Lisa Yurkin. "On lunch breaks today, there are discussions that are erupting" around the debate. When it comes to enthusiasm for November, "I see an upswing in my small world that has carried past Monday evening, even among students." Now, the challenge becomes "getting off the sofas and into the streets, having a dialogue because our country is at stake," stresses the high school teacher, who spent last weekend with other educators canvassing in Broward County for Clinton.
After Trump's dismal performance, "I think we need to continually hammer on his lack of policy knowledge and detail," says Jolene DiBrango, a middle school teacher in Mendon, N.Y., who was one of the AFT's social media "rapid responders" on debate night. There needs to be "outrage over his lack of transparency regarding his tax returns" and his reckless ideas on foreign policy. "We need to shine a clear light on his bigotry and sexism" and his support for racial profiling through practices like "stop and frisk."
DiBrango is quick to add, however, that we need to move beyond reciting a string of Trump negatives. "Hillary Clinton has a vision for America. It's something we can be proud of. We need to be prepared to talk about her lifetime of public service and her record of supporting and helping working families and children. And we have to show that record is a plus, not a minus," for anyone seeking the Oval Office.
Two candidates, one choice
Major post-debate polls show that voters believed Clinton presented herself as the better choice on Monday night. A CNN survey finds that nearly three times as many voters thought Clinton won the debate, and Clinton's margins were also strong among independents and other subgroups.
"Hillary was not my candidate in the Democratic primary, but she has the intelligence, the attention span and the maturity that are required of a president. Trump—he's not even in the same league," says Ian Robinson, president of the Huron Valley (Mich.) Area Labor Federation/AFT. "His disregard for basic facts and his inability to accept responsibility for things he has said and done" are galling—particularly Trump's claim that years of paying no taxes "makes me smart," a line that Robinson said would only outrage working people who play by the rules.
"That comment shows that, like too many billionaires, Trump is not pulling his weight," the AFT leader observes, "even as he argues that wages in the United States, and especially here in Michigan, are too high."
Clinton was quick to draw another conclusion from Trump's tax record: "He's paid zero—that means zero for troops, zero for vets, zero for schools or health."
"While there were two candidates on stage, only one displayed presidential timber," says AFT President Randi Weingarten, who was in the hall for the debate. "Hillary Clinton was thoughtful and compassionate, confident and calm, cool and collected. She laid out a vision of a country where the economy works for everyone, and where everybody has a role in creating America's future."
Between the lines
Although the debate offered few moments focused directly on education and early childhood care, there were certainly instances when the implications were huge—and teachers picked up on them immediately.
Yurkin says a prime example for Florida voters was when Clinton voiced opposition to the proliferation of for-profit prisons. That "hit a key note" for her, she says—it's a sign that, as president, Clinton will stand behind vital, well-supported public services. "We've seen the disastrous effects of what occurred with the privatization of the prison systems in Florida, and we're now seeing the same catastrophic dangers posed in public education. Hillary Clinton gets that. I don't even think Donald Trump understood the dynamics of what she was talking about."
And one early exchange certainly caught the attention of early educators around the nation.
Clinton opened her remarks by calling for more support for paid family leave, earned sick days, debt-free college and other ways to help "people who are struggling to balance family and work," including affordable child care. Trump briefly picked up on the comment: "I think Hillary and I agree on that," Trump said of child care. "We probably disagree a little bit as to numbers and amounts and what we're going to do."
Cynthia Y. Jackson isn't buying it for a second. "Trump is offering a big tax deduction for those earning over $400,000, but families earning a lot less get little or nothing," says Jackson, a family services specialist with the early childhood program in Pittsburgh public schools. "Trump wants to end things like tax credits for child and dependent care, which do help working families," she says. "And Hillary has been out there talking about a full range of things, like how we need to prepare, pay and train providers for the vital work they do. Trump doesn't deal with that—ever."
When the hinges came off
From his inaccurate comments on the constitutionality of stop and frisk to his advocacy of illegal wartime looting on a national scale, AFT activists and leaders are taking many of Trump's comments not as eye-rollers but as disqualifiers and signs of a fundamentally flawed choice. "He thoroughly revealed his total and complete lack of integrity," says Kenny Blankenship, president of the United School Employees of Pasco in Florida. "We need a president who respects people, is not a profiteer off others' miseries, has a basic understanding of what is and is not illegal."
"Donald Trump is a reality star divorced from reality," Weingarten adds. "He revealed himself as unprepared: unprepared for this debate; unprepared to advance a single proactive idea to address the American people's problems, except for tax cuts for the wealthiest; unprepared to stop lying about Iraq and his taxes, or apologize for his noxious birtherism; unprepared, even on his best behavior, to control his temper or stop interrupting. Donald Trump's performance tonight confirms he is unfit for the presidency of the United States."
Weingarten says, "If Donald Trump showed he can't help who he is, Hillary Clinton showed who she is: the best choice for the American people."