The Brief: Who Will the Philly Teachers Union Support for Mayor?

And why it matters.

Candidate Conversations

From L to R: Mayoral candidates Nelson Diaz, Doug Oliver, Lynne Abraham, Anthony Williams and Jim Kenney.

The Democratic candidates for mayor of Philadelphia each tried to make their strongest case Wednesday that the city’s teachers union ought to endorse them. At a meeting held by the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in South Philly, the candidates took questions from union members about education funding, charter schools and the School Reform Commission.

The union won’t make an endorsement until after the rank-and-file members’ votes are tallied in mid-March. But Jerry Jordan, president of the PFT, says, “Once we endorse someone, we will be totally in for that person.” That likely means a maxed-out check from the union, but perhaps more importantly, the American Federation of Teachers is expected to get behind whoever the city’s teachers support. That matters because the national group has thrown around big cash in municipal elections before.

So, who’s got the best shot at landing the teachers’ support?

Jordan wouldn’t say if he has a favorite, nor would he say how he expects his members to vote. “I don’t think that it’s fair for me to say that I know how the vast majority of the members feel at this time.” Indeed, it’s impossible to know for certain what as many as 12,000 union members will decide. But political insiders say mayoral candidate Jim Kenney, a former City Councilman, likely has the best chance.

Consider the questionnaires that the mayoral candidates were asked to fill out by the teachers union. One of the prompts told the wannabe mayors to list their top three legislative priorities. Unsurprisingly, all of the hopefuls included education-related issues in that lineup to some extent, but Kenney was the only one who wrote that his three highest priorities directly involve schools (they include supporting community schools, expanding pre-K, and increasing local and state education funding, if you’re curious).

On the questionnaire, Kenney also said he strongly agreed with the seven main parts of the PFT’s platform, and when asked to rank whether and to what extent various issues should be prioritized, such as reducing classroom sizes and eliminating teacher seniority, he firmly agreed with the teachers union every time.

Most teachers interviewed after the meeting also said Kenney was their top choice.

“Kenney really stuck out,” said Leshawna Coleman, an itinerant teacher. “He seems to understand the issues that teachers care most about.”

Former city solicitor Nelson Diaz, a progressive, could make a play for the teachers union, but conventional wisdom holds that he is a less viable candidate than Kenney. Former District Attorney Lynne Abraham aligned herself rather closely with the union’s platform in the PFT questionnaire, but her comments to Citified last month irked some teachers. Gaining the teachers’ support will probably be difficult for Doug Oliver, a former spokesman for Mayor Michael Nutter, and Rev. Keith Goodman, who both have little to no name recognition. State Sen. Anthony Williams, meanwhile, who supports vouchers and has received campaign contributions from charter advocates, appears to be a non-starter for the union.

Williams made his case to the teachers union anyway. The Wednesday night meeting was closed to the press, but Williams told reporters afterward that he said he “wanted credit for my record of supporting public education funding.

“There’s not anybody running who’s done more for funding than me,” he said. “Nobody.”

Jeff Rosenberg, a health and physical education teacher at Academy at Palumbo, said he disagreed with Williams over some issues, but respected that he showed up.

“For Anthony Williams to come, I thought that that was pretty gutsy,” he said.

Along with Williams, the candidates who attended the PFT meeting Wednesday were Kenney, Abraham, Diaz, Oliver and Goodman. Ex-con and former state Sen. Milton Street was not invited to the event because he has not yet declared his candidacy, the union said.

Don’t Miss …
  • In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel will now have to face Jesús Garcia in a run-off election because he won less than 50 percent of the vote on Tuesday. According to Politico, Garcia is “the first candidate in city history to force an incumbent mayor into a run-off.” Emanuel scored more than 45 percent of the vote; Garcia, a progressive ally of the teachers union, got 34 percent. What does it mean for Philly that progressive mayoral candidates are doing well, and sometimes better than, the presumed frontrunners in cities such as Chicago and New York City? If Philly follows the trend, Kenney, or perhaps Diaz, would stand to benefit. But that would assume Philly is as liberal as those cities, and I’m not sure that’s the case.
  • Mayor Michael Nutter says the next mayor must “ratchet up even higher on the priority list the issue of talking about education on a regular basis; regular, as in every day.” In a wide-ranging interview with NewsWorks, Nutter says, “The No. 1 question I get from CEOs and chairs of companies today that are thinking about expanding or coming into Philadelphia is not about taxes,” but “is, ‘What kind of progress are we going to make on educating kids?'”
  • A 28-year-old police officer from Camden sat down with President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Tuesday to talk about community policing tactics. She discussed a a program in which officers read to area children.
  • PlanPhilly reports SEPTA’s new fare system, known as “SEPTA Key,” won’t be ready for bus and subway riders until “sometime in 2015.” Officials say they will test the program over the next couple months.