Hillary Loyalist Scoffs at Clinton Foundation 'Pay to Play' Charges

In interview with Haaretz, Randi Weingarten, president of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, firmly rejects accusations of influence-peddling with Hillary Clinton.

Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers, with Hillary Clinton.
Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers

Randi Weingarten made little effort to hide her disgust at the fact she is starring in the latest hailstorm of criticism against Hillary Clinton.

It’s no secret that Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, (AFT) is a Clinton loyalist, donor and supporter, so much so that she is on most short lists for Secretary of Education in a Clinton White House.

In an interview with Haaretz, Weingarten dismissed such speculation as "ridiculous," insisting she has no interest in abandoning her career as a union leader for full-time politics.

Onstage at the at the Democratic National Convention, Weingarten spoke passionately on Clinton’s behalf, slamming rival Donald Trump as a fear monger and calling him con artist who “is completely unqualified for the Oval Office," in contrast with the woman she said "is the most qualified candidate I've seen in my lifetime."

Weingarten visited Israel with a union delegation and her life partner, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, at the same time as The Associated Press painted her Clinton affiliation in sinister colors, in a much-buzzed-about story on the Clinton Foundation.

The piece said she was one of 154 people “from private interests” that Clinton “enjoyed face time” with as Secretary of State, and who had “donated either personally or through companies or groups to the Clinton Foundation or pledged to donate to specific programs through the charity's international arm.”

The story was good news for Trump who used it in his campaign to tar the woman he called “Crooked Hillary” with accusations of corrupt “pay to play” - quid-pro-quo trading money to the foundation in exchange for influence with the Secretary of State.

Weingarten rejected the accusations outright.

A petite woman, she spoke in a one-on-one interview as intensely and enthusiastically as she had at the Democratic Convention - or on stage addressing Israeli teachers - gesticulating with her hands, often squinting when concentrating on making her point.

The point she was making was that the teachers’ union (AFT’s) cooperation with the Clinton Foundation was completely above-board and there was nothing nefarious about meeting with her to raise union concerns about issues such as refugees, global education or child labor.

“I respect The AP but what they did was shoddy reporting,” Weingarten said.  “When you get people to come together to work together to do good, that is not pay for play.”

The story failed to uncover a single “smoking gun” of Clinton trading any favors to those with whom she met or spoke, Weingarten said. She also pointed out, as have others, that the groundwork for the Clinton Foundation predated Clinton’s service as Secretary of State. She described the foundation as “a mission to do large-scale good around the world without using U.S. tax dollars.”  

For “real pay to play” Weingarten said, the press should look no further than

Trump - and the Israel issue is a prime example. “Talk about ‘pay to play.’

“Trump was agnostic and ‘neutral’ on Israel and the Palestinians. The minute that Sheldon Adelson decided to support him, all of a sudden, he’s Mr. Israel. That’s ‘pay to play,” she said.

Weingarten visited Israel to address educators at a conference for the opening of the school year. She also travelled through Israel and the West Bank visiting coexistence projects involving Israelis, Palestinians, and her union.

On the first day of school in Israel, she visited the “Hand-in-Hand” school in the Galilee. She also met with Israeli politicians and U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro.

At the teachers’ conference, Weingarten spoke about her role at the top of an organization that represents 1.6 million teachers from kindergarten through university level, educational administrative staff, nurses, and other healthcare professionals.

Weingarten outlined her core philosophy - that her job as the head of a teacher’s union was “to ensure the opportunity for each and every child to both dream and achieve his or her dreams,” especially for the 50 percent of children in America’s public education system who are poor.

The session’s moderator, Israeli Channel 2 television anchor Dana Weiss asked her about the U.S. election. Weingarten said “anything is possible” but that  she felt confident that “we will not elect a misogynist racist bigot to be the president of the United States of America.”

Weingarten’s close ties to Clinton go beyond the usual support of a union leader for a Democratic candidate. The two women met 25 years ago, when Bill Clinton was running in the New York Democratic primary, ahead of his election of president in 1993.

In 2000, it was Weingarten, who has donated and sat on the board of Clinton Super PACS, who introduced Clinton to the crowd when she was still first lady and announcing her run for New York Senator.  Weingarten headed the the New York United Federation of Teachers at the time.

Beyond personal and professional connections, Weingarten said she can often relate to Clinton’s “unlikeability” problem. She said it was not an uncommon issue for high-profile, powerful women in the public eye.

“When I was a new president of the UFT, a dear friend - he was chancellor of the New York schools at the time - pulled me aside and told me I was yelling. It seemed that what I perceive as being adamant sounded like a schoolteacher yelling,” Weingarten said.

She finds the double standard for men and women’s speeches frustrating - when politicians like Trump or Sanders yell, said Weingarten,  no one seems to mind.  

Weingarten may not be running for president, but she has smashed her share of glass ceilings.

An “out” lesbian - she is the first openly gay person to lead a major American labor union. She is also active in the Jewish world as a self-described “progressive Zionist” with a “deep personal connection” and “passion for” Israel.

Raised in Rockland County as a Conservative Jew, she attended the movement’s Ramah camps, and took her first trip to Israel with Ramah. Since then, she has visited the Jewish state “countless times, for both business and pleasure,” she said.

Those visits, like her latest,  have increased in frequency and length since the start of her  relationship with Kleinbaum five years ago. Kleinbaum is spiritual leader of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the world’s largest LGBT congregation.

The congregation, draws thousands to services each year in the Javits Convention Center, which is where she and Weingarten first met.

“When I was president of the United Federation of Teachers. I went to synagogue in the town where I grew up... I couldn’t get there in time for Kol Nidre. So I talked to a friend who told me about the services of CBST at the Javits Center,” Weingarten said.

Impressed by what she saw, the synagogue became her spiritual home and Kleinbaum became her rabbi. Both were with other partners at the time. Later, “when we were both free” she said, they began their relationship in 2012.

Given her combative union and political duties, Weingarten said it helps to come home to a rabbi. “She has taught me a lot about complexity and that is a real gift for me - to be reminded that you can be good to people and still disagree with them.”

Weingarten rolled her eyes at the term “power couple,” and chuckled at being called a “rebbetzin.” But the combined influence of the two prominent figures in the American Jewish world is undeniable.

Both Weingarten and Kleinbaum were delegates to the most recent World Zionist Organization conference. Weingarten is a strong supporter of J Street, and was its keynote speaker at its 2015 gala.

In her Israel-related activities Weingarten said she walks the increasingly precarious tightrope of the liberal American Jewish Zionist drawing fire both from both her right.

As a steadfast Obama and Clinton supporter and “a big believer in the Iran deal” she stood with those who protested Netanyahu’s speech in Congress.

She also supports Black Lives Matter, calling it an organization of people “joined together from a place of deprivation and discrimination and are trying to get things done through the channels of power.”

When it comes to the fight for racial justice and immigrant rights, Jews, who came to the US as immigrants, and have faced and fought ethnic discrimination, “can’t simply pull up the ladder of opportunity after we’ve made it,” Weingarten said.

At the same time, she is - like some of Clinton’s other Jewish supporters - a strong and active opponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. The union she heads puts her in an important position vis a vis that issue, as she represents teachers and administrators at universities - the white-hot center of the BDS struggles.

While supporting Black Lives Matter, “I am very uncomfortable with their position on BDS,” she said,  when asked about their new political arm’s endorsement of the movement.  

Her vision of “progressive Zionism” rejects boycott as a strategy, and promotes Israelis who agree with a two-state vision, Weingarten said.

Such activity is her way of supporting “the Israel I fell in love with when I was a kid and one that there has to be a way of attaining” in which “the occupation has to end and there have to be two states for two people.”

At the most recent AFT convention, “we had (Zionist Union MK) Stav Shaffir who spoke at great length why it is important to support progressives in Israel who are fighting an uphill battle for coexistence,” Weingarten said.

“We believe in two states for two people, we believe in the security for Israel, and end to the occupation by democratic processes and upholding the civil human rights of all. Frankly, if you do not support the people inside of Israel -  Palestinians and Israeli Jews alike, if you don’t help them fight and occupy that space, then the extremists take over. ”