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The Michael Mulgrew victory tour took an embarrassing turn on NY1 last night, when the United Federation of Teachers president gloated throughout an extended interview, overstating a very mixed primary day report card.
It’s true that union candidates like State Senators Velmanette Montgomery and Bill Perkins won big against charter-school-backed opponents, as Mulgrew boasted, but so did two assemblymen who the teachers vigorously opposed, Buffalo’s Sam Hoyt and Manhattan’s Jonathan Bing. Mulgrew also chortled about State Senator Shirley Huntley’s re-election in Queens, but she actually voted for the charter school bill in May that the union bitterly opposed. The electoral lesson, hardly a new one in New York, was that incumbents win, whether the UFT supports or opposes them.
In a fourth race cited by the union on its website as a mark of its success, there was no incumbent. UFT-backed Assemblyman Adriano Espaillat beat a little known, charter school proponent, Mark Levine, in Eric Schneiderman’s predominantly Latino senate district. No serious observer thinks charters or the union played a decisive role in that ethnically-charged race. The same goes for Huntley, who was targeted by gay rights groups because of her vote against marriage equality, an issue that Randi Weingarten, now the national teachers union president, once considered a priority. Huntley’s win over a 25-year-old Latino opponent in an overwhelmingly black district, where same sex marriage is intensely opposed by conservative black church leaders, had little to do with the UFT.
The oddest union performance was up in Buffalo, where Mulgrew’s statewide organization, the New York State United Teachers actually backed a Tea Party-tainted Democrat, Joseph Golombek Jr, over incumbent Hoyt, the loudest champion of charters in the Democratic assembly conference. Golombek, who spoke at a Tea Party rally, is still on the Conservative Party line and promises to aggressively run on it in November, possibly electing the Republican. Hoyt contended he had video of the Golombek speech, with the local city councilman telling Tea Partiers: “I’m one of you. I’m with you.”
The other race Mulgrew doesn’t want to talk about is the shellacking he took on the eastside, where Bing got 84 percent of the vote against a UFT chapter chairman, Gregg Lundahl. “I went from the union coming to my 40th birthday party to me being referred to as dead to the union,” Bing said. Though Bing is also a quiet supporter of charters, it was his bill to alter lay-off policy that drove the UFT nuts. He introduced a bill last session, backed by the mayor and the chancellor, that would have set up a panel of teachers, principals and administrators to make layoff decisions, rather than let seniority be the sole standard used in deciding which teachers lose their jobs (seniority would become just one factor considered by the panel). That was all it took for Lundahl to brand Bing “anti-union” and “the notorious chief assembly sponsor” of the bill.
Ironically, Mulgrew actually claimed on NY1 that the union makes broad-based endorsement decisions. “It’s never about a single issue ever,” he claimed. But that’s precisely what they did with Hoyt and Bing, and their all-out effort for Perkins, who’s received nominal UFT support in the past, was clearly a consequence of his charter school hearing, a circus of anti-charter bluster.
Joe Williams, the head of Democrats for Education Reform and a leading backer of charter reform, told the Voice that “the strut” the union was taking now “was a little bit disingenuous.”
“My experience” said Williams, “is that they make every decision with one issue in mind, amassing their power.” He said the chest-thumping is all about showing that they’ve “regained the upper hand.” Williams acknowledged that the school reform movement might have been better served by simply backing the legislators that supported charters with big bucks rather than trying to beat the opponents. “It’s much easier to rev people up” and get charter backers to contribute when “you’re trying to take someone out” who’s opposed charters.
Williams thinks that the ultimate passage of the bill that lifted the charter cap and won the $700 million in Race to the Top funding took the steam out of the races against Perkins and others. His own organization sent thousands of “thank-you” letters into the districts of every incumbent who voted for the final charter bill, even those, like Perkins, who tried to kill the first bill in May. He said charter supporters are strongly backing John Sampson, the leader of the Democratic conference who sponsored the initial charter bill.
Another strange moment in the Mulgrew NY1 interview was when Elizabeth Kaledin, the host, asked him why he’d endorse Eric Schneiderman since attorney generals don’t have much to do with public schools. Mulgrew’s stumbling response may not prove helpful to Schneiderman in the fall. “The AG has powers to do all sorts of investigations, including looking at contracts,” said the union boss, suggesting that the UFT was hoping Schneiderman would conduct investigations in which it had an interest. “There are a lot of different money and laws that are tied to attorney generals,” he said.
Mulgrew had touted the Schneiderman win as one of their big wins before Kaledin raised the question. Schneiderman was a leading opponent of charters in the senate, and one of only 12 Democrats to vote against the first charter bill in May.