Michelle Rhee, the fiery former Washington, D.C.,school chancellor, has danced a tricky tango since starting her national advocacy and lobbying group, StudentsFirst, in December 2010.
Rhee purported to be the face of a bipartisan movement to "transform education," while simultaneously battling Democratic teachers unions and appearing chummy in photo ops with conservative Republican governors like Rick Scott (Fla.) or John Kasich (Ohio).
All the while, a small cadre of influential Democrats stood behind her, helping her craft messages on things like her positions on unions (that they are entitled to collective bargaining on salary issues), and trying to fend off attacks from the progressive community (one in particular thwacked her explicitly for her right-wing contacts). But in the last few months, these Democrats -- including the group's vice president of communications, Hari Sevugan, as first reported by education blogger Alexander Russo -- have left the group, ceding control to a group of new hires, including president Kahlil Byrd.
Dmitri Mehlhorn, the group's former COO, has left to lead Bloomberg Law. Mike Phillips, who served as Rhee's chief of staff for communications, took a leave of absence this fall to work on Sen. Chris Murphy's (D-Conn.) campaign, but ultimately never rejoined. Tali Stein, a former Hillary Clinton fundraiser who led StudentsFirst's development, left two months ago to focus on other projects. Ximena Hartsock, a Democratic lobbyist, also left.
"There were known to be some significant differences on political strategy and policy matters, especially in StudentsFirst's approach toward unions and partisanship," said a source close to the education reform community who declined to be named in order to preserve working relationships.
Byrd, a self-described Republican, once directed communications for Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick's (D) gubernatorial campaign. More recently, Byrd ran Americans Elect, a bipartisan group that sought to find new pathways and people for the American presidency. He brought with him several other new staffers, press secretary Ileana Wachtel and donor relations manager Kellen Arno.
In an interview Friday, Byrd told The Huffington Post that he sees his job as shepherding the 120-person organization into maturity beyond its start-up phase. "People like Hari are now moving into positions where they are able to give us strategic direction," he said.
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SOURCE: The Huffington Post