RACINE — In a move that came as a surprise to even the people heading the campaign for it, Democratic presidential nominee hopefuls Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders have both endorsed the Racine Unified school referendum.
The referendum, on the April 7 ballot, asks voters to allow the district to collect $1 billion in excess of its state-imposed revenue limit over the next 30 years to fund the construction of new schools and the renovation of existing ones.
At the same time they backed the Racine referendum, both candidates, who are also on Tuesday’s ballot for the Democratic presidential primary, also endorsed an $87 million Milwaukee Public Schools referendum to fund educational programs.
Former Vice President Biden was the first of the two candidates to endorse the pair of referendums through a Tuesday statement. Freeland Ellis, the Sanders campaign’s Midwest regional press secretary, told The Journal Times Wednesday afternoon that Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, also endorses both referendums.
It is uncommon for national candidates to endorse local issues like school referendums.
Chelsea Powell, a founding board member of the Yes for Our Children political action committee that has been campaigning for the approval of the Unified referendum since January, said the campaign had not reached out to either candidate to ask for endorsements. Powell learned about it like most other people: through news reports.
“We were very surprised,” she said.
As of press time Wednesday, the Biden campaign had not answered questions as to who alerted the former vice president about the Milwaukee and Racine referendums or why he decided to endorse these referendums specifically.
“We need to invest in our public schools and our students, and that’s why I’m proud to support these two referendums to support our schools in Milwaukee and Racine,” Biden said in the Tuesday statement.
There are more than 40 school district referendums set to go on the April 7 ballot.
Powell is the mother of one Racine Unified student and has a younger child who is set to attend district schools in the future. She said this drives her passion to ensure that the students in the district have the spaces and resources they need to be successful.
“I am very grateful,” Powell said of the endorsements, “it’s rare that national campaigns are aware of and engaged with what’s going on in local communities. And this is such a critical moment for our school district, so I’m just very grateful that they wanted to bring attention to what we’re trying to accomplish through this referendum.”
Trevor Jung, alderman representing the City of Racine’s 9th District who has been a Biden supporter since the former vice president started his campaign, said the endorsement announcement did not shock him.
“I’m not surprised that the campaign would make a move like this because they’re leading with their values, but it was definitely pleasant to see when I saw it online,” Jung said.
Biden has been endorsed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
“This is exactly the reason I support Joe Biden,” Jung said. “Here’s somebody who’s paying attention to issues that matter most to families in Racine. He’s getting granular and down to the local level because he knows that’s where the biggest difference is made.”
Neither Biden nor Sanders has campaigned in Wisconsin in person this year. Campaign events, like all other gatherings of 10 or more people, are banned by the state in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“It was obviously very exciting that somebody running for national office would take interest in your local school election,” said Racine Mayor Cory Mason, who has also endorsed the Unified referendum.
He added that both national and local endorsements show the people in the community the importance of approving the funding for better facilities through the referendum.
“I hope it encourages people to vote yes,” Mason said.
Journal Times reporter Adam Rogan contributed to this report.