Friday, July 18, 2008

An Apparent Heir to Weingarten Emerges at N.Y. Teachers Union

ELIZABETH GREEN, Staff Reporter of the Sun | July 18, 2008

Having been elected president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten is saying she has no current plans to leave her other job as president of the AFT's New York City local, the United Federation of Teachers. But she is indicating who her preferred New York City successor is: a former high school English teacher known as a fighter and an independent thinker, Michael Mulgrew.

Ms. Weingarten named Mr. Mulgrew the union's new chief operating officer in a memo sent to union officers yesterday evening. The promotion makes him the no. 2 person at the United Federation of Teachers, which calls itself America's largest union local, and puts Mr. Mulgrew in a strong, though not guaranteed, position to become the union's fourth president when Ms. Weingarten decides she is ready to leave.

Ms. Weingarten has been UFT president for 10 years. She was elected president of the American Federation of Teachers on Monday at the union's annual convention in Chicago.

UFT presidents also must be voted in, but both previous presidents were handpicked by their predecessors and groomed for the roles before standing for election. Traditionally, holders of the job have been powerful in shaping both the city's education policy and its broader politics.

Asked how long she will remain president of the New York City union, Ms. Weingarten said her main concern is making sure the UFT remains strong.

Whether Mr. Mulgrew proves he can do that is an open question and his main challenge.

In an interview with The New York Sun earlier this year about who would succeed her, Ms. Weingarten said, "Anybody who thinks that they can just walk into New York City and become the next Randi Weingarten is smoking something."

Several people at the union who were long considered likely successors to Ms. Weingarten have ended up falling out of the running.

Yet now Mr. Mulgrew's star appears to be rising — and the timing of his rise, just as Ms. Weingarten is taking on a national role, could make him the last man standing.

At the same convention where Ms. Weingarten was elected president, Mr. Mulgrew became for the first time a vice president of the national American Federation of Teachers; the same thing happened to Ms. Weingarten when her predecessor, Sandra Feldman, was elected AFT president.

In an interview with The New York Sun, Ms. Weingarten said she is modeling her steps on Ms. Feldman's transition plan.

Mr. Mulgrew is known in the union as a "fighter" who stands out for being bold enough to stand up to Ms. Weingarten when he disagrees with her.

A Staten Island resident, Mr. Mulgrew began his career in construction, where he belonged to the carpenters union. He became a teacher in 1990, starting as a substitute.

By 2005 — after more than a decade teaching English at a career and technical education high school on Coney Island, William Grady — he was being elected vice president of the union.

In recent months Mr. Mulgrew's profile has risen inside and outside of the union. He led the union's efforts to fight threatened school budget cuts, standing in for Ms. Weingarten at press events, traveling to Albany with her, and being introduced to the union's allies and partners.

Among his new contacts is Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who yesterday praised him as a "forceful" advocate, saying the two have a "great relationship."

Following in Ms. Weingarten's footsteps, Mr. Mulgrew seems already to have won the disdain of the union's internal opposition caucus, the Independent Community of Educators, or ICE.

An ICE leader, Jeffrey Kaufman, said Mr. Mulgrew allowed the department to get its way in its overhaul of special education schools. Ms. Weingarten's memo cited Mr. Mulgrew's work in that effort as a reason she promoted him, saying he forced the department to protect teachers' rights.

Others at the UFT praised Mr. Mulgrew. "I think he's extraordinarily talented and the right person," a union vice president, Leo Casey, said.

Mr. Mulgrew declined several requests for comment.

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