All Politics Is Local: Parker has had to fend off meddling from national union bigwigs.
All Politics Is Local: Parker has had to fend off meddling from national union bigwigs. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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When you’re the head of a major urban teachers union, you want to be perceived as a badass. The guy who’ll rough up the superintendent. The guy who’ll fight for every last cent of teachers’ pay. And resist all those “contract reform” initiatives that threaten to water down job protections.

It’s tough to sustain the badass image, though, when the superintendent gushes about what a wonderful guy you are.

For the last year, that’s all that Washington Teachers’ Union President George Parker has heard out of the mouth of D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee. Words like “progressive” and “visionary.” Or this little soliloquy that aired last month on an episode of Charlie Rose’s nationally broadcast program: “We have a great union leader. This man, George Parker, he wants to do the right thing for kids. He wants to do the right thing for his teachers.”

Later, Rhee called Parker “a great union president” and, when asked by Rose what she can accomplish in the coming year, said, “I know that we can institute the most radical reform-minded teachers union contract in this country.”

Yeesh! What’s a union boss gotta do to get some interpersonal strife around here?

Here’s what Rhee should have told Rose: “We have a very stubborn union leader. This man, George Parker, consistently places the interests of his rank and file ahead of the interests of the children.”

Then, perhaps, the WTU membership would chill out a bit. But the system’s unionized teachers are concerned about the partnership between their boss and Rhee. So much so that the centerpiece of Rhee’s reform program—a two-tiered teacher-compensation structure, one tier of which essentially eliminates “tenure” in return for massive raises—is looking less and less like it’s going to fly with WTU members.

When Rhee took the reins of the D.C. Public Schools 14 months ago, she took plenty of heat for having no experience running a school system, let alone one of DCPS’s size and dysfunction. In the time since, Rhee’s acquitted herself remarkably well, taking charge of the 50,000-student system with immense force and energy—whether in spite of, or because of, her inexperience.

But the contract negotiations are one realm in which Rhee has betrayed her greenness. She has eschewed the standard line for a superintendent in the course of contract negotiations—i.e., a platitude or two about how hard the union is playing.

The compliments don’t mix well with the union hardliners’ essentially binary worldview: that it’s us against them, and if you’re not with us, then you’re with them. There’s plenty of evidence to support that idea.

In 2005, Randi Weingarten, then the head of the New York City teachers union, concluded tough negotiations with that city’s schools chancellor, Joel Klein, who had wanted to radically whittle down the teachers contract. At a press conference announcing the agreement, which kept key union-friendly provisions intact and was widely viewed as a victory for teachers, Klein gave Weingarten an impromptu hug in front of cameras. That prompted a revolt of sorts among hard-liners, complicating the contract’s eventual ratification.

LL asked Rhee whether she has regretted pumping up Parker. “No, I don’t regret it,” she says in an e-mail. “I say what’s on my mind. I’m always honest. This is how I feel about George. He’s a good guy.”

Parker indeed plays nice when asked if he’d prefer Rhee kept her kind words to herself: “You know, I haven’t given a lot of thought to it.…I think there’s some members who think that management and labor are supposed to always be fighting and if there’s anything positive said, then it must mean that there’s a relationship that’s too close. Then there are others that think that the only way we’re gonna get the system moving properly is to work in a cooperative manner.”

It appears you can put Parker’s own bosses in the former category. By mid-July, Parker and Rhee were ready to roll out their contract proposal, cohosting meetings with teachers on July 22 and 23 to explain the document. By July 25, the American Federation of Teachers, the WTU’s parent union, was threatening to drop a house on Parker.

In a letter sent to Parker that day [PDF], George Bordenave—an AFT rep who has been assisting with the day-to-day operations of the union since March—appears to disown any involvement with the proposal, writing that Parker had requested that he not participate in the negotiations: “That means, as you well know, in your role as WTU President and chief negotiator, you are responsible for the substance of any collective bargaining agreement that may be presented to the WTU membership for a vote.”

“It is now apparent…that the proposal under discussion is fundamentally different than the current” contract, Bordenave wrote, citing the loss of “due process safeguards” and other employment rules. “It further appears…that there is already some sort of agreement in principle with the Chancellor on these critical terms.”

A few days later came another strongly worded letter [PDF], from Weingarten, who had just taken over as head of the national union: “In my first week as AFT president,” she wrote, “I have been besieged with letters and emails from members of the Washington Teachers Union who are deeply concerned about their contract negotiation process.”

“This is an enormous concern to me personally,” Weingarten wrote in the letter, which was copied to members of the WTU executive board.

The letter closed with Weingarten informing Parker that the AFT would be hiring a pollster to survey WTU members about the contract proposal and would be creating materials “to help them digest the complex information” presented at the meetings.

The poll [PDF], consisting of a sample of 400 WTU teachers, showed that 58 percent of those surveyed disapproved of the two-tier plan. The poll’s existence was first reported in DCWatch’s online newsletter.

George Jackson, an AFT spokesperson, says conducting a poll for a local is “not a new or unusual practice for us.” He cites recent polls done in New Orleans and Hartford, Conn., among others. All polls, including the WTU survey, have to be requested by the local. “They asked us to help,” he says.

Parker says that he never requested a poll, though he says he wasn’t against the idea. In any case, he has some polling numbers of his own: Teachers who attended the July meetings and felt that they had received sufficent information about the plan, he says, endorsed moving forward with it 2 to 1.

Moreover, Parker says, the WTU’s relations with the AFT are back in good stead following a meeting last Friday with Weingarten. “I think she clearly understands what we’re attempting to do, and she’s supportive,” he says.

Weingarten says Parker’s “a terrific guy in a very tough situation. The chancellor tried to pre-sell a deal in the midst of negotiations. If I were in New York, I would be very upset if Chancellor Klein was using the public press to sell a deal that hadn’t been negotiated yet.”

Asked about the national meddling, Rhee minces no words: “I think it’s inappropriate for the national AFT to be inserting themselves into this. They specifically say they have no role in local negotiations, but that’s disingenuous. If you look at what they’ve done in this negotiation, you can see that’s far from the truth.”

In the weeks since the AFT letters, Parker has publicly backtracked on the two-tier contract proposal, saying in an Aug. 8 Washington Post story, for instance, that “some type of traditional agreement” might be a possibility. Right now, Parker says, the future of the contract depends on whether there will be “probation” for currently tenured teachers who wish to move to the nontenured “green” tier, as well as whether some sort of appeals system is developed for green-tier teachers.

Such an appeals system would be a major compromise for Rhee, which raises the question: Has she wasted all of those compliments on a union leader who can’t deliver his rank and file?

Nathan Saunders, the WTU’s general vice president and a chief Parker foe, certainly thinks so. “That’s why Michelle Rhee loves [Parker], because she thinks he can deliver on a private deal.” His take on the contract’s prospects? “This thing is gonna get crushed.”

Bishop Pleads Out

One of the great sagas in District political history has come to a quiet close.

Scott Bishop Sr., the longtime political handyman, has finally faced justice for his role in the 2002 forged-petition scandal that embarrassed Mayor Anthony A. Williams and knocked him off his re-election ballot.

Bishop appeared before a Superior Court Judge Robert Morin in late June to plead guilty to 10 counts of “corrupt election practices.” He was fined $100 on each count, plus $500 in court costs.

The charges stem from a 2005 decision by then Attorney General Robert Spagnoletti to charge Bishop, along with son Scott Jr. and his wife Crystal, with turning in faulty petitions. Those charges came after federal authorities failed to charge the Bishops after months of investigation, and they notably failed to include anyone higher on the Williams campaign hierarchy, including senior adviser Charles Duncan or co-chairs Max Berry and Gwendolyn Hemphill.

Scott Jr. and Crystal were jailed soon after and received probation in connection with a plea deal; Scott Sr. evaded authorities for nearly three years.

Still unclear is just how Bishop ended up before the judge in the first place; court records indicate that Bishop had been jailed prior to his court appearance, though the circumstances of his arrest are not clear.

Bishop did not return calls for comment. In 2005, Bishop explained his plight thusly: “I gave my government job up to go out and help Tony Williams. And I got fucked.”

Bishop popped back on LL’s radar when his name showed up on Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans’ Aug. 10 campaign finance filing. Bishop was paid $4,000 to hang signs for Evans’ campaign, raising the question of whether Evans was employing a wanted man. He wasn’t, but others did: Bishop was paid $625 in 2006 by mayoral challenger Marie Johns and $4,550 by Mark H. Long in his bid for the Ward 7 council seat last spring.

Bishop has not yet paid his fines, according to court records.

Political Potpourri

Patrick Mara is doing a great job of challenging At-Large Councilmember Carol Schwartz in September’s Republican primary. The first-timer, for starters, has nearly matched Schwartz’s $100,000-plus campaign war chest.

And Mara won’t have to spend a dime of it on negative campaigning—the PACs have it covered.

For one, there’s the Citizens for Empowerment political action committee, the anti-union outfit funded largely by Miller & Long construction and electrical contractor MC Dean. Not only did the PAC donate to Mara’s campaign, but mail has started showing up in Republican mailboxes bearing the “Paid for by Citizens for Empowerment PAC” label.

One such mailer obtained by LL shows a gentleman holding an empty pocket out of his pants alongside a smaller picture of Schwartz, under the headline tax-and-spender: raising our taxes, wasting taxpayer dollars and supporting labor unions.

Then there’s the Nation’s Capital Committee for Good Government, which has yet to spend a significant dime on the race, aside from funding a Web site that declares the group’s “initial goal is to help elect Patrick Mara At-Large Councilmember.”

Rather than the $1,000 limit placed on campaign donations, PACs can accept contributions of up to $5,000 per donor. The Nation’s Capital Committee has taken two such maximum donations, both with connections to the downtown parking industry.

One came from Leonard “Bud” Doggett, the owner of Doggett Enterprises Inc., and formidable political fundraiser who died last week at age 87. The other is from Bear Saint Properties, a Georgetown-based real-estate investment firm headed up by Russell C. Lindner, who is also the top executive for Colonial Parking. Lindner is also active in the Federal City Council and Greater Washington Board of Trade.

Mara says he’s aware of the mailer and the Web site, but declined to comment on the propriety thereof. “I can’t control what others are doing,” he says. “I’m trying to focus on the campaign.”

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