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News Analysis: Mr. Bloomberg Plays Hardball
March 16, 2004 | New York Times
There are three things that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg rarely does: publicly denounce his adversaries, dabble in raw politics, or fire people. But last night capped a weeklong binge in which Mr. Bloomberg embraced the sort of hardball tactics that New York City mayors have depended on for decades in seeking dramatic changes to the status quo.
Facing almost certain defeat in his effort to end automatic promotion for third graders, Mr. Bloomberg resorted to firing two of his hand-picked appointees to an educational advisory board to ensure that a new policy preventing the promotion of failing third graders passed.
The battle to end the practice of promoting children, whether they are ready or not, a procedure also known as social promotion, was one that Mr. Bloomberg was in no way willing to lose. The mayor sought control of the schools through state legislation the year he took office, and has made improving the schools the centerpiece of his administration. Just last week, he made clear that he would tolerate no distractions from his goals and called for the resignation of the deputy chancellor who had become shrouded in an ethics scandal.
Yesterday's situation underscored both the power and the peril of mayoral control. The issues facing the schools are so complicated, it is almost impossible to get a roomful of people to accept major changes, at least not without bruising debates.
Rather than having to persuade people that they should see things his way, Mr. Bloomberg now has the authority to make changes almost unilaterally, and so it was yesterday that he chose a tactic that was more Donald Trump in his television boardroom than Mayor Bloomberg in his City Hall office: "You're fired!"
Last night, as the board took its vote, Mr. Bloomberg addressed reporters outside a celebration for the Irish Echo. "Mayoral control means mayoral control, thank you very much," Mr. Bloomberg said. "They are my representatives, and they are going to vote for things that I believe in."
The events played out swiftly. In the middle of the day yesterday, when it became clear that two of the mayor's seven appointees to an education policy panel were not going to vote for the social promotion policy, Mr. Bloomberg had a deputy mayor, Dennis Walcott, call both of them - Ramona Hernandez and Susana Torruella Leval - and tell them that their services would no longer be needed.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Walcott had told Tino Hernandez, who heads the city's Public Housing Authority, and Alan D. Aviles, a vice president of the public hospital system, that they were likely to be called on to take new positions. Late in the day, Mr. Aviles was brought to meet the mayor at City Hall. Then he and Mr. Hernandez rushed over to the city clerk's office to be sworn in to their new positions, an hour before the panel was scheduled to vote.
Mr. Bloomberg's aides said he was driven to the action by his passion for the issue, his desire to win, and his belief that his panelists were chosen to do his bidding. "The mayor's appointees are there to represent his views and help him change the system," said Edward Skyler, the mayor's press secretary. "If they didn't have the stomach to do that, they didn't have to stay."
Some of the members of the panel suggested that a vote be delayed for as long as 30 days. Mr. Bloomberg, demonstrating a sort of impatience that has become his norm when changing education policy, rejected the notion, believing it would effectively scuttle the plan for this school year, aides said.
The mayor and the schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, also noted that the language used by dissenting members and the order of points made in support of the delay were often identical, suggesting that a coordinated effort to delay a vote was underway, two aides to the mayor said.
Mr. Bloomberg never made a secret of the idea that his appointees to the panel were not meant to be independent. When the seven were named in July 2002, he said: "I do not expect to see their names - ever - in the press answering a question either on the record or off the record. That's exactly what's wrong with the current system." He added: "They don't have to speak, and they don't have to serve. That's what serving `at the pleasure' means."
But Mr. Bloomberg's resolve to get the votes to end social promotion also demonstrates his particular fervor for the issue. Mr. Bloomberg is so certain that children who lack major academic skills should not be promoted out of third grade - a view that was by no means universally shared at the Tweed Courthouse where the Department of Education is housed - that he was going to go to almost any length to end the current promotion policies, his aides said.
William T. Cunningham, the mayor's communication director, explained his view that the mayor's seven appointees to the board, the five from the borough presidents, and the one from the chancellor were selected to advise on policies, not form them. It was on the panelist's advice that certain changes to the policy were made over the last four days, he said.
"The panel was functioning the way it was set up to function," Mr. Cunningham said. "But the policy was set two months ago in the State of the City address."
That kind of single-mindedness has not always been the case with Mr. Bloomberg. When he wanted to change electoral politics in New York City by ending partisan elections, his hand-picked board voted not to pursue the change in 2002. He never said a rancorous word about that board, which was charged with making changes to the City Charter to alter the current election system, and politely accepted their decision. The next year, Mr. Bloomberg reappointed some of the same members. A referendum on the issue was defeated in November.
Mr. Bloomberg's move yesterday drew immediate fire from several corners, including some men who might oppose him in 2005.
"I am shocked by today's act of desperation by the mayor in order to win passage of his flawed promotion policy," said William C. Thompson Jr., the city comptroller. "His last-minute removal of panel members is more suited to a `Sopranos' episode than to enacting education policy for our public school children."
Whether last night's episode becomes a victory for the mayor with parents and voters depends partly on how his tactics are perceived and at least as much on whether the new policy is a success. The end of social promotion in the third grade is greeted with skepticism from most education experts and has had mixed results in other cities. However, it will be years before this program can be judged in New York, and Mr. Bloomberg faces re-election in 2005.
|produced by Naava Katz Design|