James Eterno on the Meet the Candidates Forum
Last night in Melville there was a “Meet the Candidates” forum featuring the individuals running for the NYSUT officer positions in April’s election. There was a strong turnout of teachers and union leaders from around Long Island and some from New York City as well. The candidates each gave opening and closing statements. In between they took turns answering questions submitted by the audience.
New York State United Teachers is all of the local non supervisory educator related unions (and some non educator unions) in New York State combined into one statewide union. On April 5, NYSUT will have its first contested election in its history. The election will take place at the NYSUT Representative Assembly. Only Delegates can vote; the rank and file will be shut out.
To help Delegates make their decision, The Long Island President’s Council hosted a forum last night for candidates for the five NYSUT officer positions. If last night’s crowd reaction was a poll, President Richard Iannuzzi and his Stronger Together slate should breeze to reelection. Andrew Pallotta, who split from Iannuzzi recently to help form Revive NYSUT, was put on his heels most of the night trying to deflect very tough questions and some attacks on his legislative record. His colleagues, including presidential candidate Karen Magee, looked tentative at times.
Conversely, the four candidates from Stronger Together, led by Iannuzzi, came armed with facts and figures to confidently defend their records and provide a vision for the next three years.
Iannuzzi and the other three officeholders were joined by none other than Arthur Goldstein, Chapter Leader from Francis Lewis High School, aka NYC Educator. Arthur had a very impressive debate debut as he put his opponent Pallotta, the incumbent officer who defected from Iannuzzi, on the defensive most of the evening by merely emphasizing the awful laws that have been passed in New York the last few years under his watch. The Executive Vice President is in charge of NYSUT’s political operation and has a big say over which candidates get voluntary COPE money from us.
Arthur and Karen Magee were the only two candidates who played much offense. Arthur went after Pallotta’s failure as the Executive Vice President. Pallotta was compelled to answer for the inferior new pension Tier VI, the 2% property tax cap and the horrible Annual Personnel Performance Review (APPR) system. Pallotta was also questioned about Revive’s possible support for Governor Andrew Cuomo.
The highlight of the evening was when a question was asked about whether or not we should endorse Cuomo’s reelection. Arthur answered with a definitive no and launched into an attack on the governor’s anti-union, anti-public education, pro-charter school record.
Pallotta, on the other hand, responded to the question by saying that it is not up to him to endorse candidates. He explained that the Union has a process involving many people and he would let the process play out. This response did not please the crowd who loudly accused Pallotta of trying to duck the question. This prompted Pallotta to respond by noting he would not personally be endorsing Cuomo.
Iannuzzi and Magee sparred over the 2% tax cap. It takes a 60% vote to raise property taxes over 2% and the issue is hurting many NYSUT locals. Iannuzzi noted this and said he is very proud his team is using the courts to fight the cap. Magee had criticized the President for waiting two years to file a lawsuit over the cap. The President responded by pointing out how filing a lawsuit the day after the cap was passed would have been a great public relations move, but it would have ultimately failed as there was no evidence yet to have standing to win in court. He added by saying our patience gives us a much stronger chance of victory because now we have ample evidence to support a legal claim on how the cap is harmful to education.
The two presidential candidates also disagreed on charter schools with Magee drawing a distinction between private charter schools and public charter schools and basically only criticizing private charter schools while Iannuzzi emphasized how we have to organize charter schools.
On the Stronger Together side, the three other incumbent candidates were Maria Neira, Kathleen Donahue and Lee Cutler.
Neira confidently defended her record of meeting with the State Education Commissioner to make the best of the hand we have been dealt. The basic theme of Stronger Together was that the legislative part of the NYSUT operation led by Pallotta had failed by allowing terrible laws to pass in the Legislature and then Neira, Iannuzzi and others have sprung into action to negotiate to clean up the mess they have been handed with new laws. (A little revisionist history but it does make the case well for who is more to blame for the shape we are in.)
Secretary Treasurer incumbent Lee Cutler was attacked for a NYSUT deficit but he boldly defended his record by stating how he turned a multi million dollar NYSUT deficit into a projected surplus. He continually said how he had built up the Union’s non-dues revenue in the last few years. Kathleen Donahue also confidently backed up her own record of achievement with many of the non teachers who are NYSUT members, including Jones Beach Lifeguards.
Revive candidates emphasized how elections are a positive good for a democratic union. Paul Pecorale talked about his Long Island experience while Catalina Fortino pointed out the strength in diversity, talking about her English Language Learner background. Martin Messner spoke out on how he would involve the locals more in making decisions. Messner also made vague pledges to be transparent.
Messner for some inexplicable reason felt it necessary to mention how he is not a tool of the UFT leadership. Earlier, Goldstein had talked about how the UFT is run by a closed, invitation only group (NYC Unity Caucus) which forces its members to sign a paper saying they will support the positions of the UFT leadership in public or union forums (the so called Unity loyalty oath). Arthur added that NYC Unity shuts out people who disagree with policies the UFT supports such as mayoral dictatorship over NYC schools.
Overall, Revive did not look ready for prime time. If this is the best they can do, then we may be in even more peril than now if they take over NYSUT in April. The four incumbents in Stronger Together and Arthur Goldstein looked very comfortable up on the stage while Pallotta and his Revived challengers appeared to be overmatched at times. Pallotta even said running for office in a competitive election gave him a newfound respect for politicians and he no longer likes Twitter.
Since the 800 UFT Delegates to NYSUT all come from NYC Unity and President Michael Mulgrew supports Revive, Revive starts out with a huge advantage as this is around1/3 of the potential electorate. Judging by last night’s performance, however, Revive looks like they may be taking victory for granted. They better start campaigning for real or they very well could end up losing. Stronger Together won the evening for sure.
Full Disclosure: I am running in the NYSUT election for an at large Board of Director position. I am not part of a slate presently.