Sunday, November 28, 2010

Black Eyed Appease

For a man who's used to coming home driving his own bakery truck-when he's not driving the bakeries out of town-Mike Bloomberg was forced to settle for half a loaf. In the end, it was the mayor who blinked. He was forced to swallow on Commissioner Steiner's insistence that he appoint a deputy for Cathie Black, one who had a wider breadth of experience than the ill suited chancellor choice-in other words, almost anyone.

Bloomberg had only two choices here-either admit total defeat and withdraw Black's name; or accept Steiner's compromise. The NY Times has the story that broke late on, appropriately, Black Friday: "Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg reached a deal Friday to save the tottering candidacy of Cathleen P. Black to be the next chancellor of New York City schools, agreeing to appoint a career educator who started as a classroom teacher to serve as her second in command. As a result, the state education commissioner, David M. Steiner, has agreed to grant Ms. Black, a media executive, the exemption from the normal credentials required by state law for the position, according to a person with direct knowledge of the negotiations."

For Mayor My Way or the Highway, this was humble, and not pumpkin pie, he was forced to eat this Thanksgiving: "The move was a significant concession by Mr. Bloomberg, who has often resisted efforts from outside City Hall to meddle in his affairs. The mayor’s hand was forced on Tuesday when Dr. Steiner questioned her readiness for the position. Ms. Black, the chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, has spent a lifetime in the media business, does not hold any advanced degrees and has had little exposure to public schools."

Keen observer, Doug Muzzio sums up the punking in the WSJ-but observes that it was still a half loaf consumed: "Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College, said the mayor "ultimately got what he wants. The mayor wisely acceded to this; otherwise he didn't get Black....This other person is going to report to Black. So Black is the boss," Mr. Muzzio said. "He still has a black eye—he looks imperious. He looks like he doesn't care about what people think. His attitude is 'my way or the highway.' Now, in this case, he confronted a situation that he just couldn't ignore and wisely bowed to it but essentially he still got his way."

That is one way to look at this unusual mayoral concession, but we see it a bit differently. This was a major challenge to the mayor's autocracy-and it will embolden his critics to further explore chinks in the Blooomberg armor. It is the real beginning of Bloomberg's lame duck term-and we believe that our friend Doug is too kind in his view of the Bloomberg triumph.

As the Times points out:

"The deal reached Friday capped a week of frantic talks between the city and the state. Mr. Bloomberg, who was given control of city schools in 2002, has said that transforming the school system will define his legacy as mayor. Mr. Bloomberg viewed Dr. Steiner’s challenge as a critical test of his authority over the school system. The mayor told people involved in the negotiations that a rejection of Ms. Black would undermine the model of mayoral control and set a dangerous precedent. At one point while the negotiations were under way, Mr. Bloomberg said publicly that the law requiring the schools chancellor to hold education credentials was obsolete and should be abolished. Mr. Bloomberg had initially believed he could build enough public pressure to force Dr. Steiner to approve Ms. Black, according to the person with knowledge of the negotiations. Business executives, former mayors and celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg flooded Dr. Steiner’s offices with messages in support of Ms. Black. But Dr. Steiner remained skeptical, and he said on Tuesday he would consider her appointment only if Mr. Bloomberg installed an educator at her side."

In essence, Bloomberg's attempt-and it was both frantic and determined-to Bogart Steiner failed: "The talks with the mayor about that possibility grew more serious after an eight-member panel advising Dr. Steiner on Ms. Black’s qualifications on Tuesday mustered only two votes unconditionally in support of her, unexpectedly throwing the selection process into disarray. Mr. Bloomberg typically loathes intrusions into his management of the city. But throughout the negotiations for the waiver, he showed an unusual willingness to compromise to preserve Ms. Black’s candidacy. To the surprise of his own associates, he held his tongue in public, refusing to challenge Dr. Steiner and the panel that rebuked his choice for chancellor."

He ultimately held his tongue because he was holding a losing hand-and is now forced to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear in a climate of  enhanced enmity and reduced authority. And, as WSJ tells us, the vultures are circling the carcass: "While the appointment of a chief academic officer may appease Mr. Steiner, some others are still unmoved. State Sen.-elect Tony Avella, a critic of the mayor's education policies who encouraged Mr. Steiner to deny the waiver, said he is disappointed with the resolution. "We still have somebody who is not an educator running the ship," he said. Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat and a lawyer by trade, said he is considering filing a lawsuit to block the waiver. "We need a chancellor who stands on his/her own merit, not one who needs to be ushered around the Department of Education by an academic chauffeur," Mr. Jeffries said. "The law does not permit Commissioner Steiner to grant a waiver based on the educational or professional credentials of someone other than the applicant."

This climate of hostility doesn't bode well for the inexperienced Black: "City Council member Robert Jackson, chairman of the council's education committee and a critic of mayoral control over the schools, said he's worried that Ms. Black may ignore Mr. Polakow-Suransky's advice on pedagogical issues. If that happens, Mr. Jackson predicted, "all hell is going to break loose."

So, in our view, this is only Act One-and Black and Bloomberg may regret what they wished for. The NY Daily News captures some of this: "Caving to pressure from the state, Mayor Bloomberg accepted a compromise Friday to save his pick for schools chancellor... Yesterday, some lawmakers said they considered the deal illegal and threatened to fight it in court. "It's unfortunate that in order to give the mayor his way, Steiner is willing to designate a chauffeur who can usher Ms. Black around the Education Department," said Assemblyman Hakeem Jefferies (D-Brooklyn). "The only problem is the chauffeur is more qualified to lead the school system than Ms. Black."

So Bloomberg was forced to back down in order to get Black enthroned. Steiner, as an appointee, did about as much as could be expected in this situation-considering the pusillanimous actions of our craven state legislators-not to mention the shucking and ducking UFT. But the mayoral armor has been seriously cracked, and we can expect that Bloomberg will be forced to endure similar diminutions of his regal pretensions in the last three years of his mayoralty. He still maintains an out sized power that is derived from his great wealth, but the winds of change are beginning to blow, and if Mike Bloomberg doesn't adjust, he will find that the Black backtrack is simply the begging of the end.