Obama and McCain Fight Over A Woman

As the two presidential candidates fight over vouchers and charters in their third debate, DC Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee gets a shout-out. Where was she? “Asleep,” she says. But she dismisses any talk of her becoming the next Secretary of Education as “ridiculous.”

When D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee got a shout-out from Barack Obama in the third presidential debate on Wednesday night, she was asleep. “I was trying to watch it,” she tells Fast Company. “But it was so boring. Then, all of a sudden, my phone and BlackBerry start blowing up. Someone sent me a link to the transcript, and I saw what they said, and I was like, ‘Oh, good Lord!'”


It wasn’t a surprise that both candidates, who have used the words “reform” and “change” about a million times in an effort to be seen as forces of reform and change, tried to align themselves with the only woman in Washington who can unmistakably be called a maverick and a reformer. Obama praised her as a “wonderful new superintendent”; McCain tried to pull Rhee over to his side, citing her as a supporter of vouchers. Obama shot back that she was a supporter of charters, implying that she was against vouchers.

Who was right? The National Review and the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher came down on McCain’s side, claiming that Rhee supports vouchers. Mike DeBonis of the Washington CityPaper reminded readers that Rhee told the Wall Street Journal she “would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent’s ability to make a choice for their child. Ever.”

But as far as I can tell, it was the blog Sassafras Mama that got it closest in its liveblog, saying “Michelle Rhee, the Superintendent of D.C schools supports charters, but as I understand it, she doesn’t support a widespread system of vouchers.” Rhee’s office quickly issued a statement that said she “disagrees with the notion that vouchers are the remedy for repairing the city’s school system.“ But she reiterated to Fast Company that she has “not taken a formal position on vouchers,” and she said she won’t—because she’s more concerned about fixing the schools where nearly 50,000 kids are still being educated.

The back-and-forth was enough to get some post-election buzz going about Rhee. Matthew Bishop of the American Spectator instantly touted her for Secretary of Education, in either administration.

Rhee hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for either candidate, but told me earlier this year that McCain has the much stronger education policy from her point of view. “He isn’t great, but he hasn’t said he’s going to throw NCLB out—and now everyone who says I’m a right-wing wingnut is going to be like, ‘I knew it!'” she said.

As for Obama, she told me in May that what he might do on education policy “terrifies me,” even though she’s a staunch Democrat. She criticized his stance on No Child Left Behind, which she portrayed as “an ‘NCLB is evil, sucking the life out of teachers’ angle. It’s a total victim mentality.” (Obama did voice support for charters, which won’t be good news for his hard-core union supporters.)


That might take care of her Sec of Ed prospects in a Democratic administration, but let’s say the White House did call her in January and offer her that job. How would she feel? “People say that I’m not even qualified for this job,” she says with a laugh. “I think that would be ridiculous.”

Photo by Ali Goldstein / NBC Newswire/ Alessandra Petlin / Mountaineer / Flickr creative commons

About the author

Jeff Chu writes on international affairs, social issues, and design for Fast Company. His first book, Does Jesus Really Love Me?: A Gay Christian's Pilgrimage in Search of God in America, was published by HarperCollins in April 2013.