An Angry Pataki, His Race Askew, Rides Teachers

Not long after his humiliating defeat on the Independence Party line-the first-ever defeat of his political career-Governor George Pataki stood before a group of school teachers from lower Manhattan and made his strongest remarks to date attacking a June appeals-court ruling that said an eighth-grade education is enough for New York City schoolchildren. “I totally disagree,” he said, speaking with unusual vehemence. “It will never be the policy of the state so long as I am Governor of this state.”

For good measure, he even quoted a line from the earlier lower-court ruling upholding the right of New York City schoolchildren to a greater share of state funds (the very ruling Mr. Pataki successfully appealed). “If demography were destiny,” said the Governor, “I would not be Governor of this state.” Randi Weingarten, the head of the United Federation of Teachers, looked on, nodding her head. The comments were the cover she needed to push for an endorsement of Mr. Pataki, expected in early October-an endorsement that would be the culmination of a year’s worth of effort on Mr. Pataki’s part.

Neither Mr. Pataki’s remarks nor their timing were a coincidence. Even as the Governor stood in the student union at Pace University, in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge, his aides were reaching out to his brain trust. The Governor was angry-very angry, the aides were saying, according to sources familiar with the calls.

Mr. Pataki could not understand how his campaign had let the Independence Party line slip away, allowing billionaire Tom Golisano to continue to bludgeon the Governor on television. “The dynamic of the race has totally changed,” said a political consultant who is familiar with both parties. “The Governor now has to really run. He cannot walk the bases.”

A Pataki spokeswoman, Mollie Fullington, denied that the primary results had prompted a convocation of the Pataki brain trust. “There was no meeting, no conference call,” she said. She didn’t deny that the Governor was upset over the Independence Party loss, saying only that she didn’t know “what his personal feelings were.”

In the next seven weeks, education will be a major theme. For about a month now, Mr. Pataki’s Democratic opponent, State Comptroller H. Carl McCall, and his team have repeatedly mentioned the ruling on eighth-grade education, and the Pataki campaign’s reaction shows that the attacks are hitting home. Each such attack by Mr. McCall is parried by a press release from Mr. Pataki’s campaign manager criticizing the Comptroller’s stewardship of the Board of Education years ago.

Upping the ante, the Pataki campaign has sent out a video press release showing Mr. McCall saying that New York City schoolchildren should get more state funds, even if it comes at upstaters’ expense. Team Pataki has gone so far as to dig up old court papers showing that Mr. McCall once tried to defend the state against the claim that New York City schoolchildren deserved more. A McCall spokesman says that was because the Comptroller inherited the case and soon extricated himself from it.

There’s a reason for these back-and-forth assaults. To be attacked on education is dangerous for Mr. Pataki. Two groups seen as pivotal in the upcoming election-women and Latinos-consistently put education at the top of their list of priorities. For a decade (or as long as the group has been measuring community attitudes), the Hispanic Foundation has found education to be the No. 1 issue in the Latino community-more than crime, the economy or, more recently, terrorism. And women-who tend to decide whom to vote for late, according to Democratic pollster Jeff Plaut of the Global Strategies Group-are likely to take a considered look at a candidate’s position on education.

So Mr. Pataki needs a shield, and his aides are privately saying that the shield will be the teachers’ union. Publicly, Ms. Weingarten insists that the endorsement will be made democratically, using the union’s process. But though she describes herself as a “lifelong Democrat,” she acknowledges that she could see herself supporting a Republican.

“The reason we gave Governor Pataki our John Dewey Award,” she offered after a pre-primary event with Mr. McCall, convened to attack Mr. Pataki for defending the lawsuit on the state’s school-funding formula, “was because our salaries were woefully behind, we needed to create additional time for professional development-and the Governor listened. In a very tight budget year, he found the means to help us navigate to a successful contract.” And then she pointed out, with a characteristic downward clench of her jaw, that the teachers’ union has also supported Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who, as the state’s lawyer, is in charge of the state’s legal defense on the case.

Mr. Pataki’s courting of the teachers’ union began more than a year ago. According to union and campaign officials, on Sept. 10, 2001, the teachers’ union had a handshake deal with then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani similar to the deal ultimately struck in June 2002. But then the World Trade Center attack gutted the state and city budgets. Also, suburban Democratic legislators objected to the teachers’ deal, saying it would take money from a building fund for suburban schools.

On the city front, Ms. Weingarten was out of luck. In the Mayor’s race, she picked three successive losers: Alan Hevesi in the primary, Fernando Ferrer in the run-off, and Mark Green in the general election. Even though Ms. Weingarten met with Michael Bloomberg shortly after his election, privately there was little warmth. “She knew he’d never run a union shop and had disdain for unions,” said one union official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “And with her track record, she didn’t have any reason to think she could get anything out of him. She was desperate.”

Enter George Pataki, stage right. “In the days and weeks following Sept. 11 last year,” Ms Weingarten said at the Pace University event, “I got a call from the Governor: ‘How are the kids? How are the teachers?’ This is who he is. He does it very quietly. He doesn’t do it with the same kind of fanfare as others, but he does it in ways that I was really surprised [by]-and I personally want to thank him for what he did last year at that time. It really helped.”

If the talk was soothing at first, it soon turned to dollars and cents. As early as January, on the heels of the health-care workers’ deal, some Democratic members of the Assembly charged that Mr. Pataki was seeking to use the state budget to win the teachers’ union endorsement. His opening gambit, the Assembly members said at the time, would be a $200 million increase in state aid. A week later, the state budget was unveiled. The total in new funding for education was $6 million, but through an accounting trick, the Governor earmarked $200 million in “prior-year claims”-that is, money the city said the state should have already paid for previous years’ budgets. That $200 million was to go to raise teachers’ salaries.

The Bloomberg administration’s response was initially negative. “That money is ours anyway,” was the word from City Hall the day the budget was introduced. And besides, it was the dreaded “one-shot”: a one-time source of revenue that would be used to pay a new expense-the teachers’ raise-that would then recur year after year.

But the Mayor desperately wanted something of his own: control of the city’s schools. In complicated multiparty negotiations over the next five months, his opposition to the state payment dissipated. By June, the $200 million had become $400 million-in money the state was allowing the city to borrow. For the first time anyone could remember, the Governor joined the Mayor at a press conference announcing the settlement of the teachers’ contract. Not long afterward, he was given the John Dewey Award, the union’s highest honor.

The teachers’ endorsement is not yet in hand. The union will go through its official process. But sources familiar with the Pataki campaign say that it’s already counting on an advertisement with Randi Weingarten. Such a television commercial, they believe, will go far in blunting the attacks already coming, hot and heavy, from the Democratic side.

But unlike Dennis Rivera, who can point to many achievements over the years-the 1999 cigarette tax to fund Child Health Plus, for example, or the expansion of health care for the working poor to adults as well as children-Ms. Weingarten has less to go on.

“Pataki’s record on education is one of cuts and vetoes and broken promises,” East Side Assemblyman Steve Sanders, chairman of the Assembly’s education committee, told The Observer . “He has repeatedly broken promises to fully fund universal pre-K and class-size reduction in the early grades. In 1998, he vetoed about $700 million of education appropriations-$500 million of that was for new construction.”

Team McCall knows this, and they see an opening. Privately, they’re reacting with astonishment to what they see as an almost-certain deal for the teachers’ endorsement. Publicly, Mr. McCall is issuing a harsh-but likely futile-warning: “Anybody who would support the Governor on the basis of his education program and his education policies would be betraying the schoolchildren of New York State.”

Terry Golway will return to this space soon.