Montgomery County Commissioner and candidate for attorney general Josh Shapiro.

Montgomery County Commissioner and candidate for attorney general Josh Shapiro.

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Primary surprise: Why Philly teachers’ union pulled its attorney general endorsement

A Facebook post from Josh Shapiro’s western Pennsylvania opponent claims it was because of a pro-charter donation, but there’s more to the story.

Just two weeks after the Philadelphia teachers’ union endorsed a candidate for attorney general, they appear to have revoked their backing and one opponent says it’s because of a large campaign donation from a pro-charter school group.

Late Sunday evening, Allegheny County District Attorney and candidate for attorney general Stephen Zappala wrote a Facebook post claiming the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers had pulled its endorsement of Montgomery County Commissioner Josh Shapiro.

The reason? Zappala’s campaign says it’s because Shapiro accepted a $100,000 donation from Students First PA, a pro-charter school special interest group that bankrolled state Sen. Anthony Williams’ unsuccessful bid last year for Philadelphia mayor.

“We are not surprised,” Zappala’s spokesman Marty Marks said. “Josh Shapiro has never met a political campaign contribution he didn’t like.”

But there appears to be more to the story.

The PFT wouldn’t confirm it officially rescinded its endorsement of Shapiro, but an April 9 press release listed Shapiro as the union’s endorsement for attorney general. Today, in response to Billy Penn‘s phone call, PFT spokesman George Jackson would say only: “We do not have an endorsement” for attorney general.

However, sources say the PFT was aware Shapiro received funds from Students First PA and its allies prior to endorsing him in April. The candidate’s campaign also gave a heads-up to the Pennsylvania School Educators Association, the largest teachers union in the state, which represents more than 185,000 educators. The PSEA is still endorsing Shapiro.

“Josh’s record in support of public education is unmatched, which is why the overwhelming number of public school teachers in the Commonwealth have endorsed Josh, including PSEA, and have been a part of this campaign for months,” his campaign spokesman Joe Radosevich said in a prepared statement. “This is a desperate move in the final days of an election from a candidate that’s down 18 points.”

Campaign finance reports show Students First PA, a pro-charter school group, donated $100,000 to Shapiro’s campaign in February, but Shapiro’s campaign waited to record the large donation until March, delaying when the check became public. Radosevich said the donation “was mailed to us and deposited when we got it… anyone who has to pay a cell phone or utility bill knows there’s a delay, which is mundane and common across finance reports.”

Shapiro received donations from Students First PA before, and sources say local politicians supporting Shapiro and the unions he sought to back him knew about his connection with the Bala Cynwyd businessmen behind Students First PA.

Some of Shapiro’s supporters are quietly suggesting Zappala is attempting a last-ditch effort to boost votes the day before the Pennsylvania primary. The western Pennsylvania prosecutor has significant labor support in Philadelphia from union boss John Dougherty and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 98. That union poured at least $130,000 into Zappala’s campaign (just a year after Zappala’s family supported Dougherty’s brother’s run for state Supreme Court) and Dougherty is reportedly encouraging other unions in Philadelphia to support Zappala.

Students First PA has proved a controversial special interest group in Pennsylvania. In last year’s mayoral race, Williams was the one to beat, but he caught flak for accepting money from a pro-charter and pro-voucher political action committee. According to its campaign finance reports, Students First PA was funded this year by large donations from Arthur Dantchik, Joel Greenberg and Jeff Yass, who lead the Bala Cynwyd-based Susquehanna International Group.

The same men were behind the American Cities Super PAC that pumped some $7 million into Williams’ failed bid for City Hall.

The difference between Williams and Shapiro is where they stand on education. Williams was never going to receive the endorsement of the PFT — he’s publicly in favor of charter schools and expanded school choice. Shapiro, on the other hand, has aligned himself more with traditional public school advocates.

The Montgomery County commissioner knows Greenberg and worked with him in the county and sources say the two worked together on pro-Israeli issues.

“He is a person who has obviously been very successful in life,” Shapiro told The Inquirer last year. “He recognizes his good fortune and is trying to give back.”

Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke, who has been a fervent supporter of Shapiro’s but is a proponent of traditional public education, reiterated in a statement today that he still fully supports Shapiro’s bid for the Office of the Attorney General.

“After walking neighborhoods across the city with him,” Clarke said in the statement, “I am confident that Josh Shapiro understands the problems Philadelphians face and will make a positive impact on the lives of people across Pennsylvania as our next Attorney General.”

City Councilwoman Helen Gym, a public education advocate, said she still supports Shapiro because he’s “the only candidate” talking about enforcing a fair funding formula in Pennsylvania.

Zappala’s faced criticism for his donors, too. Earlier this month, he returned a $15,000 donation from a company owned by Louis DeNaples, a convicted felon from Scranton who has ties to the mob.

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