For education voters, the mayoral campaign season has been building in large part to today, when the United Federation of Teachers will announce which candidate it is supporting.
But the decision, which will come out around 5:45 p.m. today, hardly ends the education election. Instead, it simply opens a new phase, one in which education policy’s prominence is far from assured.
From the time that campaign season kicked off so many moons ago, all of the Democratic candidates have been careful not to alienate the UFT. While the union’s picks don’t always win — as Mayor Bloomberg pointed out on Monday, it hasn’t backed a winning mayoral candidate in over two decades — the UFT endorsement does confer money, cachet, and bodies to fuel a ground game that will be essential in the coming months.
Even candidates seen as unlikely to win the union’s support, such as City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose help letting Bloomberg suspend term limits four years ago put her at a sharp disadvantage, were careful to infuse their education platforms with union-friendly positions. And all of the candidates who attended a forum the union held at its annual spring conference were effusive in their praise.
In recent weeks, though, only Thompson and de Blasio — and, to a lesser extent, Comptroller John Liu, whose campaign has been hamstrung by scandal — have actively seemed to be angling for the nod. When the city announced new graduation rates on Monday, they were the only candidates to release statements, all criticizing the Bloomberg administration for not helping students more. Thompson announced that he would guarantee at $200 a year to every teacher for discretionary materials, something the union has long sought. And de Blasio was the only candidate to stand beside Mulgrew at a press conference announcing a platform for reducing the city’s emphasis on standardized testing.
In de Blasio, the union would get a candidate with liberal bonafides and the chance to consolidate some the labor movement’s support. But with Thompson, it would be choosing a conciliator with education credentials who is seen as having a strong chance of becoming mayor.
What happens today
The union wants to advance a policy agenda that matches its vision for education and benefits its members. But even more than that, it wants to support a winner in November’s election, breaking a three-decade cycle of failure and ensuring that City Hall’s occupant feels beholden to the union. That’s why — even though, in a show of openness, the union has printed campaign posters for all major candidates — it would be a real surprise if anyone other Thompson ends the day with the union’s support.
But even though the decision appears to have been made, there is still a process the union must go through to make the choice official. That process includes some room for union members to express dissent, and their voices could be quite strong.
The union is using the same process that it goes through whenever it makes major policy decisions. First, Mulgrew will tell his closest advisors which candidate is his favorite. They’ll recommend the choice to the union’s 89-member Executive Board, which includes some representatives of minority parties within the union. Then the Executive Board’s recommendation will go to the 3,400-member Delegate Assembly for a floor vote, in which delegates from each school and chapter will hold up cards to signal whether they support the recommendation. Advocates and, potentially, opponents of the decision will make their cases until a majority of delegates support the resolution.
The union anticipates this process going quickly. The three meetings are scheduled back to back to prevent news from leaking before the end of the day. The Delegate Assembly meeting is scheduled for 4:45 p.m., and a decision is expected about an hour later, union officials said.
One reason the union can expect quick support for its leadership’s recommendation is that a strong majority of delegates are affiliated with Unity, Mulgrew’s party within the union. But a sizable number are not, suggesting that debate could be fierce if Mulgrew allows it to be. Some members are unhappy with Thompson’s relationship with Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch, who helped engineer the state’s new teacher evaluation rules, and the fact that he has cozied up to charter school supporters even as he has worked to woo the union. In borough forums, de Blasio and Liu, seen as more left-wing candidates, received widespread support.
When the principals union voted to endorse Thompson on Tuesday, it did so with just 40 percent of the executive board behind him. President Ernest Logan suggested that while Thompson had garnered twice as many votes as the next closest candidates, at least four candidates had received wide support. The UFT has a stronger infrastructure for managing dissent and it won’t be tallying support for runners up, so it’s unlikely that the numbers will end up being quite so divided. But what happens inside 52 Broadway today is worth watching.
Not an end but a beginning
A divided union UFT would undermine one of the union’s chief goals in endorsing a candidate, which is to reassert its might in the city’s political ecosystem. According to a story in today’s New York Times, Mulgrew has devoted himself since first becoming president four years ago to bolstering the union’s political machine, once seen as capable of delivering candidates with ease.
That machine has a sizable war chest to help the endorsed candidate pay for campaign ads, including some that could potentially tilt the race into more negative territory. The machine should also have no trouble coming through with volunteers to make phone calls for the winning candidate and support his (or her) ground game. The union’s strong cadre of retired teachers in particular — known as the “daytime union” because they can step up when active members are at work — are notable for being willing to do what they are asked to.
But many retirees do not live in the city, and many current teachers do not, either. Combined with the fact that not all members will fall into line with the UFT’s pick, exactly how many votes the union will deliver in September’s primary and then in November’s general election is unclear.
What happens tomorrow, and for the next two and a half months until the primary election, could make the difference. It could be that the candidates begin to differentiate themselves more strongly on education, without the prospect of UFT support keeping them close to the union line. It could also be that they stop talking about education at all as they try to win over new constituencies. Candidates also have a reason to distance themselves from the union if they aren’t receiving its support. In office, a new mayor will have to weigh all of the city’s interests each time they sit down to bargain a single union’s contract. The high costs of health care and back pay, which the UFT wants, could be hard to deliver.
One role the union’s pick will play is to make sure that issues that are important to teachers do not fall off the radar, and to entice other candidates into making commitments that the union would like them to make. Mulgrew believes he can deliver this election, but he surely won’t mind insurance.