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Going to interview with CTA? Be sure to look into the camera

Late last year, as dozens of Assembly candidates ushered themselves from one
interest group interview to the next, almost all of them inevitably arrived
at the door of the California Teachers Association (CTA), one of the most
powerful and well-heeled political players in Sacramento.

There, they faced something no other interest group in the state used: a
video camera.

The 335,000-member teachers union is the only major organization to
videotape candidates, for the Assembly up to the governor’s office, as they
interview for the group’s endorsement. The CTA has been videotaping
candidates for more than a decade.

The union’s deep pockets are one reason, observers say, that candidates
would be willing to be taped as they come to the door, hat-in-hand.
Last year, the CTA lead the charge against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and
his special election agenda, spending more than $58 million, most of it for
an on-air assault of the Republican governor.

In the letter sent to candidates inviting them to an interview, the CTA
promises the tapes “will be used exclusively by the CTA for internal use
only. No copies or excerpts will be made available to any individual or
organization without your express written permission.”

According to CTA spokeswoman Sandra Jackson, the letter’s disclaimer has
been enough to assuage any fears candidates might have about a videotaped
interviewing process.

“Because we have never used [the tapes], it hasn’t come up. The candidates
have not pressed us on, ‘you really are not going to use these right,'” she
said.

Jackson says the tapes are kept through the elected officials term in
office, and, for statewide officials, the tapes are made available to CTA
legislative advocates.

Christopher Cabaldon, president of Edvoice, an education advocacy group,
says there is a downside to the videotaping process.

“This asks a potential legislator to carve a permanent policy commitment in
stone–or videotape–at precisely the moment when they are most intellectually
impressionable and most politically vulnerable.”

Cabaldon, who ran for the Assembly in 2002 and sat through a taped CTA
interview, says it is particularly hard for candidates who are not
well-versed in education issues.

“For a candidate who is an environmental activist, nurse, or small business
owner rather than an education professional, it must feel like being a
first-grader who is asked to take the High School Exit Exam,” he said.

Representatives for the teachers union say the interviews are only taped
“for recordkeeping” and to make the interview process easier for the
teachers.

“Teachers take such meticulous notes, they are not always making eye
contact,” says Jackson. “Afterwards, they’re wondering [about the
candidates] or want to see something. So if we videotape it, they can pay
more attention to what is actually being said.”

But Bruce Cain, director of the University of California Washington Center,
says that such bookkeeping benefits are likely secondary.

“It’s all about holding people’s feet to the fire,” says Cain.

He argues that years ago unions and other interest groups gave campaign cash
and endorsements and never asked for much in terms of legislative promises.
But times, he says, have changed.

“Not just the CTA but all the unions had a revelation in the mid 1990s that
they were shoveling out a lot more money, and they would require more from
the people getting it,” he said.


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