As she attempts to win promotion from the City Council to the borough presidency of Manhattan, Eva Moskowitz has made public education her chief selling point. Of course, that’s been done before, but there is one very unique aspect to Ms. Moskowitz’s campaign: Her main adversary may be the politically powerful teachers’ union.
Although it’s been two years since Ms. Moskowitz, as chair of the Council’s education committee, ran a series of high-profile hearings about work-rule abuses in the city’s public-school system, the United Federation of Teachers still hasn’t forgotten. The U.F.T.’s president, Randi Weingarten, said of the Council member’s hearings, “I’ve never experienced star-chamber hearings the way her hearings went, and they were so biased and so one-sided. It was a McCarthy-like hearing, clearly about trying to assert that she was a fighter in a very demagogic way.”
Those aren’t necessarily words that a candidate for public office in Manhattan wants to hear from such a powerful would-be adversary. Ms. Moskowitz is preparing herself accordingly. “How it will play out, I don’t know,” she said. “The teachers’ union may come after me-and when they do, they have a lot of money, and a well-oiled machine that can be very powerful.”
Ms. Moskowitz’s hearings attracted the kind of attention that City Council proceedings rarely generate. And as she zeroed in on some of the more arcane provisions of public-school labor contracts, the Democrat from the Upper East Side won accolades from Mayor Bloomberg and other local Republicans. She also earned the U.F.T.’s enmity, and a reputation as a lone crusader rather than a coalition builder.
That enmity may well be her undoing as she tries to win election to a higher-profile position, one that has served as a launching pad for future citywide campaigns. After all, the last three borough presidents-David Dinkins, Ruth Messinger and current incumbent C. Virginia Fields-have run or are currently running for Mayor.
But even if the U.F.T. is able to exact its revenge by blocking her election to higher office, Ms. Moskowitz said she had no regrets.
“If, because I had those hearings, I don’t succeed-that’s life,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it any other way. I don’t know what the topics are that might be verboten, but I’m not going to be intimidated and not take on topics because some vested interest thinks it shouldn’t be taken on.”
On the subject of intimidation, Ms. Weingarten has a slightly different view. She said the city’s public-school unions were subject to intimidation from Ms. Moskowitz, who, in Ms. Weingarten’s view, has been grandstanding in pursuit of higher office and a greater public profile.
Ms. Weingarten hasn’t been reluctant to remind Ms. Moskowitz that politicians fool with the U.F.T. at their peril. “Al D’Amato thought that he could split the unions and the schoolteachers,” she said, referring to the former Senator who lost his bid for a fourth term in 1998. “That didn’t work. Anybody else? Bob Dole tried it as well. Eva Moskowitz is the newest person to try it,” she added, not attempting to hide her distaste of the Council member’s tactics.
Ms. Moskowitz is singularly unapologetic, especially when asked about her critics’ complaints that she’s mainly interested in generating public notice. “I’m a big believer that, no matter what the formal or informal powers, offices are only as good as the occupant,” she said during a campaign appearance at the Penn South housing co-operative in Chelsea. “Who had heard of the chair of the education committee before I became chair? I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but it wasn’t as if people knew who the chair was, or that reporters or anyone else covered the workings of the chair of the education committee. I made it so.”
She made it so by holding a series of hearings in November 2003 on union rules that govern public-school employees. Ms. Moskowitz’s hearings-complete with anonymous witnesses whose testimony burbled out through voice-distortion technology-exuded a whiff of intrigue that drew crowds to City Hall. The contested work rules included limits on the number of floor tiles that custodians can replace in one month (75) and restrictions on how high up a wall they can paint (10 feet). Other rules accorded math and gym teachers the same salaries and prevented teachers from monitoring cafeterias and hallways.
While there’s no question that the U.F.T. despised Ms. Moskowitz’s methods, there is some question about just how much clout it will have in the current campaign. Much of the union’s power is concentrated in the outer boroughs, so its potential effect on a race in Manhattan may be diluted.
Ms. Moskowitz is also aware that she doesn’t need to please everyone. She faces a very crowded field, which currently comprises nine Democratic contenders-a number that seems to change daily-including her City Council colleagues Scott Stringer, Bill Perkins and Margarita Lopez. And in some corners, it seems that Ms. Moskowitz isn’t bothering to court the public-school unions at all. According to Jill Levy, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, Ms. Moskowitz is the only candidate for Manhattan borough president who hasn’t yet sought the group’s endorsement. Ms. Levy added that her own relationship with Ms. Moskowitz remains “respectful.”
“I told the Councilwoman in advance that I was not going to engage in a catfight,” Ms. Levy said. But that doesn’t mean Ms. Levy is a fan of Ms. Moskowitz’s tactics. “When you start shooting bullets-you know, blanks-all over the place, and people can’t really rely upon your judgment or who you are or what your value system is, people are going to feel, ‘Hey, wait a minute-I don’t have to deal with that,’” Ms. Levy said.
Ms. Moskowitz’s supporters, however, argue that these so-called “bullets” are really marks of bravery. Along with her keen intelligence, they argue, her courage would make the Council member a force to be reckoned with in the seat of the borough president, even though the position is little more than a bully pulpit. Ms. Moskowitz, in turn, is rolling out a platform that broadens her interests from education outward, highlighting her stances on everything from gun control to reproductive rights and health care, to clean parks and the value of regular garbage collection.
She has also been trying to drum up notice for a campaign that will generate very little attention this summer. Earlier this year, when she penned a detailed critique of the State Department of Education, she didn’t settle for a press release. Instead, Ms. Moskowitz promised to issue the equivalent of a report card for the department on June 28, when the report card of her 6-year-old son, Culver-the oldest of three-will be released.
Sometimes her P.R. machine gets ahead of itself. Two weeks ago, she held a second “Kids Only” hearing, soliciting testimony from students about their schools. Though the first “Kids Only” hearing, in March, was well attended, this time a meager dozen straggled in. Adding insult to absence, a postdated press release issued early that morning had already heralded the event as a smashing success, “attended by hundreds of New York City public school children from grades K-12.” No correction followed.
Earlier in the week, Ms. Moskowitz had also unveiled a slim yellow volume called The Education Guide for Dummies. The publishers of the actual Dummies series complained, and-in time for the “Kids Only” hearing-the cover was rapidly redesigned, morphing from yellow to blue. The word “Dummies” became “Parents.”
What would a Moskowitz victory mean for the teachers’ union? According to David Birdsell, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, it would send a powerful message, though one whose implications wouldn’t immediately be known. “If she’s successful in November, then it strongly suggests that union endorsements are less important and that it’s possible to campaign, to a certain extent, against union interests and still be returned in an overwhelmingly liberal district to elective office,” he said. “And that’s significant just as we chart the rising and falling tides of fortune for the city’s unions.”
Luckily for Ms. Moskowitz, not everyone is quite so hard to appease as the U.F.T. During her recent “Kids Only” hearing, the non-union-and non-voting-crowd was a bit softer.
“My teacher’s name is Summer, and she’s fighting for a contract,” testified a shy first-grader. “Why do all the teachers have to fight for a contract?”
The Council member countered gently. “Do you know what a contract is?” she asked. The girl did not. “A contract will get them better pay, and hopefully better working conditions, and you want that for your teachers,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “Me, too.”