Opinion: Columnists

How unions got Vince Gray elected

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As Washington D.C. plays the Mayor Vincent Gray will-he-or-won't-he-resign game, it is instructive to look back at one of the reasons why he got the job in the first place: Teachers unions and their hatred of former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

Rhee clashed with the unions almost from the moment then-Mayor Adrian Fenty appointed her in 2007. Her efforts at reform -- particularly firing underperforming teachers, a direct stab at union power -- received national attention.

The American Federation of Teachers -- the national organization that includes the Washington Teachers' Union -- spent a reported $1 million on a local government race in 2010 to oust Fenty, Rhee's patron. They wanted to send a message: Don't cross us.

It wasn't the only reason Fenty lost. He made his own missteps and Gray had other -- ahem -- help, as an ongoing criminal investigation has revealed. But it is likely that the unions' offensive helped tip the scales in his favor.

For context, AFT spent about $350,000 more than the illegal "shadow campaign" that former Gray operative Jeanne Clarke Harris recently admitted to running -- the one that led U.S. Attorney Ronald Machen Jr. to say the race was "corrupted."

"Labor has typically been little more than window dressing in local D.C. campaigns," an anonymous Democratic consultant familiar with the campaign told Politico shortly after the 2010 election. "This operation stepped it up to an unprecedented level. Without AFT this race might have been a coin flip."

Gray, a longtime backer of the unions who had also clashed with Rhee in his role as D.C. Council chairman, became the beneficiary of the opposition to public school reform in his 2010 race. Neither AFT nor WTU responded to The Washington Examiner's request for comment.

Rhee had worked hard to reverse the city's dismal education record. She identified the quality of the city's teachers as a key problem. "Eight percent of our eighth-graders were on grade level, but all the adults (teachers) in our schools were rated as exceeding expectations," Rhee told Newsweek in 2010, marveling at the "wild disconnect there."

Rhee's solution was to get rid of the worst of them. On October, 2009, she pink-slipped 266 teachers with low evaluations, citing a $43.9 million budget shortfall. She laid off another 241 the following year, mainly for poor performance.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, who has made defending teacher jobs her mission, seemed to take it personally. A New York public school principal once told the New Yorker that Weingarten "would protect a dead body in the classroom."

Rhee did not help herself with her blunt, high-handed style and a love of the national spotlight that only enraged her critics further. In a New York Daily News column in June 2010, she touted the union contract she negotiated in D.C. "as a roadmap for other districts." She implied that Weingarten could be rolled and advised New York officials to "lean on her."

Weingarten was not amused, responding with her own Daily News Op-Ed a week later: "[T]o the extent that lessons can be drawn from D.C.'s contract ... they are not the anti-union lessons Rhee lays out."

Both WTU and AFT came out hard for then-candidate Gray that summer with an extensive outreach program and ad campaign. The American Federation of Government Employees also ran ads against Fenty.

After Fenty lost, Weingarten and WTU President George Parker wrote in a Huffington Post Op-Ed: "The voters have spoken and said they want more accountable and connected leadership." In other words, leadership that gives unions more say.

Rhee, who admitted to feeling "guilty" for Fenty's loss, resigned shortly thereafter. For Gray's fans, that was enough.

"Gray accomplished his most important task," wrote the Washington Post's Courtland Milloy in a Monday column. He defeated Fenty and sent the snarky schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee, packing."

Well, you got what you wanted. Are you happy now?

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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