Rachel M. Cohen

Rachel M. Cohen is The American Prospect's senior writing fellow. 

Recent Articles

Betsy DeVos Alarms Special Education Advocates, Parents

(REX/Shutterstock)
REX/Shutterstock Betsy DeVos at her Senate Confirmatoin hearing in Washington D.C. on January 17, 2017. A t an hour when most parents were headed home for the evening, education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos sat down to testify before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. The unusual evening hearing raised a number of red flags before it even began: Five Republicans on the committee together had received more than $250,000 in campaign donations from the billionaire Republican donor and her family, and the Office of Government and Ethics still had not signed off on DeVos's financial disclosures. So perhaps it was not surprising that the roughly three-hour hearing included several bizarre episodes. DeVos cited grizzly bears as a justification for states determining whether firearms should be allowed in schools. The nominee also insisted that student debt rose 980 percent since 2008, when it only rose 124 percent . But the most shocking moment unfolded when DeVos...

New Jersey Public School Employees Sue Over Alleged Political Retalitation

It’s no secret that school board politics can create bitter enemies, but rarely do such battles end in actual employee firings.

But nine New Jersey public school employees are claiming that a school board feud cost them their jobs, and they've recently filed a provocative federal lawsuit, each seeking $100,000 in damages.

The former employees of Elizabeth Public Schools—the fourth-largest school district in New Jersey—say they were fired for exercising their First Amendment rights of political speech and association after they campaigned for certain school board candidates who ultimately lost. In what could turn out to be a costly twist, the school board says it might file a countersuit, alleging nothing less than federal racketeering violations.

The whole drama is unfolding against the backdrop of a bitter political feud that’s divided two competing factions within the local Democratic party.

The case centers on the district’s November 2015 school board election, when three of nine seats were up for grabs. Two rival Democratic blocs endorsed different slates of candidates, though the elections are technically nonpartisan.

According to the federal complaint, one faction, known as “Continue The Progress” (CTP), has maintained a majority on the school board for about two decades. In 2015, three candidates (Tony Monteiro, Elcy Castillo-Ospina, and Michelle Velez-Jont) ran on the CTP ticket.

The other Democratic faction, backed by Elizabeth’s mayor of 25 years, J. Christian Bollwage, supported three CTP opponents (Charlene Bathelus, Stephanie Goncalves, and Daniel Nina). Prior to the 2015 election, the school board comprised five CTP members and four Bollwage-backed members. But all the CTP candidates lost, giving the mayoral faction a 6–3 majority.

The plaintiffs allege that upon taking power, the Bollwage faction “purged” the district of employees who openly supported or were perceived to support the CTP candidates. They claim their contracts were terminated not due to performance, “but rather due to retaliation” for political activity. Their 28-page complaint, drafted by an attorney with a Philadelphia-based law firm, alleges First Amendment violations, due process violations, and violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act.

The stakes for this kind of suit are high. In the September 2015 issue of The American Prospect, Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, an assistant professor of public affairs at Columbia, reported on the growing threat of “employer mobilization”—when employers recruit workers into political activity (or retaliate against them for their own political activity). Workers are already subjected to threats, harassment, and other forms of retaliation for union activity, and Hertel-Fernandez says that “it is not a stretch to imagine that in our deeply polarized era, employers might adopt more aggressive political tactics in the same way they have fought unionization.”

In a statement released to Union News Daily (named for the New Jersey county Elizabeth is located in, not the labor movement), Elizabeth district spokesperson Pat Politano said the allegations made against the district, the superintendent, and the school board are “false, frivolous, and will be defended vigorously.” All contract renewals made since January 2016, he said, were done in accordance with state and federal law and Department of Education regulations. According to NJ.Com, Politano’s former job involved consulting for the political campaigns of mayor-backed board members.

Politano said the school district is “considering all appropriate legal actions” in response to the complaint, including the possibility of filing the racketeering counterclaim, arguing that previous boards of education saw the district “as a source of personal benefit to themselves and their political allies.”

In this northern New Jersey city, it seems corruption charges can fly both ways—even within the same party.

Larry Hogan Can Be Beat

Maryland’s presumably invulnerable Republican governor is anything but.

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky
AP Photo/Patrick Semansky Maryland Governor Larry Hogan delivers remarks at the mayoral inauguration ceremony for Catherine Pugh inside the War Memorial Building in Baltimore, Tuesday, December 6, 2016. W hen Labor Secretary Tom Perez announced in mid-December that he was jumping into the race for Democratic National Committee chair, analysts immediately began to speculate what his motivations could be for challenging Minnesota Congressman Keith Ellison. Ellison had already been in the race for a month , and had received diverse endorsements from the AFL-CIO , Elizabeth Warren , Chuck Schumer , among many others. Was the White House putting Perez up to this, nervous about a key Sanders supporter leading the party? Was this about preserving support from billionaire donors like Haim Saban, who said electing Ellison would be a “ disaster ” for Democrats? And, wait, wasn’t Perez—a former Maryland state official and a longtime resident of the D.C. suburbs—considering a 2018 run against...

Ben Carson, the GOP, and Subsidized Housing

Conservatives will tap into Clinton-era thinking on welfare reform to reshape public housing and voucher programs 

(Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP)
(Christian Murdock/The Gazette via AP) Republican Dr. Ben Carson speaks during a rally for Donald Trump on Friday, Nov. 4, 2016 L ast week, Ben Carson, Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, gave a talk at Yale University. He told students that the rumors that he planned to end housing programs for the poor are “a bunch of crap” and there is “no way” he’d ever do that. But housing advocates shouldn’t relax just yet. Even if Carson and Trump decide not to axe entire programs, they could still implement policies that create all sorts of new hardships for the millions of low-income people who live in public housing and use federally subsidized housing vouchers. Trump would not be the first president to go after federal benefits for the poor. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, which dramatically upended welfare in the United States. The law mandated two significant changes:...

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