As election day approaches, one high-profile race continues to pose some moderately vexing problems for the Obama White House.
The contest between New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his challenger, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, has been waged largely under the national media radar. But it has political implications that extend all the way to the Oval Office.
The White House announced on Friday that the president, as "the leader of the Democratic Party," would "support the Democratic nominee" -- a rather milquetoast endorsement of Thompson that the Democrat nevertheless quickly trumpeted.
But how much campaigning or help the president will give his fellow Democrat remains a major question mark going forward. Bloomberg has been a go-to moderate for Obama politically and on key legislative issues -- both during the presidential campaign and since the administration took office. This past week, the mayor -- at the urging of the White House -- urged Republicans in Congress to get on board the president's agenda for health care reform. On education reform, in particular, Obama has praised Bloomberg for producing demonstrable improvements in a tough urban setting.
This relationship, combined with the likelihood that Bloomberg will hold on to his seat, make the White House's position extremely sensitive. So does the fact that Thompson is an African-American, and the president is already taking heat from New York's black communities over reports that he wants New York's black governor, David Paterson, to step aside.
Allies of the mayor, not surprisingly, think the president has something to lose if he leaves too big a footprint on the mayoral contest -- making the argument that there is a correlation between any time Obama campaigns for Thompson and the push the administration will be able to make on education.
"Does he get involved, does he not get involved?" said one Bloomberg ally. "If he does get involved, what does that say specifically about school reform? After health care and cap and trade, Obama is going to need an easy victory. And education is going to be the saving issue for these guys."
A symbol of successful reform, the White House indeed would love nothing more than to have Bloomberg at its side when the national debate switches to education. According to an aide to the mayor, the president and Education Secretary Arne Duncan currently have a "good relationship" with Bloomberg and his staff. "There were periods where they talked several times a week," the aide said.
Publicly, Obama and Duncan have repeatedly heaped praised on Bloomberg for his hands-on approach in applying more stringent standards to teachers and within classrooms, as well as for using innovative approaches to improve graduation rates. Obama met personally with the mayor -- alongside former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rev. Al Sharpton -- to discuss reform efforts. Soon thereafter, at a speech before the NAACP, the president highlighted two separate New York City school initiatives that encouraged students to earn "a free associates degree or college credit in just four years."
Duncan has aligned himself even closer to the Bloomberg model, praising mayoral control of the school system and pointing to New York City as a template for others to follow.
"We want to work with a series of states, whatever the number might be, who say, 'We want to lead the country in really revolutionizing education for our children,'" he said in early February. "And I would love for places like New York, where so much innovation is already happening. I would love for New York to come forward."
"What I absolutely believe to be the case," concluded a confidant of the mayor's, "is that Obama and Duncan have featured New York City so prominently in their views about how to move education policy forward that it would be a real setback to the president's education agenda if the forces of the old status quo came to town."
Politics, of course, are never that simple. And when deciding how big a role it should play in the mayoral race, the White House will inevitably consider issues beyond education -- first among them, party identification. Thompson, who trails Bloomberg substantially in the polls, has already received the endorsement of fellow New York Democrats: Sens. Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand. Those two cited the rising income inequality in the city as a reason for offering their support. But neither took the opportunity to swipe Bloomberg.
But even when the topic turns to education, the political dynamics and policy differences between Obama, Bloomberg, and Thompson, are muddled. Aides to the comptroller take great umbrage with the argument that the White House is exclusively allied with the mayor's office on the issue.
"I totally reject it," said Mike Murphy, a spokesman for Thompson. "I don't think his policies line up any better than ours... The Obama administration and their Education Secretary Duncan have been supportive of mayoral control. And I think Bill from the very beginning has supported mayoral control. He helped lay the groundwork for the proposal. So I don't buy that argument."
There are, as Murphy points out, various commonalities between Obama and Thompson on the topic of education -- and not just a shared belief that mayors should have strong administrative and legislative sway over city policy. In a recent speech on education, Thompson echoed a constant Obama refrain: that the traditional school schedule was antiquated and left children with too little time in the classroom. Thompson has called for mandatory pre-kindergarten classes and Saturday school for some students.
The difference, say Bloomberg and his allies, is that the mayor has actually made progress on these fronts while Thompson, as one of seven members of the city's Board of Education in the mid-90s, dramatically failed. The mayoral control that Thompson praised, for instance, was implemented in New York shortly after Bloomberg took office. On the topic of teacher effectiveness, a mayor aide argued, Thompson has been tepid at best for fear of angering the teacher's union.
But even these charges, neutral observers say, are a bit unfair, pinning too much of the blame for last decade's problems on Thompson's shoulders while offering him none of the credit for conceptualizing the reforms that proved effective under Bloomberg.
"The New York story it is a success story in terms of education and it is a success story that actually started with Bill Thompson as the chair of the board of education and with Rudy Crew as Chancellor. That is when the ship started righting," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers and a person deeply steeped in New York City education policy.
"We didn't have the money then. But money was deployed for the right reasons like turning around low-performing schools. Accountability was worked between all the parties. The changes in the 1995 governance laws were a precursor towards mayoral control," Weingarten added. "Bloomberg should take credit for what has happened under his tenure so far. But remember we sought real changes that sought checks and balances. They were good checks and balances, which Bloomberg, to his credit, adopted and embraced."
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