Bill Perkins and the Phantom Charter Schools Group

Bill Perkins has been a fixture in Harlem politics since 1997, elected to two terms in the city council first and then to David Paterson's state senate seat in 2006. But the 60-year-old marathoner is in a fight for his political life now, facing a well-financed challenger, Basil Smikle, on Tuesday.

Never accepted by the Harlem Gang as one of their own, Perkins is all of a sudden caught in the crosshairs, under fire in this campaign from two different, potentially deadly, directions. The powers-that-be in Harlem are hoping to sink him before Charlie Rangel's congressional seat becomes vacant, killing any chance that he could take it from them. But more importantly, Perkins has made himself the loudest voice against charter schools in the state even though his district is the home of more successful ones than anywhere else in New York, an anomaly that's outraged the big-buck backers of these privately-run public schools, leading them to bankroll Smikle.

The best evidence of the Harlem elite's war on Perkins occurred Friday, when Governor Paterson and Assemblyman Keith Wright campaigned with Smikle. It is rare indeed, if not unprecedented, for either to align himself with a challenger in Harlem, revealing how much this race revolves around positioning for the post-Rangel era.

Wright doubles as the Manhattan Democratic county leader and Paterson is the de facto leader of the state party, making their opposition to an incumbent inconsistent with their party roles. The primary explanation for this odd alliance is that Paterson and Wright see Perkins as a threat to seek Rangel's seat whenever the congressman retires, which could come as early as 2011, presuming Rangel is re-elected Tuesday. Wright is widely talked about as a likely Rangel successor, while Paterson may decide somewhere up the road that he wants Rangel and the old guard, including his father Basil Paterson, to do what they can to install him in the prized seat.

Having bucked the Harlem establishment to back Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton in 2008, as well as to suggest very early that Paterson should drop his re-election campaign, Perkins is a lone wolf in Harlem, where everyone else is part of same pack. Rangel himself has endorsed Perkins, though it's such nominal support that Perkins doesn't mention it in the list of endorsements on his campaign website, even in the copy that accompanies a picture of Rangel and him at a Harlem sporting event.

But the gale-force wind Perkins is running against is the charter school movement, which is strongly supported by Obama and his education secretary Arne Duncan. If Perkins loses, it will be the votes of the thousands of charter school parents in his district that beats him, as well as the tens of thousands in campaign contributions that wealthy donors to charters have given to Smikle (one in five city charter schools is in Perkins' district). If Perkins wins, it will in part be due to the backing of the virulently anti-charter teachers union, which recently went into federal court to try to overturn New York campaign finance limits, contending that the state contribution ceiling of $6,000 was a restraint on its first amendment rights, preventing the union from financing "polling, direct mail, canvassing, phone calling and a get-out-the-vote drive" exclusively for Perkins.

A federal judge rejected the union's extraordinary insistence that Perkins was the only one of 212 state legislators worthy of this extra-legal largesse, a commentary on just how linked the two now are, an alliance Perkins no doubt sees as pivotal should he run for the Rangel seat. The nonprofits that run most charters usually opt out of the workrule-laden teachers' union contract. Perkins tells the Voice that despite the ruling, he remains "hopeful that the union will play a very vigorous role in his election day field operation," and with the union's legendary phonebank operation, saying he expects the union's help to be "as comprehensive as the law allows." Pressed if he had "a special relationship" with the union, Perkins conceded: "You can call it a special relationship."

Perkins is now trying to muddy the waters about his charter school position, claiming he's not so much an opponent of them as he is an advocate of improving them. His senate website, however, contains a collection of news clips about charters, all of them negative, excluding the many positive stories about their performance, particularly ones about the successful charters in his own district. Perkins initially conceded, during a protracted Voice interview, that his April senate hearing on charters that made him such a target of the champions of these schools "no question could have been better," though he then rebutted the widely-reported observation that the list of speakers was stacked against charter schools, insisting there was "a good balance between pro and anti charter school speakers." His agenda for the hearing -- issued well before he took any testimony -- said his committee was examining "corruption, self-dealing, the manipulation of test scores in charter schools, and the politicization of the charter school movement."

It took Perkins almost ten minutes to answer the Voice question of whether the 20 charters in his district, serving over 7,500 children, performed better on math and reading tests than the traditional public schools, an objective fact. Perkins threw caveat after caveat at the Voice when asked about the comparison, "taking out" of the comparison the five Harlem Success Schools, suggesting that their high scores put them in a class by themselves though he has been particularly antagonistic to the expansion efforts of this celebrated network of schools. Even discounting these schools, Perkins said that "the most recent statistics don't suggest that the charters are substantially better" than other schools in his district. Asked if that meant he was conceding that they're at least better, if not "substantially better," Perkins retreated into a convoluted dodge, contending: "The point is not is one better than the other. That pits one against the other." Strange doubletalk indeed from the senator who has led the fight against schools he appears to believe are outperforming the traditional schools whose interests he defends.

Similarly, Perkins cited the success of individual traditional schools in his district and said that success "should be replicated," but when pushed about whether or not the same applied to the Harlem Success Schools, where 97 percent of third graders passed math and 89 percent passed reading in most recent, and far more stringent, state tests. With the schools still strenuously opposed by the teachers union, Perkins once again tied himself in knots. "You're looking for institutional replication," he said. "I'm looking to replicate the lessons of success, the techniques of learning," suggesting he wants to keep the bath water, but throw out the baby.

The most disingenuous Perkins tactic in his effort to confuse the charter debate is his ballyhooed endorsement of a shell organization called the New York City Charter Parent Association (NYCCPA), a group that even Perkins says only produced four or five parents at its meetings with him. The organization is neither incorporated in New York nor a registered nonprofit, both of which are legal requirements, and it is illegal for a nonprofit, as it describes itself on its website, to endorse a candidate for public office.

Perkins and the NYCCPA have claimed that Perkins called his incendiary hearing "at the request" of this organization, meaning that a senate committee sponsored an extensive public investigation at the behest of a group that doesn't legally exist in New York (NYCCPA's fiery president Mona Davids was one of the first speakers at Perkins' hearing). "I don't get into whether they're incorporated or not," Perkins told the Voice. Perkins, who insists now that "other parents as well shared concerns about charters," has been using NYCCPA as the rationale for his hearing in order to deflect attention from the real group that prodded him to beat the anti-charter drum--the union that is now at the center of his re-election campaign.

Davids indicated on the Gotham Schools blog that "we are funded by parents," though the donors page perpetually awaits updating on its website, providing no details and adding that "we don't have to tell you who's on our board," though only she and one other parent have ever been publicly named as part of the phantom organization. The organization's phone number is disconnected and neither Davids nor Marima Sanoh, the other parent identified with it, returned Voice e-mails or calls. The group held a workshop at a teacher union office, according to Crain's, but Davids has denied that it receives funding from the union, refusing, however, to specify who does fund it. Davids managed to go from championing charters to condemning them in the space of a few short months, making her the perfect vehicle for Perkins, a group whose name identifies it with charters endorsing the candidate who's most loudly bashed them.

Known for his candor, Perkins is cloaking himself instead in spin, counting on confusion as his best ally in a race to save his seat.


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