Mayor Mike Bloomberg does not always parse his thoughts with the care of a diplomat. Sometimes he lets it rip, and, well, those who are quick to take offense do just that.
Take, for example, the mayor’s recent criticism of the United Federation of Teachers, that stalwart obstacle to genuine reform in the city’s public schools. During the course of a soliloquy devoted to the importance of teacher evaluations—a process the UFT fears and opposes—the mayor suggested that the union’s leadership is out of touch with its rank and file.
That assertion may or may not be valid, but it surely is a point worth considering. After all, as the mayor noted, other institutions—like Congress, or private companies—often suffer from the same sort of disconnect between leadership and everybody else.
So far so good, but then the mayor went on to note that many members of the National Rifle Association disagree with the hard-line views of the group’s leaders. “The NRA is another place where the membership, if you do the polling, doesn’t agree with the leadership,” the mayor said.
A superficial analysis of the mayor’s words made it seem as though he was comparing the UFT to the NRA. And the UFT was quick to summon the moral outrage that is often so absent in discussions of poor-performing schools and lousy teachers. Michael Mulgrew, the UFT’s president, called the mayor’s statement “completely inappropriate.” But it was his predecessor, Randi Weingarten, now the head of the national teachers’ union, who led the rallying cry. She noted that two members of the American Federation of Teachers were among the casualties in Newtown, Conn. The mayor’s comments, she said, were “incendiary and insensitive.”
Please. Mr. Bloomberg certainly was not suggesting that the UFT and the NRA are kindred spirits. He said nothing that diminished the awful crime in Newtown. Mr. Bloomberg’s phrasing could have been more artful, but Ms. Weingarten’s comments were anything but dignified and restrained.
Mr. Bloomberg’s larger point, once you clear away the NRA clutter, is well-taken. Institutions from the presidency to private corporations to large labor unions all have shown that they have grown out of touch with everyday life. The UFT has fought the mayor on any number of issues over the last decade, blocking common-sense reforms like merit pay and insisting on out-of-date work rules. Are those the priorities of members, or of their leaders? It’s a fair question to ask. And the mayor was right to ask it.