Tag Archives: NYC Mayoral Elections 2013

What Might This Mayoral Election Mean?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition?

Is Bill de Blasio a symbol of an age of political transition or is he something else?

The post-mortems on the New York City Democratic mayoral primary have been pouring in, despite the fact that the election is not over yet. Democratic voters had choices from Christine Quinn (Bloomberg’s 4th term), Bill de Blasio (a city liberal of the old mold), Bill Thompson (who staked out a third way between Quinn and de Blasio) and Anthony Weiner (who might have had a chance if not for his personal foibles, which are many). A de Blasio victory in these primaries might presage a new era in American politics.

In 1977, a Democrat named Ed Koch won his party’s nomination and then the general election running a campaign promising law and order and fiscal responsibility. Three years later, Ronald Reagan was elected president after running a campaign that touched upon similar themes. The late 1970s up until today has been an era defined by Reagan’s program, a program ratified by Clinton and the New Democrats of the 1990s and continued by Bush and Obama in the new millennium.  Both Koch and Reagan appealed to young voters. Teenagers and 20-somethings of that era had come of age at the moment when America’s great experiment in liberalism, the New Deal, was falling apart. The era of Vietnam, urban riots and dishonest government was ripe soil for a new generation of voters receptive to something different, something that repudiated the programs that gave birth to the rotting world in which they had been raised. In 1977, it was the voters of New York City who were the bellwethers of a changing national mood bent towards conservatism. In 2013, many on the left are hoping the same scenario is playing out conversely here in NYC. (This article is a compelling read of this prospect.)

The general election will, presumably, feature the Democrat Bill de Blasio against Republican Joe Lhota. Lhota will be a tough candidate, especially if Bill Thompson is able to secure a runoff election. A Democratic runoff is already conjuring up memories of 2001, when Bloomberg won his first term as Pharaoh partially due to the internal wars of city Democrats. But runoff or not, Lhota’s strategy against de Blasio will be predictable: paint him as an irresponsible liberal who will return the city to the bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. The message will certainly resonate with older New Yorkers, not to mention the younger business-minded voters on Wall Street.

But political futures are not made on old voters, a lesson the Republican Party nationwide has been slow to learn. De Blasio has tapped into the same vein of young voters as Obama did in both of his elections. The late teen and early 20-something of today is more likely to be part of a minority group and tolerant on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana than the young voter of 35 years ago. They also have been coming of age in the world of the conservative revolution and that world is just as rotten as the liberal world of the Koch and Reagan ascendancies. Their overall liberal views on issues of class and culture make them less susceptible to the fear of class and culture warfare preyed upon by conservative candidates. In short, the past 10-15 years have been ripe soil for future voters who reject the Reagan Revolution.

Perhaps a Bill de Blasio mayoralty will be a laboratory for a new national political program, a role New York City has played many times in its history. A good way to discern how much of a laboratory the city might be with de Blasio is to look at what he does on education. Many educated people are hoping and predicting that the de Blasio victory means that Democrats at least reject Bloomberg’s corporatization of public schools that has erroneously been dubbed “education reform”. Their hopes have some foundation considering de Blasio’s generally friendly history towards labor in the city, not to mention his out-and-out rejection of most of Bloomberg’s legacy as the “education mayor”. He consistently took the most anti-Bloomberg stance whenever he was asked about education policy, famously saying that “there is no way in hell that Eva Moskowitz should get free rent” when asked about charter school co-locations. Those types of quotes were probably good enough to pry many teachers away from Thompson and give heart to the defenders of public education, me included.

However, promises in the primaries and promises in the general election are two different things. And promises in general compared to action while in office is something else entirely. Education reform has been a sharpening stone on which politicians of both parties, but especially Democrats, have honed their credentials for national office. Cory Booker and Andrew Cuomo have become up-and-comers largely owing to their school reforms, which included taking on unions and injecting the private sector into education. In order for Bill de Blasio to truly set himself apart from the rising New Democrats (who are not so new anymore) in the Clinton/Obama mold, he must keep singing his current tune on education throughout the general elections and then in office. As mayor of New York, de Blasio would be in the national eye. Bold leadership on his part might point the way to a new path in American politics. Will he sacrifice a bold education policy that respects schools as public institutions to bold reforms in other areas on which he might make more headway? If he does this, the new road he paves will make corporate school reform a reality for at least another generation. This is why Democrats can be much more dangerous to the American left than Republicans.

Just as instructive as keeping an eye on de Blasio’s education policy in the coming weeks and months is keeping an eye on how the UFT reacts to him. The union endorsed Bill Thompson early in the campaign season, mostly because he seemed like the only potentially successful alternative to Christine Quinn. This was back when de Blasio was polling in the single digits and Quinn was presumed to be the nominee. As usual, the UFT backed the person who did not win, although all of the money and resources they poured into Thompson’s campaign surely helped in smacking Quinn down to the three spot, where a runoff is out of reach for her. However, they continue to back Thompson even when it is clear that he would not win in a runoff, a runoff that would do nothing but allow Joe Lhota to consolidate his resources for the general election. Perhaps Mulgrew is pressuring Thompson behind the scenes to concede. The sooner the Democrats get behind Bill de Blasio, the better it will be for them come the general election.

If de Blasio does become mayor, will he cap charter schools? There are billions of reformy dollars coursing through this city and they could launch a massive propaganda campaign against education policy that threatens their share of the increasing education “market”. If it really does come down to a case of the reformers vs. de Blasio, I am not at all sure where the UFT would stand on most issues. If the UFT feels that de Blasio might lose in a propaganda war for the hearts and minds of New Yorkers, they might cast their lot with the Rhee crowd just so they avoid the “obstructionist” label that unjustifiably dogs them. In short, the question might come down to: will the teachers’ unions be on the front lines of a new leftist direction in American politics or will they try to temper any such development? This will not be the first time this question is asked in NYC, the 1968 strike especially being a moment when the UFT actively stood against a leftward turn in education policy.

But the teachers I know and read on the internet are hopeful that a de Blasio mayoralty will mean a new contract and a renegotiation of the evaluation system. The real dreamers have hopes for retroactive pay and an opting out of New York City from the state’s inclusion in the Race to the Top program. These are the issues by which teachers will largely judge Bill de Blasio. We hope that he is able to recognize how deep the Bloomberg school reforms go. It is not just about charter schools. It is also about the deskilling of the profession and the autocratic line of command that runs through the system. A complete dismantling of the Bloomberg Way in public schooling in favor of a more democratic approach would certainly be a major blow to the nationwide school deform movement.

We cannot be sure if the left here and around the world is resurging or if this is just a tempest in a teapot. We can only be hopeful. In that hope, we have to be mindful that we are living in exciting times where things are shifting and do what we can in our own lives to help shift it in the right direction.

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CHRISTINE QUINN’S OPPORTUNISM

Remember when Christine Quinn flipped out on the guy who called Bloomberg "pharaoh"? We should always remember that.

Remember when Christine Quinn flipped out on the guy who called Bloomberg “pharaoh”? We should always remember that.

Christine Quinn is still the front-runner for the second toughest job in the United States according to a recent poll. Leading in the polls among the other Democratic candidates pretty much means leading in the polls overall here in NYC. The Republican Party will unlikely be a serious challenge for whomever the Democrats nominate and there are no Independents in the field with the type of name recognition Bloomberg had when he ran as one.

Make no mistake about it: Christine Quinn knows the game of politics. As City Council Speaker she paved the way for Pharaoh Bloomberg’s (illegal) third term. Her reward thus far has been a free hand in running her campaign from City Hall without interference from the Bloomberg smear machine, a machine still working on railroading John Liu.

Completely cognizant of the unpopularity of mayoral control of the school system and Bloomberg-style education reform, Quinn recently shared a vision for NYC schools which seemed to distance herself from the Bloomberg approach. For example:

“Instead of treating school closing like a goal in and of itself, we should see it as an ultimate last resort when all else has failed,” Ms. Quinn said, referring to Mr. Bloomberg’s policy of closing low-performing schools and replacing them with new ones. “And we should make fixing schools not just the responsibility of the principal and the teacher, but of all of city government and the entire community.”

Sounds good, especially if you’re one of those New Yorkers associated with a school Bloomberg has closed or is threatening to close.

Even better is Quinn’s promise to reduce the “emphasis on testing”, although this does not mean the same thing as reducing the amount of exams our students currently take. She would not have the power to do much in this area anyway.

In her peroration Quinn described how she would use the resources of municipal government to make up for some of the disadvantages of our neediest students:

Saying that students need more than just a good teacher to be in a position to learn, Ms. Quinn proposed that New York City imitate a Cincinnati program that has used Medicaid funds to establish medical clinics and even an eye clinic in schools, so that students can be treated for various ailments or get glasses without leaving the building.

Adopting that model, she said, would require better communication among city agencies. To coordinate programs across agencies that work with children — running after-school programs, providing health care and food stamps — Ms. Quinn proposed appointing a deputy mayor who would be responsible for both education and children.

This is an interesting idea, one reminiscent of the free breakfast programs the Black Panther Party funded during the 1960s. Politically speaking, this might end up backfiring on Quinn. She will get hammered as a “liberal” or even a “socialist” from the white, blue-collar part of the electorate. From the other side, it does not speak to any of the criticisms the United Federation of Teachers has had of Bloomberg’s school reform program. This just seems like a reallocation of Medicaid funds into a program where poor parents will physically see the benefits for their children.

Then there is her financially dubious proposal to save money by replacing textbooks with tablets. I smell a Bloomberg-esque no-bid contract in there somewhere.

Speaking of no-bid contracts:

The Council speaker also suggested finding savings in the $1.2 billion the department spends each year on consulting and contracts. (Her spokesman, Jamie McShane, pointed to computer services contracts, which he said in fiscal year 2013 will cost roughly $40 million, and contracts for infrastructure maintenance, which he said will cost nearly $60 million, as examples of areas where Ms. Quinn saw bloat.)

Any teacher will tell you that this is where the bulk of education funds end up going. However, the numbers her office cited barely make a dent in the overall education budget. These seem like symbolic gestures designed to placate critics of the increasing waste of Bloomberg-era education contracts.

Her stance on charter schools is that they are on a “good level” now, meaning that Bloomberg has opened a sufficient number over the past 10 years. Does this mean she promises a containment policy of sorts for charters?

So, when we take stock of what Christine Quinn is actually promising we see it is not a major divergence from Bloomberg at all. The tone of her words are certainly designed to put some distance between her and the unpopular mayor, not to mention to woo Mulgrew and the UFT, but the substance of it all is limited to say the least.

Today Quinn distanced herself even more from Bloomberg in a press conference where she touched upon the failure of the mayor and UFT to work out a new teacher evaluation deal:

“I don’t have a problem with the idea of a sunset. Most pieces of significant legislation have a sunset in them.”

The sunset clause was what sunk negotiations with the UFT last week. Michael Mulgrew was willing to agree to the longest-term evaluation deal in the entire state. This wasn’t enough for Bloomberg who said any type of sunset clause would make the evaluations “a sham”.

Smartly, Christine Quinn is verbally distancing herself from Bloomberg. However, there is little evidence that she would do much other than solidify most of Bloomberg’s failed education programs.

Although critical of school closures she never promised to end them. Although aware of the need to support schools with better resources, no plan to do so was outlined other than a reallocation of Medicaid funds. Although aware of the waste and corruption of no-bid contracts, her changes in this regard would be largely cosmetic. Claiming that charter schools were at a “good level” right now is a start but allows her the loophole that charters might need to be increased in the future.

Not to mention that she accepts the assumptions of the wider movement of education reform and the quest to tie teacher evaluations to test scores. She has continuously said that the new evaluations are “too important” for our students (they are not) and the loss of funds will hurt our schools (which they shouldn’t).

While obviously trying to pander, tepidly, to the UFT she is also attempting to pander to other elements by promising to keep Ray Kelly on as police commissioner. Kelly’s NYPD “stop-and-frisk” policy has alienated minority communities, although it plays well to the white blue-collar bloc of New York City’s electorate. Maybe Quinn is hoping to snatch the liberal bloc with education policy and the conservative bloc with law enforcement policy?

Candidates angling for public office should only be half-believed. By that equation, the half-measures she has proposed for the school system at this stage means an actual “change factor” of absolute zero if she gets elected.

Nobody can blame Quinn for playing the game. She wants power. She reads the polls. What she says and does over the next few months will be determined by these two factors.

A candidate we can believe in? Hardly.

A cookie-cutter political opportunist who embodies politics-as-usual in NYC? Absolutely.