The UFT has an Endorsement Problem

The UFT has a major endorsement problem. In the past, I’ve written recollections and critiques of the usual process. In City elections, small, appointed groups of UFT members/staffers speak to the candidates and select one (sometimes two) to endorse. Later, the Executive Board rubber stamps these lists, before bringing them to the DA. That process is imperfect – you can read my piece linked above to learn why, but that’s not the process I’m critiquing today.

Today, I’m critiquing UFT endorsements that are made without even a nod to process. There are two, slightly different instances in which this has occurred in recent months: (1) the Teachers Retirement System (TRS) election (illusionary process); and (2) New York State (NYS) seats (outsourced process).

TRS Election – the Illusion of Process

Back in February, you may remember that the Executive Board saw a surprise resolution to endorse Christina McGrath for a TRS position. The election in question might have seemed arcane to some – when it was held two weeks ago, I hear only about 15% of eligible voters voted, mostly, I think, because of a rollout that left very little time for decision making (it’s in the process, I understand, of being contested by the UFT); however, this election, was critically important. TRS elections, unlike gubernatorial, mayoral, or community board races affect all of us, whether we live in Harlem, Hewlett, or Hoboken – whether we’re retired or in-service. That’s because the TRS election is about who represents us on our own pension board.  

With such an important election, one might assume that there was a significant process to select Christina McGrath as the UFT endorsed candidate. Despite appearances at the UFT Delegate Assembly (DA), there was not. Unlike mayoral or gubernatorial races, the TRS election is so specific to UFT members (and a few much smaller unions, e.g. CSA and PSC) that there was an actual Unity Caucus candidate. Of course, if there’s a Unity candidate, no one in UFT leadership has any interest in seeing the credentials of other candidates, even if other candidates might be far better suited to help manage our pensions. Therefore, there were no committees to select the best possible candidate for endorsement purposes; Christina McGrath was endorsed by the UFT executive board before they even knew if there was another person running. In fact, especially in light of what happened after, I’d suggest that the point of endorsing Christina McGrath so early was to preempt the viability of non-Unity candidates. When the Executive Board’s resolution was motivated at the DA, no one knew Christina had competition until I suggested the possibility of co-endorsing Ben Morgenroth, who had decided to run about twenty minutes prior. Rather than pause and reconsider the wisdom of endorsing Christina until they could fully weigh the corresponding option of Ben, a Brown educated applied mathematician with Hedge Fund experience, Unity members resorted to misrepresenting their knowledge of the latter candidate, a well-known pension advocate, implying to a sea of his union colleagues that he was a nobody. In an insulting harangue meant to convince members to vote NO to Ben, one prominent UFT vice president even feigned not knowing Ben’s name. Voters on the phone would have no reason to doubt her, but in fact she’d been present at a speech Ben gave on Tier 6 just two days prior.

Christina, predictably, won the race, but not before we saw some of the most impressive over-use of UFT/COPE resources that I’ve ever seen in an election. We were bombarded by emails from district reps and from ‘the UFT,’ calling Christina ‘our candidate’ and therefore implying, falsely, that Ben Morgenroth was somehow non-UFT or even anti-UFT, when in fact Ben, a dues-paying member of the UFT and PSC, was endorsed by three UFT caucuses and countless union-proud independents. We saw Christina’s image on UFT’s Twitter and Instagram, before witnessing the coup de grâce – every UFT member getting a text message from ‘Rachel from UFT’ telling them to vote for Christina. Ben still did enviably under these circumstances, garnering about one third of the vote, but we saw the full weight of what a contrived UFT endorsement can do when its real point is not to select the most qualified candidate, but rather, to keep a seat within Unity Caucus. Cope dollars well spent? I think not.

State Races – When UFT endorsements are Outsourced

Last week and this weekend, many of us were surprised to see endorsements in our mailboxes. I live in State Assembly District 70, where I got a flyer for Jordan J.G. Wright. I’m used to getting political flyers this time of year. What was strange about this flyer, however, was to see that it was a UFT endorsement – not just a NYSUT endorsement, mind you, which I’d expect for state races, but specifically a UFT endorsement. I was perplexed, because as a member of the UFT Executive Board who religiously writes up the minutes for every executive board and delegate assembly meeting, I don’t recall a resolution to endorse him or anyone else for state races. Yet, there it was in my inbox – an expensive looking color flyer, with the UFT logo and a picture of Michael Mulgrew, asking me to vote for Wright, and claiming that my union had endorsed him. Now, Jordan J.G. Wright, son of Keith Wright, isn’t likely to be a controversial candidate. His father, at least, was a well-known champion against co-locating and over-funding charter schools. Even still, I am irked to see my COPE dollars spent advertising an endorsement that did not go, as far as I’m concerned, through the proper channels.    

Later, I learned that just south of me, in District 69, ‘the UFT’ indeed endorsed someone who they shouldn’t have. That person is Micah Lasher. Now, before I get into why Lasher shouldn’t be endorsed, let me just say that I understand why he was endorsed. Lasher is well connected. He lists endorsements by just about every establishment politician one could hope for on his webpage, and, until very recently, he was Gov. Hochul’s director of policy. Endorsing the establishment politician isn’t just an endorsement of Lasher, it’s a signal to the establishment itself. Yes, there are reasons why this can be politically expedient.

But Lasher isn’t just connected to the establishment – he’s connected to the Charter School industry, among other enemies to public educators. Lasher is the former head of StudentFirstNY, the leading advocacy group promoting the expansion of charter schools in New York; Lasher served as the Director of Policy for Governor Hochul during a period when her office proposed the expansion of charter schools in New York State; Lasher, as chief lobbyist for Mayor Bloomberg, actively promoted policies that were anti-teacher and anti-union, including the creation of Tier 6; Lasher in his unsuccessful 2016 campaign for State Senate and his present campaign for State Assembly has received significant funding from individuals closely associated with the charter school movement and/or hostile to teachers and their unions.

Now, if it were Micah Lasher vs. Curtis Sliwa, I might understand the endorsement. But, when it comes to education at least, there are better candidates – viable, progressive candidates. Take, for example Eli Northrup, who has specifically criticized Lasher for charter-related reasons, and who lists the following in his educational vision: “Ensure public schools remain truly public and accountable, prioritizing adequate tools and support for teachers and students, including mental health resources in schools; Fight to protect and expand pre-K and 3-K programs, expand paid family leave, and advance a vision for universal childcare; Fight for full funding and free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools.” Northrup isn’t a fringe candidate with no chance of winning – he comes backed by significant endorsers, including the Working Families Party. So, while I’m not endorsing Northrup by any means—after all, there hasn’t been a process, and there are issues other than a proposed education agenda to consider—given that he is a viable candidate who is visibly more pro-public education than Lasher, why are we seeing flyers for Lasher and not Northrup? Do we just want a little more of a challenge while fighting for Tier 6?

We may never know, because despite seeing our union’s logo and our union president’s photo on a flyer, we had no endorsement process within the UFT. It was outsourced, opaquely. And we need to change that.  

Nick Bacon is a co-chairperson at New Action Caucus. He is also an elected member of the UFT executive board

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