Listening to NY1 political reporter Grace Rauh’s description May 20 of Bill de Blasio’s hectic schedule the previous weekend flitting from Iowa to Nebraska to North and South Carolina in his first campaigning as a declared candidate for President, it was hard to shake the thought that it was a good thing he was still Mayor or he wouldn’t be getting any sleep at all.
Reaction among local media to his announcement May 16 that he would make his long-anticipated—if not eagerly awaited—entry into the race for the Democratic nomination ranged from derisive to overdone.
‘Escape’—But Not From Post and PBA
The Post, gleefully noting that the Mayor’s appearance on “Good Morning America” prompted side-by-side protests outside WABC-TV’s studios from the Police Benevolent Association and Black Lives Matter, headlined its story “De Blasio Unites America—Against His Presidential Bid.” The Daily News featured criticism of his candidacy from elected officials and ordinary citizens, with a front-page headline of “Escape From New York” depicting him as the Kurt Russell character, eye-patch and all, who in John Carpenter’s 1981 movie depicting New York as the nation’s maximum-security prison was a Federal inmate who rescued the President after Air Force One was hijacked by terrorists.
NY1 devoted so many resources to being All de Blasio, All the Time for the launch that it neglected to cover the Daniel Pantaleo disciplinary trial that day in which an NYPD Lieutenant acknowledged he had responded to a subordinate’s concern that Eric Garner was likely to die after a confrontation in Staten Island with police with a text that began, “Not a big deal.”
Overall, the coverage had the mix of incredulity and amusement that was to be expected given the Mayor’s declining popularity among city residents, in no small measure due to exasperation that he was ready to do the political equivalent of running off to join the circus at a time when an increasing number of problems had bubbled to the surface. A Quinnipiac University poll four months earlier asking state residents about possible runs for the White House by New Yorkers showed Mr. de Blasio trailing not only ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Cuomo (neither of whom is running) and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, but Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is too young to be eligible.
Mr. de Blasio has parried questions about his low poll numbers by pointing out that he has never lost an election and was the underdog more often than not, including his upset victory for Public Advocate and his emergence from the second tier of candidates to win the mayoralty in 2013.
But the two early favorites in that mayoral race, Anthony Weiner and Christine Quinn, began the contest with negative ratings in the high 30s—the kind of number that was considered political kryptonite until the 2016 election in which Hillary Clinton’s negative ratings climbed into the high 50s and Donald Trump’s nestled in the low 60s.
Quinnipiac released a poll May 21 of 1,078 voters nationwide conducted over a five-day period that began with the Mayor’s announcement he had joined the Democratic primary field that showed him in eighth place, far behind not only front-runner Joe Biden—who had a 49 percent favorable to 39 percent unfavorable rating—but down 15 points to the man in seventh, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Peter Buttigieg.
And while Mr. Buttigieg had cause for optimism because his favorable rating of 23 percent topped his 19 percent unfavorable rating—a sign that his popularity would grow when more of the public became aware of him—Mr. de Blasio’s numbers were 8 percent favorable, 45 percent unfavorable.
While President Trump had a 57-percent unfavorable rating, 38 percent of those surveyed looked kindly upon his performance. The disparity was great enough to suggest the Mayor ought to consider “Livin’ on a Prayer” as his campaign theme song.
And that was before factoring in problems back in the city including the political headache presented by the Pantaleo disciplinary trial and the Mayor’s previous decision—based on a re-evaluation three years ago by his administration—that has led it to decline to disclose the results of NYPD internal proceedings. It would be awfully difficult for him to make the case to progressives across the nation that he’s the one for them if Mr. Pantaleo still is a cop by next year’s primaries, and his legal interpretation, at least in theory, bars him or his administration from disclosing whether the officer has been fired.
The Carranza Quandary
At the same time, from the other side of the political spectrum, he’s got another unappetizing situation taking shape involving the attempt of his Schools Chancellor, Richard Carranza, to gain greater diversity in the public-school system no matter how much his methods may alienate a good portion of the city—and potentially, an even-bigger share of the national electorate.
Virtually from the time he became Chancellor 14 months ago, Mr. Carranza has been crusading to scrap the Specialized High School Admissions Test that is the basis for admission to three elite city high schools: Brooklyn Tech, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant High School. This past March, he told Chalkbeat that the 1971 Hecht-Calandra Act “memorializes into law a specific process for admitting students to those schools, which in essence stymied desegregation efforts. My question to anyone who’s opposed to taking a look at this issue is, ‘Why are you supporting that law?’ I say the status quo is unacceptable.”
He subsequently told The Daily News, “There’s no other reason for that law except to stop the integration of those three schools.”
Last summer, the Mayor announced that he would phase out the admissions test, something that could not be done without the approval of the State Legislature. Even after Democrats gained a clear majority in the State Senate from last November’s elections, giving the party control of both legislative houses, however, there has been enough opposition to block the Mayor’s plan from being approved, although Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie has said he plans to hold hearings on the issue.
A major factor in the opposition has been a push by the Asian-American community against the change, which it believes would work to the detriment of its students, whose success on the SHSAT in recent years has made them the largest group in the student body of all three schools. State Sen. John Liu, a former City Comptroller, has called the Mayor’s plan to institute automatic admission to Tech, Bronx Science and Stuyvesant for the top seven students at middle schools in primarily black and Latino areas a form of reverse discrimination.
‘Call It Racist Every Time’
Mr. Carranza, who early in his tenure said that he was willing to act as a “provocateur” to improve education opportunities for black and Latino students in the system, said during a City Council hearing May 1, “I can’t tell you how many times I hear in this discussion where there is an equation to diversity and a lowering of academic [standards]—I will call that racist every time I hear it, so if you don’t want me to call you on it, don’t say it.”
Except that what critics of his plan have been saying in most cases is more complex. They are contending that using what amounts to a quota, without regard to whether some of those middle schools have had such low achievement rates that even their best students were likely to struggle in the elite high schools, would force the lowering of standards to allow those pupils to make it through. The general consensus has been that the SHSAT should be retained but with changes that would improve the chances of more black and Latino students to gain admission. Besides using additional criteria to decide admissions, it has been argued that the kind of test-prep that some Asian families have scrimped and saved for to aid their children’s chances to compete against more-affluent students for whom the prep courses don’t strain their parents’ budgets should be offered free to all students, and that gifted-and-talented classes that were largely eliminated during Michael Bloomberg’s tenure as Mayor should be restored and utilized in early grades to put black and Latino youngsters on a path that would prepare them to do well if they took the SHSAT.
What has been particularly frustrating to the attempts of the Mayor and Mr. Carranza to shade the dialogue to portray themselves as crusaders for progressivism on this issue is that among those arguing for preserving the exam have been Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who is to the left of the Mayor on many issues, and Kirsten John Foy, a former member of Mr. de Blasio’s staff when he was Public Advocate. He recently was seen outside Police Headquarters during Officer Pantaleo’s trial declaring that Mr. Garner’s “death was a homicide caused by a chokehold administered by Daniel Pantaleo,” then calling on the Mayor to fire him and other officers at the scene who did nothing to secure quick medical help for Mr. Garner after the severely overweight man moaned “I can’t breathe” 11 times and then lay unconscious on the sidewalk.
Dicey Conflict for Mayor
Having opponents like that has made it more difficult for Mr. Carranza to credibly rail against “white privilege,” as he had previously on several occasions during the debate. It has also become an issue that threatens to hobble the Mayor’s Quixotic effort to gain traction in the presidential race after Post reporter Susan Edelman detailed the Chancellor’s efforts to inject a culture change from the top of the Department of Education’s hierarchy down to the classrooms.
A lawsuit is going to be filed shortly, she wrote in a May 18 story, by at least four ranking female DOE executives who were demoted or stripped of their duties as part of the Chancellor’s reorganization, in which they will accuse Mr. Carranza of fostering “an environment which is hostile toward whites.” They are all expected to charge in the complaint that they were replaced by less-qualified persons of color, with an anonymous source telling The Post, “There’s a toxic whiteness concept going on.”
When asked about those charges following a City Council budget hearing two days later, the Chancellor said that he valued as staff members those of any race who shared his emphasis on promoting equality in the system. The Post quoted him as saying, “It’s always been my experience that anyone that comes in as a CEO of an organization takes a look at the organization and, based on their experience makes some changes. This is no different.”
That’s true up to a point. Philosophical clashes, or just the desire of a new agency head to have his or her own people in key positions, will often lead to shakeups when they take over. The difference here is that the changes are taking place against the backdrop of “implicit-bias training” that appears to have some of its own prejudices.
The Chancellor’s blueprint is based on a document called “Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups” by Kenneth Jones and Teena Okun. Under the heading of “White Supremacy Culture,” it lists 14 characteristics to be shunned. Among them are perfectionism, sense of urgency, worship of the written word, individualism and objectivity.
Shades of Alternative Facts
The explanation given by the authors for worship of the written word being undesirable is that “this idea prioritizes documentation and writing skills, rather than the ‘ability to relate to others.’“ The irony of the explanation is that it could just as easily be used in defense of President Trump, or for that matter, any dictator who appeals to his followers based on emotion rather than well-articulated facts.
Mr. Carranza no doubt identifies with another of the points made identifying a necessary attitude adjustment: Fear of Open Conflict. The authors state, “This comes through when someone overemphasizes politeness, and equates broaching touchy topics with being rude.” As, for example, he does when critics of the Mayor’s plan to scrap the SHSAT in favor of picking the top seven students from all middle schools in a way that will particularly harm the chances of Asian students question the fairness of the change and whether it won’t lead to a lowering of standards.
The DOE is spending $950,000 on two consulting services that deal with overcoming racism in the workplace. One agency executive who has undergone the training told Ms. Edelman, “The intent is to create a shared understanding. They believe this is positive and helpful. But it’s resulted in a hostile environment where whites are subject to being criticized, belittled and harassed. It’s divisive, and has fostered disharmony.”
Mr. Carranza countered following the Council budget hearing that “the training is not focused on white supremacy and white privilege. It’s about what are our biases and how we work with them.”
But David Bloomfield, a Professor of Education at both Brooklyn College and the City University of New York Graduate Center, said the Chancellor’s clumsy handling of the inevitable bureaucratic infighting has guaranteed that his agenda will be mired in controversy.
“I think it’s a terrific thing that he has brought in a number of women in leadership positions in the system,” he said in a May 22 phone interview. “He’s bringing in his own people who in some cases happen to be black women,” including a Community Deputy Superintendent he’d worked with while running the San Francisco school system.
‘Not Handling Chaos Well’
But while displacing top executives who were hired by his predecessor, Carmen Fariña, or in some cases by Chancellors under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was bound to create some friction, “There’s a degree of bureaucratic chaos that’s not being handled well at Tweed,” Professor Bloomfield said, referring to DOE’s Tweed Courthouse headquarters adjacent to City Hall. “Add a dollop of racial tension and what you’ve got is a problem. Jockeying for power and influence through racial discrimination is illegal. I don’t think [Mr. Carranza is] handling the bureaucratic jockeying very well, and he’s ignoring the allegations of discrimination.”
Asked whether the Mayor or his top aides needed to get involved, from a governmental standpoint as well as to avert this becoming a major issue for Mr. de Blasio as he tries to raise his standing in the polls, Mr. Bloomfield said, “I think somebody from City Hall does need to get involved, and they may be too loyal to their appointees, particularly Carranza and some of the people they’ve put in at DOE.”
When the question was raised as to whether that duty, given the Mayor’s increasing focus on his political run, might fall to First Deputy Mayor Dean Fuleihan, Professor Bloomfield replied, “Fuleihan doesn’t act alone. As a political issue, I think it’s beyond Fuleihan’s responsibilities and expertise.”
He continued, “I think the diversity initiatives themselves would’ve been right down de Blasio’s alley.” But because of the opposition that has arisen both in Albany and at the City Council to the Mayor’s effort to eliminate the SHSAT, “He’s stomping around the house saying he wants greater diversity in New York City high schools” with no realistic way of achieving it before the Legislature adjourns at the end of June.
“It was such a poorly rolled-out proposal that I always assumed he was putting down a stake in the ground rather than expecting it to fly this year,” Mr. Bloomfield said. “And,” he added pointedly, “he’s not rolling this out for the five schools he controls,” referring to the other specialized high schools, for which the SHSAT is not mandated under state law.
‘Playing Racial Politics’
Mr. de Blasio has claimed that it is essential to include Brooklyn Tech, Bronx High School of Science and Stuyvesant in any plan to desegregate the elite high schools. But Professor Bloomfield argued, “I think the SHSAT has worked for him. He can say he’s got a desegregation plan for the three high schools. He treats it not as an education issue but as an equity issue and a matter of racial politics.”
If that view of the Mayor suggests he has been acting less like a chief executive—which is how Mr. de Blasio has framed the rationale for his candidacy—and more like an advocate who has not outgrown his days in lesser city offices where rhetoric often didn’t have to be followed by accomplishment, the veteran educator thinks the Chancellor has also fallen into that mode. Mr. Bloomfield said Mr. Carranza has “a managerial role that he seems to have disregarded” in bringing the parties together to reach a consensus on how to implement the changes he is seeking.
“You think he expected to steamroll his way through?” I ask, deliberately using a word associated with ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, whose high-handed approach ran afoul of the Legislature months before he resigned when ensnared in a hooker scandal.
“Look where it got Eliot,” Mr. Bloomfield replied. “And he knew New York.”
Mr. Carranza when he took the job could not have foreseen the series of events that led to Mr. Williams becoming Public Advocate earlier this year, elevating the platform from which the Brooklyn Tech grad would oppose abolishing the SHSAT. Nor, perhaps, might he have anticipated opposition in Albany, where Democrats control both the Governor’s Office and both houses of the Legislature, with Mr. Liu’s election to the State Senate last fall adding another high-profile counterweight to his plan.
The Chancellor came to the job several months into Mr. de Blasio’s second term, which Mr. Bloomfield said meant “he’s always known he was on borrowed time, arriving at the beginning of a lame-duck term.”
It didn’t help that Ms. Fariña had not done much to improve the quality of the city’s middle schools, which the Professor noted “are problematic throughout America.” The one bright spot had been the creation of more-diverse student bodies in school districts in Park Slope and the Upper West Side, which Mr. Bloomfield said with some irony was achieved without much input from the DOE.
‘Mayor Doesn’t Need This’
Mr. de Blasio’s presidential run may prove another obstacle, veteran political consultant George Arzt said. “I feel that sometimes people looking at the situation view that the Mayor and Carranza are in lock-step, but there’s often a misalignment when it comes to goals,” he noted. “It disturbs the Mayor when he’s going around the country and he doesn’t need this kind of consternation back in the city.”
That would be particularly true, he added, if media coverage spread beyond The Post and WCBS-TV to include the New York Times and national cable-news networks. “I think they want to isolate The Post as much as possible, but if someone else picks up the story, then they’ve got real problems,” Mr. Arzt said.
Professor Bloomfield concurred, saying, “I assume they’re kind of assessing at City Hall or in [Mr. de Blasio’s] political operation. The real question is if they’re watching what’s happening to the school system.”
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