By Victor Skinner
BUFFALO, N.Y. – The disturbing news is that some person or organization – perhaps the local teachers union – used attack ads in the Buffalo school board campaign.
The good news is that the effort largely failed. The dirty ads targeted opponents of union candidates, and most of them won in Tuesday’s election.
The remaining question is whether good people are going to want to run for the school board in a city where they might be unfairly attacked for volunteering their services.
The Buffalo News reports only two candidates endorsed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation won seats on the school board out of six spots up for election. Of the candidates targeted by the political ads, only one lost their race.
And the main target of the negative ads – former gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino – won his race by a huge margin.
In the weeks leading up to the school board elections, Buffalo residents received disturbing political mailings, either supporting union candidates or leveling allegations at their challengers, although no one took direct responsibility for the ads.
The mailers targeted candidates critical of the current school board and teachers union, and attempted to link them to Paladino, a 2010 New York gubernatorial candidate and local real estate developer who was running for the school board in the city’s Park District, Buffalo News reports.
The mailers centered on emails Paladino allegedly forwarded to colleagues that were supposedly pornographic in nature or in bad taste, an issue first revealed in Paladino’s failed bid for governor two years ago.
“The ads have particularly targeted Jason McCarthy, an incumbent running in the North District, and Byron McIntyre, an African-American seeking to oust incumbent Mary Ruth Kapsiak in the Central District, claiming they agree with race-baiting and pornography attributed to Paladino in their joint bid to ‘take over Buffalo schools,’” the Buffalo News reports.
“West District candidate James Sampson, who is running against incumbent Ralph Hernandez, has also been targeted in some of the mailers.”
One of the ads called Paladino a “zero-experience, race-baiting, pornography-loving millionaire that wants to take over Buffalo schools,” and that McIntyre “thinks that is just great.” Similar ads were produced in an effort to link other candidates to Paladino.
“The pieces that are being mailed out are some of the ugliest I’ve ever seen,” Peter Reese, a local election attorney, told the Buffalo News. “What concerns me is, if you create an environment that is so reviling and so disgusting, and so expensive, who are we going to get to run?
“I’m also wondering if there will be backlash.”
‘It’s not us’
Many people suspect the teachers union was behind the distasteful ads, which the Buffalo News estimates might have cost as much as $80,000.
For one thing, the ads supported the union’s slate of endorsed candidates and attacked their opponents. Another clue is the company used for the mailers – Atlas Direct – has been linked to union mail campaigns in the past.
And then there were the unions’ cryptic, half-hearted denials.
When questioned on the dirty political ads, Mike Deely, regional director for the state teachers union, told the Buffalo News “you should know after the election.”
Buffalo teachers union president Phil Rumore said the local union “didn’t send them out, produce them, approve them or pay for them.”
When pressed about whether the Buffalo teachers union played any role at all in the mailers, Rumore said, “I don’t know what that means. Did we know something was going out? Yes.”
Union endorsed school board candidates attempted to distance themselves from the fiasco, but some board members targeted by the ads told the Buffalo News the damage was already done.
“They’re just dirty, they’re so low,” McCarthy, who lost to union-endorsed incumbent Mary Ruth Kapsiak Tuesday, told the news site. “But people actually believe this stuff, and that’s the unfortunate part.”
“My wife was very upset by the first one,” he said. “My daughter is too young to read them, but imagine if I had an 8-year-old who could read that I was associated with someone they claim is a pornographer or into bestiality, which they can’t even spell correctly.”
Paladino told the Buffalo News the ads didn’t target voters in his district, but noted the union’s silent endorsement of the mailers.
“They haven’t mailed it into South Buffalo, and to this day no kid has brought one to school to show my daughter what they’re writing about me, and I thank God about that,” he said.
“As much as these school union people say they’re not involved, I haven’t seen any of them denounce it.”
Change is coming
We suspect a major motivation behind the political attack ads stems from Paladino’s vow to “destroy” the nine-member school board if elected.
Last year he filed a lawsuit to challenge the appointment of the district’s superintendent, and has said he wants to fire district leaders and challenge the teachers union, the Huffington Post reports.
Paladino also proposed education reforms like posting every line of the school district’s budget online and inviting local accountants to scrutinize it, developing boarding schools for Buffalo children who come from dysfunctional families, and other ideas the teachers union – and others in Buffalo’s education establishment – would certainly oppose.
It was obvious in Tuesday’s election that many Buffalo residents agreed with Paladino’s view that the city’s public schools need a significant change in direction. Paladino won his race with 79 percent of the vote.
“I kind of like Carl Paladino. I think he’s going to change things. That’s what we need, a change,” Don Ort, a retired city worker, told the Buffalo News. “I think it’s good to get a shake-up.”
“The Buffalo School District is not even close to where it needs to be, so we need a change,” said Mariyama Ajamu, who lives on the east side of the city. Ajamu said she supported Harris-Tigg and McIntyre, both challengers to BFT-endorsed candidates.
The voters have a good point.
For years, the Buffalo school system has been plagued by embarrassingly low student test scores and graduation rates. The teachers union recently tried to get around a state effort to increase academic standards by cutting a quiet deal with the district to ensure that teachers who get poor job ratings in the new statewide evaluation system aren’t fired.
The district’s perpetual debt forces annual teacher layoffs, yet district leaders spend millions each year on things like plastic surgery, airline travel, expensive hotels and limousines, according to our analysis of the district’s budget.
The teachers union is responsible for much of the waste by demanding contract provisions like the free plastic surgery benefit for staff members.
Paladino said he believes the election results show Buffalo voters may finally be ready for serious change, and he plans to start at the top.
“We’re going to do logical things. We’re going to make presentations to the board on logical issues, and the expectation is that they will act accordingly, and not like a bunch of children,” Paladino told WIVB television station. “The system failed. Today the people of the Park District (Paladino’s district) sent out a big message to the rest of the city. They voted in favor of the children. And that statement’s going to ring around the city of Buffalo.”
He also sent a message to the teachers union.
Voters “want change,” Paladino said. “They’ve had enough of the complicity and this conspiracy nonsense with the president of the teacher’s union. That stuff is going to end.”