Teaching, union leadership ‘all come together in the auditor’s office’ for Blaha

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Julie Blaha

Julie Blaha’s first paycheck came from a job making cold calls for the United Democratic Fund. She was 14 years old.

“I asked people over dinner how they were going to vote for president,” recalled Blaha, the DFL- and labor-endorsed candidate for state auditor. “I thought it was amazing. I thought it was glamorous.”

A self-described “math nerd,” Blaha’s thirst for glamour and excitement eventually led to a career as a middle school math teacher, but her interest in elections and politics remained. She served multiple terms as president of the Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union and, two years ago, made a successful bid to become Secretary-Treasurer of the state’s largest labor federation, the Minnesota AFL-CIO.

In June, Blaha secured the DFL nomination in the auditor’s race, prompting her to resign from her labor position to focus solely on campaigning statewide. Her interview with The Union Advocate has been edited for length and clarity.

UA: Is running for auditor just a way for a middle school math teacher to find trickier word problems for her students?

JB: When you’ve been on a nerd trajectory of math teacher to treasurer, this is really the next logical step…

I started out as an educator, and you learn really early on that if you truly want to support your kids, you need to get involved politically. We say we’ll do anything for our kids, and one of those things is making sure our policies give them the schools they deserve. We have wonderful policy ideas. All we need are the resources to implement them.

UA: You’ve seen that at the bargaining table, as a president of your union.

JB: One of the first things that really opened my eyes to school finance issues was when we didn’t have enough, when we had to lay off 100 teachers. We realized our only choice was to go to our community and ask them to agree to a tax increase.

That’s a big lift, but as you begin to talk to people about money that gets spent close to home, you start to have some real good conversations. It was a very real, very authentic, relatively nonpartisan discussion we could have, and it was one of the few places you can have it – in your county or your township or your school district. I love that part of government.

UA: What perspective will you bring to the auditor’s office, as a math teacher and as a union leader?

JB: I know I don’t have to have all the answers, but I want to give our local governments all the tools. As an educator, your job is not to do the work for your kids. It’s not to tell them the answer… The solutions are all in our communities. Just like in the labor movement, we know you should never do for a member what they can do for themselves. As the auditor, I’m not there to tell you what to do in your community. I’m there to make sure you’ve got the tools to find the solutions together – and then to check to see if your solution did what you hoped it would.

There’s something that is absolutely connected to how a good teacher works, to how a good union leader works and how a good politician works. They all come together in the auditor’s office for me.

UA: Some are pushing to get rid of the office altogether? I would assume you disagree…

JB: I think we can all agree that in this time of fake news and unprecedented assaults on truth-tellers at every level of government and work, we absolutely need the auditor’s office more than ever. It’s important we have somebody people know is simply there for the truth.

The people for getting rid of it, you really ought to ask them, why don’t you want that truth out there?

UA: What should union members who are public employees, in particular, expect of their auditor?

JB: I think you have an opportunity to look at public and private spaces, where you have private interests encroaching on the public. That’s a place to watch, where those worlds meet…

We have people in the public sector who have seen how it’s been abused. We have contractors in the private sector who have done it right. Our job is to make sure we all know what an effective public-private partnership looks like… And these aren’t always black and white issues. You’re not calling a coin toss. Your job is to look deeply into it.

UA: Retirees, too, have an interest in electing a good auditor, right?

JB: The next auditor is definitely going to need to understand pensions well. The auditor audits a number of public pensions, and we’re seeing right now unprecedented attacks in Minnesota on defined-benefit pensions. You need an auditor who can see through some of the subterfuge from folks against public pensions. That next auditor had better be able to look at the numbers and know which ones are real and which ones aren’t.

UA: You’ve given up your position at the state AFL-CIO. Was that a difficult decision?

JB: It was heartbreaking to leave. A friend of mine asked me, where are you most needed right now – is it secretary-treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO, or is it in a statewide office? That was a real turning point. There are wonderful people who are ready to step into the secretary-treasurer’s role. There are fewer people who could run for office. But I miss it every day.

The main reason I had to resign is that I wanted to be crystal clear that we were being fair about the finances. It’s the way campaign finance laws work – and should work.

UA: What were your favorite parts of the job?

JB: My absolute favorite part of being a union officer has been standing up to right to work. For years, I’ve been part of this reawakening of the labor movement. It’s been exciting, it’s been terrifying, but most of it has been absolutely invigorating and inspiring.

UA: The ways that we work together as union members, is that what you mean?

JB: This idea that the movement is more than our individual organizations… It is something bigger and deeper, and you can just feel it throughout the entire country.

UA: It feels like a very pivotal moment, like our back can’t get any closer to the wall.

JB: And what are we seeing? We’re seeing increases in membership, we’re seeing increases in organization, we’re seeing increases in influence. We have to keep doing what we’re doing – and do it even more – because it’s working.

UA: You’ve been running for union office for a long time. How has it prepared you to run for auditor?

JB: I’m probably better prepared to be a first-time candidate than most because of my background in the labor movement. I’ve gotten a ton of training through the movement, and the movement’s support has been amazing. I’m a math teacher. I don’t have millions of dollars at my disposal. I don’t have the money to pay hoards of people to do the work. But I’ve got my union family. People ask what solidarity looks like? I know what it looks like now.

UA: Is this why we talk so much about encouraging union members to be candidates?

JB: If you’re going to fight big money in politics, you fight it with your family. I know if there’s something that I need, there’s always somebody I can call… If you’re a union member who’s thinking of running for office, remember that your union family is one of your biggest assets. Remember your union family – and then run!

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