CHICAGO -- For most of her 33 years as a teacher, Lucile Demanski has confined her political activity to local votes on school tax issues, and her role in the teachers union to promoting the public schools in the Detroit suburb where she has spent her entire career.
But now, as she nears retirement, a political issue has emerged that has inspired Demanski to become more engaged with both politics and her union: An initiative on Michigan's November ballot that would legalize tuition vouchers for private schools.
Demanski has coined an anti-voucher slogan, ''P.S. I love you,'' with the abbreviation standing for ''public schools,'' and has distributed thousands of stickers bearing that message to parents in Macomb County, a blue-collar swing area in presidential campaigns.
''I'm hoping we can rally people to get off the couch and go vote,'' said Demanski, an independent who favors Vice President Gore for president.
If that happens, the 3.5 million members of the nation's two major teachers unions appear poised to offer Gore valuable political help in at least seven key states. They are especially charged up for political battle in Michigan, a key battleground state, and California, which also has a voucher initiative on its November ballot and which Gore must win to reach the White House.
In addition, the National Education Association, which is holding its national convention here this week, has decided for the first time to spend most of its political kitty of about $6 million on 25 hotly-contested congressional races. The American Federation of Teachers, also meeting this week in Philadelphia, has targeted some of the same races.
''It's clear that if we're going to move our agenda in Congress, we're going to have to have a change of leadership,'' said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's government relations director.
Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican, has been so worried that the voucher initiative will increase Democratic turnout, threaten a slim GOP majority in the state House and dash Bush's hopes to win the state that he opposed putting the issue on the ballot-even though he backed vouchers in his first campaign for governor in 1990. An initiative to approve vouchers has never passed anywhere in the nation, and Engler has predicted that Michigan's will fail too.
Gore seems to have recognized that the Michigan initiative represents a political opening. He has gone there to tout his proposals on teacher pay and recruitment in a speech to the Michigan Education Association, an NEA affiliate. And he has spent two of seven daylong school visits in Michigan, including a sleepover at the home of a teacher.
Nothing mobilizes unionized teachers more than what they consider a threat to the very existence of public schools and their jobs. Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, said the union's entire political operation this year would be built around defeating the voucher initiative, which he predicted would ''push larger numbers of teachers to vote for Gore.'' With 295,000 members, the NEA affiliate is bigger than any other statewide teachers union.
Teachers unions also may make a political difference for Gore in the five battleground states of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, where the number of unionized teachers and other school employees ranks among the highest in the nation, ranging from 100,000 to 200,000. California, with nearly 400,000, has by far the most, followed by New York with 230,000.
Teasley said the NEA, the larger national union with 2.5 million members, will spend the bulk of its national campaign money on key congressional races, which she did not identify.
Leaders of state affiliates said those efforts include backing Democratic Rep. Debbie Staebenow in her challenge to Republican Sen. Spencer Abraham in Michigan and State Sen. Dianne Byrum, the Democrat seeking Staebenow's open House seat. In California, teachers will support former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman in her attempted comeback against Republican Rep. Steve Kuykendall.
The AFT, with 1 million members, has thrown its support behind Democrats in the same Michigan races and others in two Senate races. In Pennsylvania, the union will back Rep. Ron Klink against Republican Sen. Rick Santorum. In New York, it will help Hillary Clinton against Republican Rep. Rick Lazio, who angered members of an AFT local in his Long Island district by backing a proposed charter school.
The AFT's stronger presence in the largest cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, makes the union capable of increasing voter turnout in traditionally Democratic areas. The NEA's larger membership and greater penetration in suburbs make it more of a potential force in what have been swing areas in presidential elections.
With education ranking as a top issue with voters, a Gore spokesman suggested teachers could serve as important opinion leaders.
''Teachers are well respected in their communities and are great messengers. They know firsthand what's going on in our schools and how the candidates are addressing the issues,'' said Doug Hattaway, the Gore spokesman.
Gore received an enthusiastic reception after a speech to the AFT Wednesday in Philadelphia, where he promised to reduce class sizes, recruit 1 million new teachers and raise teacher salaries. He also restated his opposition to vouchers, linking the issue to the future composition of the Supreme Court. Gore is scheduled to address NEA delegates Thursday.
Bush has proposed that students in failing public schools be given $1,500 in federal and state funds to pay for supplemental instruction from private tutoring services.
Ari Fleischer, a Bush spokesman, said the presumptive Republican nominee has made the voucher proposal ''because he believes in it,'' notwithstanding the possible political repercussions among the ranks of unionized teachers in Michigan, California and elsewhere.
''We're confident he's going to make inroads with the rank and file of the teachers unions-not the leadership. They're part and parcel of the Democratic Party,'' Fleischer said. He said Bush's proposed $2 billion reading program appeals to teachers.
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