PTA is training ground for political careers

Sarah Palin isn’t the only politician who used a stint in a local parent-teacher association (PTA) as a springboard to political stardom.

An informal survey by The Hill found at least 21 members of Congress with experience in a PTA, which included everything from organizing a Halloween “spook house” to slinging McDonald’s hamburgers for a school’s monthly hot lunch or acting as homeroom mother.

While most of these lawmakers suggested PTA experience alone would not prepare someone to be vice president, they said the hands-on community work and fundraising activities essential to any PTA make the groups a valuable training ground for future politicians.

Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) could not be prouder of running mate Sarah Palin’s PTA experience. While most of the debate over Palin’s experience has focused on her years as Alaska’s governor and her time as a small-town mayor, McCain has also touted her PTA experience in several media interviews.

In a late-August interview with NBC’s Brian Williams, McCain included Palin’s time in the PTA as a qualification for her being his vice president, at the end of a list of jobs that included: governor, mayor and city council member.

“By the way, also she was a member of the PTA,” he told Fox News’s Chris Wallace. “I think it’s wonderful.”

Palin herself has played up the credential since taking to the campaign trail, saying she was “just your average hockey mom and signed up for the PTA because I wanted to make my kids’ public education better.”

But many lawmakers with PTA experience said it’s a long way between bake sales and the White House.

“You’re trying to make a stretch that is impossible,” said Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), a former PTA member, when asked if experience in the PTA is applicable to the vice president’s job.

He defended McCain and Palin, though, saying people will either belittle the civic experience politicians have or, as in Burr’s case, when he first ran for office, berate them for having a thin civic background. “You’re sort of damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” he said.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said she doesn’t think the PTA is “training ground to be president.” Still, her experience as a homeroom mother and head volunteer with the PTA “gave her a great view of how to motivate and be a leader.” It also provided a taste of what it would be like to serve a congressional district, as she was dealing with families with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), a PTA member, wasn’t as open to McCain’s tack of using Palin’s PTA experience as proof that she’s ready to be vice president. “I think any time you’re involved, it always helps, but not to the degree that it makes you qualified to be vice president,” he said.

National PTA President Jan Harp Domene said future politicians can hone many skills — from fundraising to negotiating to familiarity with parliamentary rule — while serving in a PTA.

“We’re a really good training ground for people who are interested in the things that affect children,” Domene said. A member for 32 years, she remembers having such titles as “hamburger chairman” and “vice president of who knows what else.”

Just as Palin made the steady climb from the PTA to city councilwoman to mayor to governor, other lawmakers used their PTA experience as political launching pads. Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.) said her PTA involvement helped get her to the Virginia House of Delegates. In the Senate, Washington Democrat Patty Murray might have gotten the most leverage out of her past stint as president of the Shoreline PTA in the 1980s.

Her Senate website said she once helped organize a rally in Olympia called the “Last Bake Sale.” She ran as a “mom in tennis shoes” for the school board, the state legislature and the U.S. Senate. Murray declined to be interviewed for this story.

A primary lesson for several politicians formerly involved in the PTA was fundraising.

“We would have a Halloween spook house in the gym,” said Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.), recalling the various fundraisers she helped with during her time in the PTA. Biggert, who was president of the Oak School PTA from 1974 to 1976, also brought McDonald’s hamburgers to school for hot lunch, another fundraising activity.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was a PTA president before she was a senator. The former president of the Government Hill Elementary School PTA led the school’s renovation campaign, which required her to wade into the murky waters of local zoning laws and the politics of the school board and local government.

“It’s not all just money for library books,” she said. “People can really make a difference in the PTA.”

Allie Foote and Brendan Sasso contributed to this article.