On another front, however, the new mayor seems ready to go to war. De Blasio and Eva Moskowitz overlapped for four years in the City Council, and for the most part cordially, which is somewhat unusual, because the hard-charging Moskowitz has a talent for getting under people’s skin. After leaving public office, she founded Success Academy in Harlem; since 2006, it has grown to operate 22 charter schools in four boroughs and racked up impressive test scores, as well as a series of complaints that the schools cull low-performing and special-ed students. That’s made Moskowitz a lightning rod for charter opponents, and during the Democratic primary she was a convenient target for contenders trying to endear themselves to the teachers union, De Blasio among them. He proposed that charters already sharing space with conventional schools start paying rent—but his attacks took on an unusually harsh personal edge. “There’s no way in hell Eva Moskowitz should get free rent [for her schools], okay?” De Blasio said at a forum in June. Even his allies found the vehemence a little hard to figure. “I understand Bill’s points about income inequality, affordable housing, stop and frisk,” one Democrat says, “and how his critique of education reform fit into his anti-Bloomberg attack. But the charter-school stuff struck me as less genuine. Many of those schools are serving the poor kids he cares about.”
Indeed, De Blasio now says he’s willing to learn from the charters that work best. “I think there are some charters that are doing a good job, that are representative, that provide a good model, and we’ll work with them,” he told me. “But they will never replace the core capacity of our traditional public schools.”
Perhaps that’s what’s really fueling his annoyance with Moskowitz. De Blasio’s main problem with charters isn’t philosophical—it’s that they suck up a disproportionate amount of political time and attention. He’d rather ignore the charter-school movement than kill it, and instead devote his educational energies to improving the 90 percent of the city’s schools that aren’t charters. Yet one of the many things that’s not clear about De Blasio as a leader is whether he can separate business from personal. Bloomberg, as mayor, was generally able to scorn an adversary one day and consider him an ally the next. Moskowitz will provide an intriguing test case, because she seems determined to goad De Blasio into backing up his campaign rhetoric. In October, she led a save-the-charters protest march across the Brooklyn Bridge, and she isn’t backing off now. Wasn’t the Million Moskowitz March prematurely confrontational? “Bill de Blasio took on Success Academy very directly in his campaign and threatened our very existence,” she says. “To fulfill his campaign promise [about charging rent to charters] he would have to hurt the very children he genuinely wants to help. And that I want to help. I’m delighted that the mayor-elect cares about equality, because that means equality of funding, that means equality of space. And charter schools have been discriminated against in so many ways. And I’m not sure he’s aware of all those ways.”
Bill de Blasio has plenty of reasons to be friends with Andrew Cuomo and enemies with Eva Moskowitz. Finding a productive balance in those relationships, and in dozens of other conflicting interests, will be tougher. But achieving that balance will determine whether De Blasio can go from righteous candidate to agile mayor—and actually bring New York’s two cities closer together.