A few things have happened in Albany in the hours since Dropout Nation ran its analysis on the prospects of advancing systemic reform amid the kickback scandal involving Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. This evening, amid public uproar (as well as criticism from Gov. Andrew Cuomo) over Silver’s plan to temporarily hand power to a five-member committee of his cronies, the speaker has been forced by his Assembly Democrat colleagues to step down as head of the Empire State’s lower house. As a result, there will be at least a three-man race to succeed him permanently as speaker. Which, in turn, makes it even more-likely that the American Federation of Teachers and its three affiliates in the state will work overtime to push for a successor that befits their interests.
Majority Leader Joseph Morelle, who will serve as interim speaker, may have the edge going in. But his long and public association with Silver and his legacy of political corruption may make it difficult for Assembly Democrats to choose him. Same with Herman “Denny” Farrell, the New York City Democrat (and one-time candidate for Big Apple mayor) who was also part of the five-member committee Silver selected to operate the assembly in his stead. Meanwhile Catherine Nolan, a member of that committee who also chairs the education policy panel, likely doesn’t have enough juice (and also is tainted by her association with Silver) to win a bid for the top job.
So who could end up succeeding Silver as speaker? One is Keith Wright, the former state Democratic Party chairman who called for Silver to step down yesterday. Whether or not Wright can command other Assembly Democrats to vote him in is an open question; the fact that he could end up pursuing a bid to succeed Congressman Charles Rangel when he retires next year also makes the bid for speaker unlikely. There’s also Carl Heastie, another Big Apple Democrat who chairs the Assembly Labor Committee; his alliance with Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president (who can command other assembly members to vote for Heastie) may give him the edge over Morelle and Wright.
But who would the AFT prefer? Like Morelle, Wright and Heastie are both longtime recipients of AFT funding; both have received, respectively, $21,600 and $27,670 from New York State United Teachers and the New York State Public Employees Federation over their careers. But Wright may be the union’s choice. Three years ago, he offered up a proposal to require charter schools in New York City to be approved by the now-moribund community school boards instead of by either the mayoral-controlled district or the State University of New York (which are authorizers under state law). That plan, which would have ended the practice of allowing charters to operate in half-empty traditional district school buildings, never made it out of the legislature. But Wright’s stand proved his loyalty to the AFT and other traditionalists.
Heastie hasn’t exactly taken much of a stance on reform issues; his most-public stance came six years ago when he backed a bill that would have slightly weakened then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s control over the Department of Education. But his ties to private-sector unions generally more -supportive of reform (even though he is also supported by the AFT’s public-sector allies) also make him a relative wildcard. The bigger problem may lie with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, with whom Heastie has sparred in the past; two years ago, Heastie unsuccessfully backed the mayor’s rival for the Big Apple’s top job, Bill Thompson, then opposed de Blasio’s choice to run the city council. While Heastie has made up with de Blasio, the mayor may end up working with Cuomo and others to keep Heastie from becoming speaker.
But for AFT and its affiliates, anyone may be preferable to Morelle. This is because a Morelle tenure would likely benefit Cuomo and his school reform allies. So long as Silver remained the boss behind the scenes, Morelle could be counted on to resist Cuomo’s reform efforts. But free of Silver’s influence and with his relatively closer ties to the governor, Morelle could be too weak to resist any of Cuomo’s plans.
Beyond the intrigue at the Million Dollar Staircase, the AFT and its units are launching their salvos against Cuomo and reformers.
Michael Mulgrew, the president of AFT’s United Federation of Teachers, circulated a piece running in next month’s issue of New York Teacher accusing Cuomo of being “out of touch” with the union’s agenda as well as doing the bidding of “hedge-fund managers” and others backing systemic reform. [Your editor thanks Mona Davids of the New York City Parents Union for getting Dropout Nation a copy.] Given that UFT spent $18.3 million on political activities in 2013-2014 alone (along with $3.5 million through its United for the Future super-PAC on the Big Apple’s mayoral and city council races in 2013), Mulgrew’s ire at reform-oriented philanthropists for daring to disrupt the AFT’s influence over education policy is rather hypocritical. But given the penchant of Mulgrew and his AFT colleagues for faux-class warfare rhetoric, it also isn’t surprising.
You can expect the AFT’s vassals to play on the Silver scandal (and anger of good government activists against Gov. Cuomo’s move last year to kibosh the work of an ethics reform commission) by accusing the governor of being corrupt because he is backing systemic reform. Last month, the Alliance for Quality Education (which collected $200,000 from the AFT and NYSUT in 2013-2014) issued an attack piece targeting the support the governor picked up from New Yorkers for a Balanced Albany, a super-PAC backed by key reform philanthropists such as Paul Tudor Jones and Dan Senor; the latter being the husband of another AQE target, Campbell Brown. Expect NYSUT, UFT, and NYSPEF to get together with AFT apparatchiks to take some of the data from the union’s past enemy’s lists to peddle similar talking points.
No matter what happens in the next few weeks, the battle over reform in the Empire State will remain interesting for the movement to watch.
Featured photo: Sheldon Silver’s top lieutenant, Joseph Morelle, is one of three men looking to succeed the indicted politician as assembly speaker.