All through its four-month vetting process of mayoral candidates, featuring five town-hall forums in which 12,000 of its members participated, there was something inevitable about the United Federation of Teachers' decision April 19 to endorse Scott Stringer in the June 22 Democratic primary.
For one thing, while the union has not played a pivotal role in backing a victorious candidate for Mayor since it got behind David Dinkins in 1989, it has had two conspicuous victories backing Mr. Stringer.
The first came in 2005 when he was elected Manhattan Borough President, defeating the UFT's then-and-forever nemesis, Eva Moskowitz. (Given that she responded to that loss by founding the Success Academy charter-school network, which has made her a considerably more-powerful adversary than she was a Chair of the City Council Education Committee, that was a mixed blessing for the union.)
And then in 2013, the UFT's support helped Mr. Stringer make up a large deficit in the polls and vanquish former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who had gone down-ballot for what he thought would be a name-recognition-fueled cakewalk for City Comptroller. (The problem with Mr. Spitzer's political assessment was that to know him was not necessarily to love him--as might also be said about Ms. Moskowitz.)
In addition, Mr. Stringer is City Comptroller, a job which has been a key factor in previous UFT endorsements. Alan Hevesi had that status in 2001, when he was the first of three unsuccessful union choices of Democratic candidates to succeed Rudy Giuliani.
The 'Clear Path' to Disappointment
In June 2013, the union passed over Comptroller John Liu—whose run had been hindered by a campaign-finance controversy—to tap his predecessor in the job, Bill Thompson. Mike Mulgrew, overseeing his first mayoral endorsement, said the union had tapped him over Public Advocate Bill de Blasio because he was the candidate who seemed to have the "clearest path to victory."
This meant that Mr. Thompson was particularly popular among city unions, including those representing uniformed employees, whose members don't normally favor liberal Democrats. The trouble was that Mr. Thompson was a likable man who neither displayed much passion nor inspired it among the voters, and even with all the labor support, he couldn't get enough votes to force a runoff with the Public Advocate.
Partly because the union quickly changed horses and galloped along with Mr. de Blasio as he easily won the general election, and partly because the UFT tends to be as resourceful as it is powerful, the new Mayor being its second choice did not hurt it. Four months after he took office, he and Mr. Mulgrew announced a complex nine-year contract deal in which Teachers and other union members got two long-delayed 4-percent wage hikes and nearly five years worth of back pay that kept them healthy even when the raises got considerably cheaper in the final seven years of the deal.
That contract success, too, had a precedent. After Mr. Hevesi finished fourth in a four-candidate primary in 2001, the UFT backed Bronx Borough President Freddy Ferrer in the runoff. It did so largely because he was the alternative to Public Advocate Mark Green, the Sultan of Smug who had alienated most city unions that year by telling them in endorsement interviews that he didn't need them to win but would need their help to govern. He had also described their relationship with incumbent Mayor Rudy Giuliani as akin to a dog and a hydrant, with the incumbent in the role of canine.
Left with a choice between Mr. Green and Michael Bloomberg in the general election, then-UFT President Randi Weingarten swung and missed one more time by backing the Democratic nominee. But once Mr. Bloomberg was ensconced in office, she convinced him that if he really wanted to be the Education Mayor he had pledged to be during the campaign, the smartest way to do it would be to negotiate contracts that treated her members well financially in return for greater cooperation on implementing his policies.
Worked for a While
This helped push maximum salary for senior Teachers above $100,000 and produced one contract along the way that was negotiated nearly a year before the old one was to expire. It also kept the UFT on the sidelines in the 2005 Mayor's race, although it was likely that much of its membership favored Mr. Ferrer, who was badly outspent and lost to the incumbent by 20 points.
With the exception of that race, neutrality has cost the UFT far more than backing the wrong candidate over the past three decades. The first time it bit the union was in the 1993 Mayor's race, when rather than getting behind Mr. Dinkins in his re-election bid, then-union President Sandy Feldman spent the early months of the campaign running ads lambasting him for not treating Teachers fairly at the bargaining table. The ads were meant to prod the incumbent to buckle, not help his challenger, Rudy Giuliani, but they wound up being unintended contributions to the challenger's media offensive.
That left the UFT with eight years of dealing with a Mayor who saw battling it as a way to enhance his appeal to Republicans nationally. Things got worse after Ms. Feldman grudgingly agreed to a contract in 1995 during a city budget crunch that would have begun with a two-year wage freeze, only to have it voted down by her rank and file. That earned the union Mr. Giuliani's permanent enmity, and it was eventually forced to accept a two-year wage freeze and only marginally better terms in other areas than what had been rejected by its members.
The second time the union got less than it bargained for after sitting out an election was in 2009, when Mr. Bloomberg was up for a possible third term at virtually the same time that its contract was due to expire.
At that point, Ms. Weingarten was in the process of handing the UFT reins to Mr. Mulgrew while she devoted full time to running the American Federation of Teachers. When the UFT opted not to endorse Mr. Bloomberg's Democratic opponent, Mr. Thompson, the assumption was that it hoped to get a new contract deal soon after the election in return for not bucking the incumbent.
But after winning re-election by a surprisingly narrow margin despite spending $110 million on the campaign, Mr. Bloomberg was in a particularly parsimonious mood. He quickly made clear to Mr. Mulgrew that not only wouldn't he give the UFT the same pair of 4-percent raises that had been a pattern for more than 60 percent of city workers going back to mid-2007, any raises he did offer would not include retroactivity.
This violated a 40-year-old tradition by city Mayors who understood that honoring that principle spared them worries about union strikes if a contract deadline passed without a replacement deal. Mr. Mulgrew soon after taking office had publicly referred to Mr. Bloomberg's first-and-only Chancellor to that point, Joel Klein, as "numb-nuts." He didn't use any variations on what he called a family "term of endearment" to describe the suddenly cranky Mayor, but he probably thought even worse of him at that point.
That was why the union was so intent in the 2013 campaign on backing the right Democrat for Mayor, only to overrate Mr. Thompson's appeal and be surprised when Mr. de Blasio surged to victory with a well-crafted commercial in which his teenage son pledged that he would be the candidate who would end a stop-and-frisk policy that unfairly—and, as a Federal Judge ruled less than a month before the primary, unconstitutionally—targeted young black and Latino men.
At the time of the endorsement, there were indications that union members would have been happier going with Mr. de Blasio, the most left-leaning of the candidates with some chance of winning. Five years later, it was Mr. Stringer, long regarded as a mild-mannered liberal Upper West Sider, who began the sharp swing to the left that, if it hasn't marked him as this year's de Blasio, puts him in the progressive lane also occupied by Maya Wiley and Dianne Morales and, a week before the UFT endorsement, got him the backing of the Working Families Party.
He backed several left-of-center women candidates for State Senate who unseated former members of the centrist Independent Democratic Conference in the 2018 state elections. The following spring, he took an even-wilder turn in endorsing Tiffany Caban for Queens District Attorney.
An Unlikely Choice for Job
During the UFT press conference announcing its endorsement, Mr. Mulgrew said one reason union members preferred Mr. Stringer was, "We know we need someone who knows how to get things done."
Moments later, the Comptroller extended that thought, saying, "People want a mayoralty with someone who's ready to go. We don't need a mayoralty with training wheels."
That remark contained unintended humor in light of his choice of Ms. Caban—a public defender who had never prosecuted a case—for Queens DA. She didn't seem to regard her lack of experience in that area as a drawback, but that may have been because she didn't seem sold on the idea that the job should involve convicting people of crimes and then locking them up.
At the outset of the campaign, she made clear she wanted Rikers Island closed down, preferably ahead of the 2026 target date. During a subsequent NY1 debate, she stunned moderator Errol Louis by saying that she opposed construction of a new jail facility in Queens that, along with others in every borough except Staten Island, were supposed to house the detainees once Rikers were shuttered.
This position would have seemed to disqualify her from serious consideration, yet in a primary in which the other competitors all had more-conventional ideas about the job and its mandate, she got enough support from some of the same people who had backed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in her 2018 congressional upset win that it took a sharp swing from absentee ballots to allow Melinda Katz to overcome her primary-night lead and defeat Ms. Caban by 55 votes.
The other shocking aspect of Mr. Stringer's backing of a candidate with so little relevant experience for the job was that he and Ms. Katz—who at that point was Queens Borough President—had been longtime friends going back to the days late in the last century when they were both Members of the Assembly.
A New Edginess
For someone often described with mild Yiddish put-downs like "nebbish," this was uncharacteristically ruthless behavior. Mr. Stringer's mother was a cousin of Bella Abzug, the outspoken West Side Congresswoman who made failed runs for Mayor and U.S. Senate in the mid-1970s, but his public persona has never contained the brassiness for which she was both celebrated and vilified.
But he kept heading left last June when he called for "defunding the NYPD," saying it was an appropriate response to the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. For a man always known for cerebral critiques of the Police Department who proposed that a financial version of CompStat be created to rein in cops whose aggressive conduct led to large settlement against the city and judgments in the cases where it tried to contest lawsuits, this seemed a visceral leap that lacked his usual methodical logic.
And he wasn't done: at the end of that month, when Mr. de Blasio and City Council Speaker Corey Johnson agreed on a budget that they said cut the NYPD's spending by $1 billion, Mr. Stringer criticized them not for elements of that reduction that seemed counterproductive, but for artificially inflating the money they claimed to be saving.
Political consultant George Arzt, who has done work for Mr. Stringer in the past, said the day after the endorsement that he doubted the Comptroller's rhetoric of last year presented any problems for Mr. Mulgrew and his rank and file.
He explained, "I don't think it's a UFT issue, and Scott has taken a step back from defunding the police" during the campaign.
Despite the Comptroller's longstanding ties to the union, Mr. Arzt said he doubted it would have backed him if he wasn't perceived to have a solid chance of winning, despite trailing Mr. Yang and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams in the polls. He noted that Mr. Yang's criticism of the UFT and his lack of knowledge of city government had made him the one contender who was unpalatable to Mr. Mulgrew and his delegates, and Mr. Adams's past support for charter schools hurt his chances.
Mark Against Wiley
While Ms. Wiley was one of the four contenders the UFT brought to its final forum two weeks before the endorsement, will benefit from the endorsement of the giant health-care workers union SEIU1199 and has also cracked double digits in the polls, Mr. Arzt said, "I think the feeling is that she's at her ceiling" in terms of support at a time when Mr. Adams and Mr. Stringer are perceived as having a chance to overcome Mr. Yang's lead.
"Most insiders see this as a race among Yang, Eric and Scott," he said.
And the UFT endorsement was particularly significant, Mr. Arzt said, for reasons that go beyond its large membership, close to half of which is composed of retirees who are known for turning out on behalf of the union's choices.
"They have troops, parents look at the UFT [endorsement], and parents have concerns about their children's education."
In accepting the endorsement, Mr. Stringer praised what Teachers had been able to accomplish given the impact of the pandemic and the fits and starts that have characterized the Department of Education's performance over the past year.
'Kids Need Fighting Chance'
"What parents need is certainty," he said. "They need to know that their child has a fighting chance to make it."
He then spoke with enthusiasm about his own chances of making it, saying, "There's some history here: when I get endorsed by the UFT, I win."
Left unsaid was the other history that hangs over the alliance: in 32 years since it endorsed Mr. Dinkins in his first mayoral run, the only candidate the union backed in the primary who got elected that November was Mr. de Blasio four years ago, when he faced tepid opposition.
And then there are the revisions Mr. Stringer has made to his own political history, and whether they can win him more votes than they cost.
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