School reform advocate spending big to help Elorza beat Cianci

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A millionaire charter school advocate from Connecticut is dipping his hands into the race for Providence mayor.

Jonathan Sackler, a wealthy investment manager and trustee for charter school operator Achievement First, contributed $25,000 to the 50CAN Action Fund to support Democrat Jorge Elorza, according to a disclosure filed with the Rhode Island Board of Elections Tuesday.

The 50CAN Action Fund is the political arm for the 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now (50CAN), a nonprofit education reform advocacy organization that has satellite sites in Rhode Island, New York, Minnesota, Maryland, North Carolina, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now operates separate from the other sites. Sackler sits on 50CAN’s board of directors.

The Rhode Island site is best-known for its successful 2011 campaign to bring Achievement First to the state as a mayoral academy, but has faced staunch opposition from the state’s teachers’ unions. Elorza sat on the board of the Achievement First Mayoral Academy until he entered the race for mayor. The mayor of Providence co-chairs the board.

Elorza, independent Vincent A. “Buddy” Cianci Jr. and Republican Daniel Harrop are vying to replace incumbent Mayor Angel Taveras, who is leaving City Hall after one term in office. Charter schools have been a backburner topic in the race, although both Elorza and Harrop have said they are willing to consider expanding the schools’ presence in the city. Cianci, who has been endorsed by the Providence Teachers Union, opposes charter schools.

It is still unclear exactly how much 50CAN intends to spend on the mayor’s race or how it will use its money. Marc Porter Magee, the organization’s founder and CEO, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

Sackler and 50CAN have been familiar faces in Rhode Island politics.

A WPRI.com review of filings with the Board of Elections shows Sackler has contributed $11,500 to candidates and elected officials since 2009, including state Treasurer Gina Raimondo, Cumberland Mayor Dan McKee and Teach for America executive director Heather Tow-Yick, who lost a Democratic primary for state representative in September.

In August, the 50CAN Action Fund contributed $90,000 to an independent expenditure group that purchased TV commercials to support McKee’s bid for lieutenant governor. McKee defeated Secretary of State Ralph Mollis and state Rep. Frank Ferri in the Democratic primary.

Groups like the 50CAN Action Fund are not permitted to coordinate directly with candidates and their campaigns, but they are allowed to accept unlimited donations from their contributors.

Outside spending has been limited in the mayor’s race. A group formed by former mayoral candidate Lorne Adrain that sought to target Cianci fizzled without ever running an ad. The city firefighters’ union spent nearly $5,000 on a mail piece attacking Elorza earlier this month. A city resident reported spending $600 to record a song urging voters to reject Cianci.

Filings with the state Board of Elections show Cianci had $301,539 cash on hand as of Oct. 6, compared with Elorza’s $160,195 and Harrop’s $90,058.

The election is Nov. 4.

Dan McGowan ( dmcgowan@wpri.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Twitter: @danmcgowan

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