Monday, January 21, 2008

Which Rising Star Will Be 'Next Randi Weingarten'?

Which Rising Star Will Be 'Next Randi Weingarten'?

BY ELIZABETH GREEN - Staff Reporter of the Sun
January 17, 2008

With the United Federation of Teachers' president seemingly moving toward leaving New York and becoming a national labor leader, a strange realization is settling over Randi Weingarten's union: Life after the towering leader may not be so far off, and there is no heir apparent to fill her shoes.

A union representative in the Bronx, Lynne Winderbaum, called the successor problem the UFT's "million-dollar question."

According to Ms. Weingarten, the job is not for everyone: "Anybody who thinks that they can just walk into New York City and become the next Randi Weingarten is smoking something," she said. There have been only two other presidents of the UFT, and both eventually left the job to lead their parent union, the American Federation of Teachers.

Ms. Weingarten could decide to do the same thing as early as this month. The AFT elections are set for July, and President Edward McElroy is widely expected to retire before then.

Reversing years of denials, Ms. Weingarten last year said for the first time that she is open to considering the job if Mr. McElroy chooses to leave.

Ms. Weingarten said this week that she expects a decision from Mr. McElroy this year.

"I hope he decides to run, and I have encouraged him to run," she said. "But he's going to make a decision some time in the early part of this calendar year. And the only thing that I've said is that for the first time I won't rule anything out."

Likely fueling speculation is that Ms. Weingarten has recently been encouraging her top aides to step up and take more prominent roles.

A rising star among her cabinet of vice presidents, Michelle Bodden, has been appearing beside Ms. Weingarten at news conferences and delivering public testimony to the City Council. She also earned praise for organizing the union's largest expansion, a jump in size of 25%, when child-care workers voted to join the UFT last year.

Another rising star, Leroy Barr, was just promoted this month to leave a Manhattan UFT office and become Ms. Weingarten's staff director. Mr. Barr's old boss, Jerome Goldman, who runs the union's Manhattan office, said Ms. Weingarten personally selected Mr. Barr for the position.

A former staff director, Michael Mendel, now in the union's no. 2 spot as secretary and executive assistant to the president, has begun joining Ms. Weingarten in running contract negotiations with the Department of Education.

A recently appointed vice president, Leo Casey, has enjoyed Internet fame as the main voice on the UFT's Web log, Edwize, and has seen his name stamped on a recent press release as making a statement jointly with Ms. Weingarten.

Rounding out a list of names that were the most mentioned in conversations with nearly a dozen sources inside or close to the UFT, a union vice president, Michael Mulgrew, is planning to accompany Ms. Weingarten to Mayor Bloomberg's State of the City address tomorrow, while another, Carmen Alvarez, is heading up a commission studying the question of mayoral control.

"We've been building capacity at the union," Mr. Mulgrew, who oversees the union's work with career and technical schools, said. Ms. Weingarten also acknowledged the new role her aides are taking. "I think they're stepping up because they have the competence to step up, and because I'm pushing people to step up. I'm pushing a lot of people to," she said. "I want 10 or 20 years later for the union to be in better shape than it is now."

Yet while many young — and some not so young — leaders are emerging, there is no single obvious choice for Ms. Weingarten's heir apparent.

That is uncharted territory for a union that has in the past plotted its transitions studiously, with the first leader, Albert Shanker, handing off naturally to his handpicked successor, Sandra Feldman, and she to hers, Ms. Weingarten.

"In Al's case, Sandy Feldman was capable and talented and well-known. And in Sandy's case, Randi was talented gifted and well-known," Mr. Goldman said. "At those times, there was just such an incredibly talented person in the wings that it seemed apparent to everyone that this person is the appropriate successor."

Who emerges this time will be up to Ms. Weingarten, nearly every person interviewed said.

"The beauty of what Randi has done is that she has more than one choice," Ms. Alvarez said. "Instead of just one, you groom several people, which is a smart thing to do."

Another possibility, if Ms. Weingarten seeks the AFT presidency, is that she will not initially give up her role as UFT president, but hold onto it while she seeks the new job. Both Shanker and Feldman presided over both the UFT and AFT in their first years leading the national union.

That would leave Ms. Weingarten time to survey the field and let a successor emerge naturally.

Ms. Weingarten refused to name any specific person she is considering as a successor, but — echoing the message of the presidential candidate for whom she is assiduously campaigning, Senator Clinton — she did indicate one quality that matters to her: experience.

Of those whose names were most mentioned, the person with the longest history at the UFT, Ms. Alvarez, said she would seriously consider taking the position if it was offered to her.

Ms. Alvarez, a former special education teacher who has worked at the Bank Street College of Education; the old Board of Education, and served as a school board member for six years, is also one of three racial minorities being named as potential successors. Ms. Bodden and Mr. Barr are black, and Mr. Barr has served as chairman of the New York State chapter of the AFT's black caucus. Selecting a black or Hispanic president could be a significant step for a union that has been battling charges of racism since it knocked heads with black separatist teachers in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn. "The idea of having an African American lead the United Federation of Teachers — it would be a whole new era," the executive director of the lobbying group Democrats for Education Reform, Joseph Williams, said. "It would leave the sore feelings from the Ocean Hill-Brownsville era behind."

Richard Ianuzzi, the president of the UFT's state affiliate, NYSUT, said he is staying out of transition conversations — except for one thing. Responding to murmurings that Ms. Weingarten might serve in Senator Clinton's White House as education secretary, Mr. Ianuzzi said he told her it is not allowed.

"Because I wouldn't want to lobby her," he laughed.

January 17, 2008 Edition > Section: New York > Printer-Friendly Version

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