AFT Votes town hall hosts presidential candidate Steve Bullock

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Presidential candidate Steve Bullock, who is governor of Montana, met with members of the Washington Teachers Union in Washington, D.C., for an AFT Votes town hall on Sept. 19. The event was the eighth in a series of town halls the AFT is holding across the country as part of our AFT Votes 2020 presidential endorsement process. Over the past few months, the AFT has held town hall meetings with presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Tim Ryan, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden.

Governor Bullock speaks in front of a crowd

AFT President Randi Weingarten introduced Bullock, touting his experience as a labor lawyer, Montana’s attorney general and a two-term governor—in a state that President Trump won. During her introduction, she also spoke of how Washington, D.C., schools were being targeted in ways that threaten public education but how the WTU waged a fight to protect it. “Just like the WTU changed the narrative about public education, that’s what we’re doing around the country. We’re seeing huge majorities saying we need to strengthen public schools,” said Weingarten.

However, she noted, “changing the narrative is not enough. You have to change the politics. That requires electing people who understand that public education is the place where we level the playing field and we realize our aspirations for all of children regardless of geography and regardless of demography.”

Enter Gov. Bullock. AFT members in Montana know Bullock well; they have endorsed him for governor and for state attorney general.

A strong supporter of public education, Bullock joined the presidential race just four months ago, making his announcement in a classroom at his high school alma mater. “I did it because of the public education that I received,” he said. “If done right, public education is one of the great equalizers. It gives everyone a chance to climb the ladder of success.”

two public school teachers, an african american woman and a white man, sit and listen

Bullock described himself as a “pro-choice, pro-union, populist Democrat” who has won three times in a red state not by compromising his values but by getting things done that matter to people. During his tenure, he has worked with his Republican Legislature to expand healthcare, invest in public education and higher education, and eliminate dark money from state elections.

“I tried to find common ground with my Republican Legislature but that doesn’t mean I compromised my values. How I win and how I govern is much the same,” said Bullock. “I look at the next election as about beating Donald Trump but also about making sure that we have an economy and political system that can work for all of us, to make sure we have that shot at what we always thought this country can be.”

WTU member Jared Catapano, a fifth-grade teacher in the district asked Bullock what qualities he is looking for in a secretary of education. “I’m looking for someone with the experience of being in the public education system,” said Bullock, adding that he wants his education secretary to focus on building up public education and to advocate for increasing funding at the federal level. Bullock wants to double the federal investment in K-12 education.

Governor Bullock speaks in front of an 'AFT votes' sign

Maxine Elbert, a high school special education teacher and WTU member wanted to know about Bullock’s plan to address the high cost of college and student debt. “There are things we can do to make the debt load more bearable and student loans more affordable going forward,” said Bullock, pointing to his proposals to increase Pell Grant eligibility and teacher student loan forgiveness. He also suggested the need for tighter controls and a crackdown on for profit schools.

At the conclusion of the town hall, Elbert, the special education teacher, felt hopeful. “The answers he gave were honest. He talked about [his positions] but made no promises. This process is amazing, but I think more members need to take advantage of the opportunity to ask questions and to talk about our issues.”

Watch the video of the Bullock event here.

[Adrienne Coles]