New York

The Mystery Candidate


Under the headline “Hevesi might just kick-start quiet campaign for mayor,” The New York Times’ previewed comptroller Alan Hevesi’s early announcement of his candidacy last week with a story that used the word “might” nine times in 16 paragraphs. Closing with the hunch that Hevesi’s desperate rush to announce “might provide him the kind of lift in the polls that might settle nervous supporters,” Adam Nagourney’s record-setting display of upbeat speculation might have been—to borrow a phrase—a statement of the Times’ hopes as much as it was of Hevesi’s. The paper is expected to endorse him.

The next day’s front-page Metro piece depicted Hevesi’s announcement speech as a salute to Rudy Giuliani, saving until the final two paragraphs, deep on the jump page, any reference to the candidate’s rather salty critique of the outgoing Republican. The three tabloids were far more mixed, with the Daily News’ Joel Siegel reporting in his lead that Hevesi promised “to build” on Giuliani’s successes “while saying not enough has been done to address bad schools, race relations, and police abuse.”

The Hevesi campaign drew fine but accurate distinctions between the speech’s text and the Times’ coverage. Hevesi recited a laundry list of positives about the city—from crime rates to budget surpluses to bond ratings—and the Times described the litany as “a notably charitable assessment of Mr. Giuliani’s record in office.” But asked about some items on the list, campaign spokesman Hank Morris pointed out that the passage did not attribute these achievements to anyone—other than Hevesi himself. “I’m proud to have been part of that progress,” the candidate said.

Morris added: “He would give Rudy some credit; he would give Bill Clinton a lot of credit.”

Reducing Hevesi’s critique of Giuliani largely to a question of style, the Times did not even quote his call “for a new direction for our public schools, for race relations, for police abuse, for making sure there really is a safety net for the poor, and for making everyone feel wanted and included.” Nor did it cite Hevesi’s declaration that “there’s something missing in our city” and that while “some of it has to do with tone,” a lot of it has to do “with substance.”

Hevesi didn’t limit himself to the usual caveat about those “left out,” a phrase even Giuliani has used on those rare occasions, such as victory night in 1997, when he has been in a healing mood. Instead the comptroller said too many, especially in the minority community, “have felt trampled upon, that they don’t count, that their neighborhoods have been neglected, that city services haven’t been apportioned fairly, that City Hall doesn’t speak for them.” To leave this out in a Times story suggesting that Hevesi delivered a speech that in part could “conceivably have come from Giuliani himself” is to distort, fitting Hevesi neatly into the Times’ apparent overview of the Giuliani age.

Hevesi’s other speech last week was about what he has branded his number one issue—education. As much as the candidates agree on several core education issues—no vouchers, no privatization, more money, higher teacher salaries—some sharp differences have appeared. The comptroller announced a courageous willingness to raise taxes—imposing a surcharge on the wealthy as a last resort—to finance his education program. Council speaker Peter Vallone denounced the Hevesi proposal, saying he was willing to designate all property tax revenue for schools, which he claimed would add half a billion.

As ludicrous as the notion is that the city’s prime revenue stream could be limited to a single service destination—removing discretion in times of budgetary crisis—Vallone compounded the problem by simultaneously declaring that he wanted bigger property tax cuts in this year’s budget than Giuliani had already proposed. Vallone has led the charge to cut co-op and condo taxes, just as he did to eliminate the income surcharge that Hevesi is now talking about partially restoring.

The passion in Hevesi’s speech was more about the plight of teachers than kids, the reverse of the January education speech of Hevesi opponent and Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer. Both trotted out their own personal experiences to document their interest in restoring public education—Hevesi as a “career educator”; Ferrer as a minority kid in an increasingly minority system who recalled how schools gave him “a sense of empowerment” that carried him out of poverty.

Ferrer charged that the use of words like “inequity” to describe the funding of city schools “masks” the reality, calling it instead “a robbery perpetuated on the most voiceless in our city.” Ferrer contended that neither the governor, the mayor, nor the state legislature—”Republicans and Democrats alike”—fulfilled “their responsibility to the children of New York City.” He added that the powers that be “assume that the current system will be quietly accepted because parents are overwhelmingly poor and working class, Black and Hispanic.”

Hevesi’s emotional high point, on the other hand, was his declaration that “teachers are not the enemy” and his promise to “treat them like partners, not pariahs,” a clear swipe at Giuliani. Nonetheless, the two wound up on the same page when it came to key reforms, with Ferrer going so far as to specify a 30 percent boost in teacher salaries, even though he criticized the Hevesi tax hike that might be necessary to pay for it.

Joined by public advocate and mayoral hopeful Mark Green, Ferrer and Hevesi have spelled out their determination to improve pay in exchange for longer school days and years, reduced class size, a drastic overhaul in the procedures for getting rid of bad teachers, and greater teacher development and mentoring programs. But with United Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten approvingly attending Hevesi’s Wagner School speech, Hevesi dodged issues that might have offended a powerful union likely to endorse him.

For example, he noted that “our schools typically are open 45 minutes less than surrounding systems,” adding up to four hours less of instruction a week, without pointing out that the union contract negotiated while he was comptroller gave teachers an additional 45-minute free period. Hevesi also made a powerful case for raising salaries of teachers early in their careers, but said nothing about the recent union contracts that have backloaded gains, preferring increases for the most senior teachers. He told the Voice he had no position on the additional 45-minute period and didn’t know if prior contracts disproportionately benefitted senior teachers. A union spokesman concedes they did, but says Weingarten now favors concentrating increases for teachers at the five- or six-year level, just as Hevesi recommended.

Similarly, while Green praised charter schools in the education speech he gave almost a year ago—as well as urged incentive pay for teachers in tough schools and ones that show improvement—Hevesi was silent on all three issues. The union has been a skeptic about charter schools and unenthusiastic about any form of merit pay, even for schoolwide improvement.

It requires only short-term memory to figure out that the interests of kids and the UFT aren’t always the same—the union was nominally neutral in both Giuliani elections and bashed his pro-education opponents David Dinkins and Ruth Messinger. Swayed in 1997 by side deals like free periods and retirement bonuses, the union joined in barring Messinger from a public event to which she’d been invited.

Hevesi insists that Weingarten did not see his speech before he delivered it, though he acknowledges they had conversations about its contents. While no mayor can expect to make schools better without working with the union, neither will any real progress occur if the mayor is their instrument—a fact that Hevesi needs to demonstrate he understands.

Research assistance: Robbie Chaplick and Theodore Ross

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