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StudentsFirst Strategist Emphasizes Collaboration

Alexander Russo | April 15, 2013

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Fabian Nunez, strategic consultant to StudentsFirst

The Sacramento-based school advocacy group StudentsFirst recently hired Fabian Nunez in an effort to beef up its advocacy efforts in California.

In a telephone interview last week, Nunez gave LA School Report his take on education politics in Sacramento, recent shifts in union priorities after last year’s controversial debate over teacher dismissals, and his vision for higher-performing schools.

“We have to be able to have an impact at the end of the day,” said Nunez. “Making progress for students, finding ways to work with people.”

The fact that such a high-profile Democratic operative — whom the LA Times described as “one of the town’s most influential power brokers” —  would sign on with StudentsFirst is a sign of the reform advocacy group’s growing prominence in Sacramento.

Given the anti-StudentsFirst rhetoric on display at this past weekend’s California Democratic Convention, it’s clear that Nunez has his job cut out for him.

A former California Speaker and National Co-Chair of Hilary Clinton’s 2008 Presidential Campaign, Nunez has his early roots in Los Angeles.  He served as the political director for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor for four years, and he was the government affairs director for LAUSD for two years.

Nunez said he came to know StudentsFirst through Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, husband of StudentsFirst head Michelle Rhee. He decided to get involved in part because he is an admirer of Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s efforts at school reform.

StudentsFirst has been “very successful” electing candidates, according to Nunez. “They’re a force to be reckoned with now. It’s not just ‘did you get the teachers union endorsement or not?'”

Nunez also said he admired the “serious infrastructure” that StudentsFirst has built up in California and nationwide.

Reactions to the news of his involvement have been mixed in Sacramento, said Nunez — partly due to strong feelings surrounding Rhee and also due to Nunez’s long relationship with the California Teachers Association (CTA), the largest teachers union in the state.

“My thinking has evolved,” he said about taking the new consulting gig.  “I don’t think we can continue to look at ed policy using the same playbook we’ve been using for the past ten years.”

While his thinking may have evolved enough to work with StudentsFirst, Nunez didn’t seem like he’d turned into any sort of fire-breathing union-hater.  “Collaboration” was a theme of Nunez responses throughout the interview.  He decried any efforts to bash teachers or exclude unions from the table.
He did, however, observe that labor was sometimes too strong for its own good, lacking any serious counterbalance to its power.
As an example, Nunez cited the defeat of Senator Padilla’s teacher dismissal bill last year.  “That was an example of ‘be careful what you wish for,'” he said.
“The CTA demonstrated their power by killing that bill, but it backfired on them,” said Nunez.  “Even people who voted against the bill were sick to their stomach.”

“You can’t overlook horrible things that are going on, because you’re trying to protect the terms and conditions of employment for your members 100 percent of the time,” said Nunez.

However, Nunez credited the state teachers union for setting a new course in 2013.

“I give CTA credit for coming around, reading the tea leaves,” said Nunez. “They realized that the people that they influenced to kill the bill were questioning them now. They know we can’t read from the same script any more.”

Finding common ground won’t be easy, admitted Nunez, noting the skepticism surrounding the current Buchanan teacher dismissal bill, which is moving through the statehouse instead of the Padilla legislation.  Buchanan voted against the Padilla bill, and her new proposal has union endorsements. Buchanan is “cleanup” for the backlash, according to Nunez.

Nunez wouldn’t say how much time he’s spending on the StudentsFirst work, or what specific priorities he would help them pursue.  However, he indicated that StudentsFirst might play a role in the District 6 runoff for LAUSD School Board.  “Monica Garcia needs more allies,” he said.  “I think Antonio [Sanchez] is going to be a really important part of the School Board.”

As a strategic consultant, Nunez and his firm Mercury LLC will be focused on strategy and strategic execution rather than lobbying the statehouse.  The organization is also in the process of hiring a state director for California, Nunez said.

“Right now, we’re going against the current, but within the next four or five years there will be issues that people will work together on,” said Nunez.  “It happens every ten years or so.  We’re gong to have to make some fundamental changes.  The finger-pointing ultimately has to end.”

“But things are going to get a little worse before they get better,” said Nunez.  “Nobody gives up power easily.”

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