The state's largest teachers union is poised to choose which candidates will receive its stamp of approval.

The Utah Education Association hopes its endorsements will be a compass for teachers, moms and dads to navigate November's election ballot.

But some moderates say it can be like sporting a bull's-eye at target practice for GOP conservatives.

"In Republican primaries, some candidates are really apprehensive about taking the UEA endorsement" because the union is perceived as "a very moderate, Democrat, (even) liberal organization," one legislator said on condition of anonymity.

But the 18,000-member teachers union says that doesn't mean it's becoming a political liability.

"We're going to support candidates based on their stand on education," UEA President Pat Rusk said. "We have had Republican candidates who . . . say, 'We . . . want your endorsement,' but they choose not to take funding from the UEA because they fear there will be repercussions. That's their choice."

The UEA interviews candidates and offers recommendations for governor, attorney general and Congress, said Vik Arnold, director of government relations and political action. Local chapters forward recommendations for legislative races to state union leaders.

The UEA's PAC gives recommended candidates lines of credit starting at $500, Arnold said. Candidates can receive reimbursement for brochures, mailings and other expenses.

Two years ago, the UEA PAC spent $415,500 on political activities. At the beginning of this year, it reported having more than $500,000, state elections office documents show.

But money is just part of UEA's support system.

"I think UEA support brings bodies. They get a lot of people out to help you," former legislator Afton Bradshaw said. "I (was) happy to have the support of the teachers, always."

So far, the UEA has recommended 10 candidates: eight Republicans and two Democrats, Arnold said.

But some Republican legislators cast doubt on whether that trend will continue.

In 2002, the UEA recommended about 20 Republicans and 30 Democrats, Arnold said. Six or seven Republicans did not use the UEA's line of credit.

That can make it look like the union doesn't support many Republicans, which some say hurts union relations with the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature. But it doesn't necessarily mean candidates are ducking union endorsement, union leaders and candidates say.

"I would say they represent a large percentage of teachers in the state of Utah," said Rep. Dave Hogue, R-Riverton, and a UEA-backed candidate. "As long as (they do), I'm going to listen to them."

But some legislators believe the union doesn't represent the average teacher and makes lawmakers out to be "the bogeyman," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper.

A few legislators and businessmen interviewed in the state superintendent search even suggested the State Office of Education distance itself from the union to polish its image. State associate superintendent Patrick Ogden appreciates open communication lines with the union but agrees the office needs to educate others about its independence from other groups.

It won't be easy.

The State Office of Education, UEA, superintendents and school boards associations often take similar stands in legislative hearings. Those groups stand united against tuition tax credits — an issue dear to many conservatives.

Still, it's the UEA that, for some, has come to embody the opposition. Following the June primary election, a conservative political action committee working to elect supporters of tuition tax credits proclaimed: "The UEA union's era of dominating Utah politics is over."

Parents for Choice in Education PAC, in an e-mail to news media, highlighted conservative victories, including that of Rep. Craig Buttars, R-Lewiston, and Curt Oda in District 14 and Brad Daw in District 60, whose opponents received UEA support.

"The evidence from recent elections would indicate that (the UEA is) becoming a political liability. Candidates sponsored or endorsed by the UEA have not done well," including Gov. Olene Walker, who "was unofficially endorsed by the UEA," said Elisa Clements Peterson, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education PAC. "We see a great need for innovation in handling our education crisis and the UEA is simply out of step with what the majority of Utahns want."

UEA leaders, however, point to Hogue's victory over a Parents for Choice in Education-backed opponent.

Victories have followed UEA-backed candidates in past elections, too. But chances of winning is not why some accept the union's endorsement.

"I respect teachers and the teachers my children had were so good," said Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful. "I'm just appreciative."


E-mail: jtcook@desnews.com