I hesitate to use the word interesting, since this mayoral election has yet to live up even to that lukewarm billing, but certainly the most meaningful development of this campaign, for my money, took place at a Cosí sandwich shop on Park Avenue South on July 17. There and then, Randi Weingarten, the head of the teachers union, sat down with her nemesis, Mark Green.
All right. It may not rank up there with Tom Daschle's secret meetings with Jim Jeffords. But this assignation, reported in one quick sentence by Joel Siegel in the July 22 Daily News, is one of those chaos-theory-esque slight breezes that might have a dramatic effect on this race's weather patterns. And more than that, it suggests to us something about where post-Rudy New York may be headed and what the stakes are in this seemingly stakes-less election.
Weingarten controls one of the city's most politically powerful unions. She needed little time, after succeeding Sandra Feldman in 1998, to assert a prominent role in city and state politics, backing Chuck Schumer's effort against Al D'Amato that year and being one of a select coterie of New Yorkers who traveled to the White House in the spring of 2000 to urge Hillary to run. In big-time elections, she's two for two.
Meanwhile, she has presided over an era of relentless public-relations disasters for her beleaguered union. The Post and the News love nothing more than to take their considerable buzz saws to the teachers union; scarcely a week goes by without one of them presenting a new tale of woe about a teacher who can't spell the word blame or a pedophilic pedagogue caught in a love nest with a student. Tabloids being tabloids, some of the swipes are over the top and certainly one-sided (you don't read many newspaper stories about talented, hardworking teachers), but some are richly deserved. Unions by their nature exist to protect the lowest performers within them, which is not so bad if we're talking about tree-pruning crews; but it so happens that the lowest-performing teachers affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of mostly poor children. This is a problem both philosophical and practical, which is a bad kind of problem to have.
Among those who have noticed this, and thus found it politically advantageous to take a whack at the union, is Green, currently the Democratic front-runner. Green's education platform is studded with proposals that aren't to Weingarten's liking -- for example, he wants to reassign the best teachers to the worst schools, and he would institute regular teacher testing.
We'll get to the merits, but first it should be stated that the politics of these proposals have come a gusher for Green. For a pol, defending the teachers' union is on a par with speaking out on behalf of Lizzie Grubman. The press has made more in the past few months of Bill Bratton's support of Green, but in terms of shoring up his centrist credentials, and making him palatable to, say, the Daily News editorial board (a feral UFT critic and our most reliable bellwether of which way the centrist winds are blowing), his anti-UFT positions on the above-named issues and school governance have done him far more good than the Bratton endorsement. Weingarten knows this and therefore places roughly the same degree of trust in him that Ronald Reagan did in Daniel Ortega.
But Green is twelve or fifteen points ahead of his rivals; with each passing week, more and more insiders are willing to venture that Green just might hit 40 percent in the primary, obviating a runoff and making him the odds-on next mayor. Weingarten knows this, too. Hence, the meeting.
It was secret (until, of course, Siegel found out about it). It was a power play on both sides -- neither camp admits to having initiated, or even especially wanted, the sit-down. It was short of convivial: "We had taste-testers," Weingarten jokes. But it was also the product of Weingarten recognizing that she may well have to pick up stalled contract talks with Mayor Green. "I said I was sorry that things had gotten so vituperative," she says, "and I hoped they wouldn't be in the future. And I apologized for that, actually."
Weingarten says a possible endorsement wasn't discussed, and I feel confident in telling you that John Podhoretz will endorse Green sooner than the UFT does. But the meeting may mean that the union will stay neutral unless the dynamics of this race change dramatically in the next three weeks. (Weingarten says a decision, which has been put off for months now, will finally be made by August 22.) Neutrality would amount to a victory for Green and a big blow to Alan Hevesi, who has been banking on the union's support all year.
Weingarten says she and Green have "a fundamental philosophical disagreement" and that Green just wants to "get tough on teachers." She claims the union is "open to" moving the best teachers to the worst schools, but she argues that such a policy can create a gaping hole in the school the teacher was forced to leave. She insists that the UFT is not about protecting the weakest links and says the union, through an internal-review program, has counseled hundreds of bad teachers to leave the profession.
All this may be true. But the P.R. on it has been wanting, and what New Yorkers know is that some teachers can't spell blame. The next mayor will press the UFT for big changes and will be right to do so. He will also have to show them the money, because teachers do deserve higher salaries, but the reality is that it'll probably be concessions first, money second. Meanwhile, the wagons are circling on other fronts. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has convened a panel to look into school-governance reform (believe me, on this topic, even convening a panel is a major break with past practice), and Hillary, speaking to -- guess who? -- the Daily News editorial board, has called for mayoral control of the schools, which Green supports and Weingarten has opposed.
Some conservatives have fretted that once Rudy goes, life will return to the (bleak) status quo ante. That may happen in some respects, but it won't happen with the schools. There's too much energy now moving in the direction of change. Weingarten can either fight it or manage it. Her sit-down with her bête noire, whoever initiated it, suggests she may be ready to do the latter.