In a span of 10 days that ended Oct. 4, Mayor de Blasio:
- Reached a deal expanding the number of Teachers allowed to work from home, prompting a no-confidence vote by the Principals union and a call for the state to run the city public schools;
- Reacted to a surge in coronavirus cases by stating that he and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza would use a "citywide standard" and close the entire system rather than targeting neighborhoods with unusually high numbers of positive tests for the virus;
- Three days later, decided to scrap that plan in the face of a threatened lawsuit or "something else" promised by United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew.
Those not suffering whiplash from the abrupt changes emanating from City Hall couldn't help but remember the remark by Council of School Supervisors and Administrators President Mark Cannizzaro at the beginning of that round of the controversy during a WBAI interview: "When you are delivering constantly changing messages, you lose credibility as a leader."
It's not that Mr. de Blasio has difficulty making decisions. His problem comes in thinking them through. Either he fails to anticipate obstacles that should have seemed obvious, or he hasn't yet realized that many of the people he deals with have lost respect for his judgment.
An Unrealistic Sense of Self
Clint Eastwood is probably not among the Mayor's favorite actors, but in one of his early roles as Dirty Harry he concisely analyzed Mr. de Blasio's major flaw: "A man's got to know his limitations."
Governor Cuomo, although not necessarily motivated by benevolence, makes himself available to point out where he falls short, and sometimes even why.
On Oct. 5, the day after the Mayor said he was yielding to Mr. Mulgrew and would close schools effective that Wednesday only in the nine areas of the city with particularly high rates of positive tests for the coronavirus over the previous week, Mr. Cuomo decreed that the shutdowns would instead occur on Tuesday, avoiding an extra day in which students or staff might contract the disease at their schools.
Asked why he seemed to once again be smearing salt on the Mayor's wounds, the Governor responded, in a manner made famous by his father Mario over three terms as the state's chief executive, with a question of his own: why had Mr. de Blasio issued a proposal that would need his approval without first consulting him?
"People have their own styles and their own way of doing things," Andrew Cuomo said with a certain bemusement at a press conference he delayed twice earlier in the day, forcing the Mayor to start his own media response an hour later than scheduled. "These schools opened and they did no testing" beforehand. "That's been educational for them. Would you send your child to one of these educational hot spots knowing there's been no testing?"
In this case, the Governor's asserting his authority produced just a small hitch in the Mayor's plans. The schools closed a day earlier, and non-essential businesses in those areas were to be closed Oct. 8, but with the criterion being whether they were located in parts of those neighborhoods where there had been a cluster of cases, rather than falling within a particular zip code.
Digs Holes for Himself
It could be argued that Mr. Cuomo, like the home team in a hockey game, had the advantage of getting a look at his opponent's alignment before having to decide how to counter. But Mr. de Blasio is a particularly useful foil simply because he so often chooses wrong at the outset and then is forced to adjust when problems inevitably surface.
For someone who has spent most of the past 30 years in city government—with time off to work at the Department of U.S. Housing and Urban Development during President Bill Clinton's administration for much of the 1990s, where his boss was HUD Secretary Cuomo, and to run Hillary Clinton's 2000 U.S. Senate campaign—the Mayor seems surprisingly immune to political realities.
He displayed that naivete virtually from the time he took office in early 2014 and decided he would pay for all-day pre-kindergarten by persuading Albany to approve a millionaire's tax to raise $500 million. When Mr. Cuomo told him he could get the Legislature to approve a good chunk of money toward that goal, but nobody was raising taxes in an election year for himself and all legislators, Mr. de Blasio ignored him, convinced that getting 74 percent of the vote the previous November against an undercapitalized, first-time Republican candidate in a city where Democrats had a 6-1 registration advantage on Republicans amounted to a mandate.
After being embarrassed by the Governor, whose Coup de Bill was his appearance at an Albany rally held by Success Academy founder and de Blasio arch-enemy Eva Moskowitz on the same day the Mayor visited the state capital to make his pitch to legislators, Mr. de Blasio took $323 million in state funds without the millionaire's tax and basked in the praise that all-day pre-k garnered.
But he never wised up, instead opting to unload on Mr. Cuomo's penchant for vendettas the following year, earning a few points for truth-telling but prompting the Governor to narrow the scope of his score-settling to focus primarily on making the Mayor's life miserable.
Even His Friends Turn
Lately it hasn't been ardent foes, including the Police Benevolent Association, that have been the problem. Unions like the UFT and CSA had been stung by the Mayor's initial response to the coronavirus, featuring the Department of Education in March failing to inform staff of colleagues at their schools who had tested positive. They also had bristled at his insistence, along with Mr. Carranza, on keeping the schools open an extra week until an up-from-the-ranks rebellion forced the Mayor to announce March 15 that beginning the following day there would be remote learning only for the rest of the term.
Once it became apparent that the virus wasn't going to disappear as the weather grew warmer, it would have made sense to call in the unions and start planning for the fall term, especially how to safely allow for the resumption of in-person classes, which the Mayor and his Schools Chancellor correctly believe are the key to high-quality education.
But they proceeded with a stunning lack of urgency. On Aug. 12, Mr. Cannizzaro wrote a letter to the two men citing the unresolved challenges his members faced in setting up a blended-learning model and cited the shortage of school nurses, stating there was no way schools could open on schedule Sept. 10 both well-prepared for learning and safe.
The Mayor responded with his version of the Ali Shuffle, telling reporters that adjustments could be made over the next four weeks to ensure a smooth opening. Twenty days later, hours before the UFT was scheduled to take a strike-authorization vote because he hadn't made good on that prediction, Mr. de Blasio was forced to acknowledge that, in contrast to the late heavyweight champ, the dope he had roped with his stalling tactics was himself.
He unveiled a plan that would push back the start of in-person classes by six days, to Sept. 16, and would limit them to no more than three days a week, with 63 percent of students getting remote instruction the rest of the time while the remainder would receive nothing but remote instruction.
Some Hitches Remained
Mr. Mulgrew said he was satisfied that the steps being taken to prevent infection represented "the most-aggressive policies and greatest safeguards of any school system in the United States of America." This was not as glowing a tribute as it sounded, since the city was the only large school system in the nation that had not already decided to go with remote learning exclusively for the full term.
Mr. Cannizzaro praised the Mayor and Mr. Carranza for "making the right decision" and resisted the urge to chide them for taking so long. But without getting into specifics, he added, "The task before us is still monumental."
A big part of the problem was that the terrain had shifted: the number of students opting out of in-person classes had continued to grow, from 37 percent to 46 percent, and those still planning to go to schools 1-to-3 days a week were also going to need more remote instructors. In-person classes were delayed again, until Sept. 21, but after Mr. Cannizzaro said not nearly enough new Teachers had been hired to meet that greater demand, the Mayor and Mr. Carranza were forced to announce Sept. 17 that except for pre-kindergarten and 3K students, such classes would not begin until at least Sept. 29, with high school students not going to their schools until Oct. 1.
The reason, Mr. Cannizzaro said, was that not only were the schools still shorthanded, "but we also have numbers that are changing every single day."
The Mayor promised to cobble together reinforcements using per-diem substitutes, those with teaching licenses working in non-pedagogical jobs, and 2,900 laid-off adjunct instructors from the City University of New York and that network's graduate students.
Then Virus Chimed In
Even as the city struggled to get the necessary Teachers, the coronavirus, which had seemed to be somewhat under control for much of the summer, reasserted itself in a number of city neighborhoods. The cooler weather may have been a factor, but at least as big a possibility was that people in those neighborhoods, weary of restrictions on socializing and the requirement that they wear masks, had increasingly behaved like there was no longer a danger.
The citywide standard the Mayor initially said he would adopt in deciding to shut down the system as a whole rather than confining closings to neighborhoods where rising cases were a problem fit with his goal of making New York "the fairest big city in America." In other respects, it made no sense, since it would restrict learning citywide to remote instruction, depriving students in areas where the infection rate was generally below half the 3-percent positivity rate he set as the benchmark for shutdowns.
One conclusion was that he wanted to postpone any closings as long as possible, and using the citywide standard was the best way to accomplish that. But Mr. Mulgrew, ironically facing the greatest pressure within his union from the same left end of the political spectrum with which the Mayor and Chancellor are aligned, wasn't willing to risk his members' health in problem areas to indulge the Mayor. There were more than 70 UFT members, mainly Teachers and Paraprofessionals, who had died of the virus last spring, which argued for zero tolerance by the union toward any serious risk to its rank and file, even as it faced criticism from the right as well (notably from the New York Post) for making it harder to carry out in-person learning.
And so for the third time in five weeks, Mr. de Blasio found himself scrapping his original plan under union pressure based on genuine staffing and safety concerns.
'A Lack of Planning'
Maureen Connelly, a veteran political consultant who helped get Ed Koch and Michael Bloomberg elected Mayor and served as Mr. Koch's first Press Secretary, when asked what accounted for Mr. de Blasio's knack for proposals he quickly had to alter began by saying, "I'm not a psychiatrist. But there seems to be a lack of planning, especially as it relates to education. There should have been a plan by the summer. I assume the Chancellor is involved, but [the problem's] not just in education."
She continued, "There's just been so many missteps, and his staff is fleeing City Hall. You talk about the Health Commissioner," referring to the departed Dr. Oxiris Barbot. "They have a tradition of doing the [infectious-disease] testing and he takes that away from her and gives it to the Health and Hospitals Corporation. He's cutting back the budget but not cutting Thrive?" referring to the problem-plagued mental-health initiative overseen at more than a billion dollars, and counting, over the past five years by the Mayor's wife, Chirlane McCray.
But Ms. Connelly rejected the suggestion that the dozens of cops seen on duty without masks reflected a lack of respect for the Mayor and positions he has taken on the budget and legislation that were not in their interests.
"The police should be wearing masks," she said. "If you're out there giving people masks or summonses, you should be wearing one. The Police Commissioner should just say: you wear your hat, you wear your mask."
But she faulted Mr. de Blasio for not being more outspoken against protesters' misbehavior than merely calling it "unacceptable."
"Peaceful protests, OK, but looting and violence, that's not OK—that's criminal," Ms. Connelly said.
Flag-Burning as Protest
A few hours after she said that, a group at a Black Lives Matter protest in Maspeth, Queens burned several American flags. They had come there based on the mistaken belief that an Ed Mullins who lived in the neighborhood was the Mullins who is president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association. To salvage the trip, the group then descended upon the home of a conservative City Councilman to chant "F--- Robert Holden!"
Mr. de Blasio wasn't asked about that rally at his daily briefing the following morning, perhaps because reporters were more familiar with the protests by Orthodox Jews whose neighborhoods were targeted for school and business closings over the high number of coronavirus cases, where masks were burned to object to their being singled out.
That failed to get a rise out of the Mayor, who said he understood the frustration at being confronted by a new reality, prompting one reporter to ask what was new about the damage done by the virus and the requirement that masks be worn to prevent its spread. He has cultivated Orthodox Jewish support during his nearly seven years in office, and he is no doubt more comfortable having their anger focused on the Governor rather than himself, but it seemed another example of his reluctance to exert moral authority at the expense of political allies.
It could be seen in his unwillingness during the heart of the protests in late spring and early summer to speak forcefully against the violence and looting that they sometimes spawned or enabled. Vice President Biden has made a clear distinction between peaceful protest and that kind of destructive behavior with no apparent loss of support from Democrats on the left; why does the Mayor seem incapable of doing it?
The ideological differences between him and his party's nominee for President shouldn't be reason enough for Mr. de Blasio to hold his tongue. In city government, the Mayor is the ultimate authority figure; he surrendered his license to be anti-establishment once he took the oath of office.
Not Helping Anyone
And so pretending that those who go beyond legitimate protest, whether by looting businesses or trying to forcibly prevent counter-protesters from marching across the Brooklyn Bridge to hold a rally at City Hall in support of the police, can be forgiven their excesses amounts to a show of weakness. It also does those protesters no favors—Mr. de Blasio might incur their wrath by telling them that they have the constitutional right to burn flags but doing so will alienate people who might otherwise be sympathetic to their cause, but the behavior at the Maspeth rally made clear that the youthful participants needed to smarten up to accomplish anything.
After the rapper Sister Souljah in May 1992 told a Washington Post reporter, "I mean, if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?" Bill Clinton was criticized as cynical in some quarters for his response a month later. Speaking before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, the presumptive Democratic nominee for President said, "If you took the words 'white' and 'black' and you reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech."
Mr. Clinton went on to be elected President; Sister Souljah's career quickly fizzled out. The divergence in fortunes can be explained simply: rather than offer serious social commentary about how black-on-black killing further harmed African-Americans, the young rapper spouted incendiary nonsense; Mr. Clinton, whatever political calculation infused his response, was speaking common sense about how extreme her remarks were.
Common sense in both a political context and a social one often seems lacking in Mr. de Blasio. It explains why he stumbles sometimes even when dealing with those who have been his allies: once he stakes out a position, he can't seem to grasp why they see things differently.
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