June 24, 2009
The man who is on the brink of becoming one of the city’s top power brokers nearly got lost in a crowd earlier this week.
Michael Mulgrew is the designated successor to teachers union president Randi Weingarten, who will announce her departure from the union today. If union leaders select him to fill her shoes, as is expected, he will become the president of America’s largest union local and one of the most influential labor unions in the state.
On Monday afternoon, at a press conference where Mayor Bloomberg announced the city’s rising graduation rates with a pack of advocates, the mayor ticked off every one of their names in gratitude but one.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein leaned in to Bloomberg’s ear. “And Michael Mulgrew,” he reminded the mayor.
The tall, bald man with a bouncer’s build hardly registered the oversight.
Bloomberg can be forgiven for not remembering Mulgrew’s name. Unlike other top brass at the teachers union, Mulgrew is a relative newcomer. Just four years ago he was teaching English and filmmaking to high school students in Staten Island. He was not seen as a possible successor to Weingarten inside the union until she abruptly vaulted him into the limelight last year, making him one of three candidates in a dramatic internal run-off race.
Even now that he’s on good terms with deputy mayors and had his photograph pasted across the pages of the union’s most recent newspapers, Mulgrew remains obscure. He would be the first non-Jewish president of a union that over the years has been stereotyped as a Jewish haven. A trained electrician and carpenter who ran a contracting business on the side for several years, he would also be the first vocational teacher to become interim president of the UFT. (Vocational teachers represent just a small fraction of the union.)
All this makes him a far cry from the stature of the woman whose shoes he’ll fill.
“Anybody who thinks that they can just walk into New York City and become the next Randi Weingarten is smoking something,” Weingarten warned last year, amid speculation about her successor.
Mulgrew, 44, also couldn’t be more different from Weingarten. Tall and apple-cheeked, he has the physical presence of Mr. Clean (both shave their heads) and a quiet charm. “Women seem to like him,” noted one union member.
Still, he’s often bullish and he gained renown in the union for being one of a small number of people to stand up to Weingarten. At a City Council hearing on mayoral control in early June, Mulgrew barked his testimony. Weingarten’s critics, who sometimes criticize her for favoring the middle ground, like Mulgrew’s puggishness.
“He comes across as a non-waffler,” said union activist Norm Scott. “For people who despise Weingarten, there’s already a sense of, ‘Oh, maybe Mulgrew will be better.’ But while this change in style will work for him for a while, it is a change in style not substance.”
Mulgrew grew up on Staten Island and still lives there, a fact he can hold responsible for his heavy New York accent. He graduated from St. Peters High School, an all-boys Catholic school, and then went to the College of Staten Island, the borough’s CUNY school.
In 1990, while doing construction work as a member of the carpenter’s union, he began working as a substitute teacher at the William E. Grady Career and Technical Education High School in Brooklyn. After several years, he began working full time, teaching English and then an audio-visual class for at-risk students. He taught how to use recording equipment and computers to write, produce, and edit films.
Colleagues from his teaching years describe Mulgrew as a natural leader who has found himself reluctantly thrust into power by virtue of being in the right place at the right time.
Tom Dorso, a social studies teacher and the current UFT chapter leader at Grady High School, shared a classroom with Mulgrew. They became such close friends that Mulgrew built Dorso’s kitchen cabinets for him.
According to Dorso, Mulgrew was hesitant to run for chapter leader, a position he won in 1999. “He went in kicking and screaming,” Dorso said. “He took the chapter leader’s position because no one was really running. We had a principal at the time who was trying to get away with some stuff and Michael said, ‘I just won’t allow it.’”
From then on, Mulgrew was “relentless,” Dorso said. He took a “divide and conquer” approach to the school’s new principal and the assistant principals, playing them off each other to his benefit.
“Whenever one of the suits was coming into the building, Michael would always make sure he was well dressed, and would barge into the meeting and introduce himself. He was very proactive,” Dorso said.
“When Mr. Mulgrew ran for chapter leader and won, the staff embraced him,” said Christopher Manos, a shop teacher at Grady High School who took over as chapter leader when Mulgrew became a vice president in 2005. “Everybody knew that he was very smart, he was articulate, and very personable.”
While serving as chapter leader, Mulgrew established himself as one of the more vocal members of the delegate assembly. “He made himself noticed,” Dorso said, and he soon attracted the attention of Frank Carucci, then vice president for vocational and technical high schools. Mulgrew began working for Carucci after school, stuffing envelopes, answering phone calls, and running errands. Following the UFT tradition of naming a successor before the members vote, when Carucci decided to retire, he endorsed Mulgrew as interim vice president.
Once again, Mulgrew wasn’t certain he wanted the job, but he ran after others egged him on, and he “won big,” Dorso said.
As vice president, Mulgrew also quickly crashed meetings with men in suits. When Klein seemed uninterested in his passion for “career and technical education” — next-generation vocational schools that emphasize academic rigor — Mulgrew took his case directly to then-Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff. Soon, Mayor Bloomberg was announcing a new initiative to expand career and technical education.
A question Mulgrew and those watching his ascent face is whether he’ll be able to hold his own against Weingarten.
Supporters have characterized Mulgrew as having an independent mind and a forceful personality, but critics suggest that he rose through the ranks by being a loyal foot soldier to the party that supports Weingarten, the UNITY caucus. They say he will not stray from party line.
“He’s demonstrated his total loyalty to her and that’s what you get when you’re loyal,” said Jeff Kaufman, a member of ICE’s steering committee. “He’s going to sit there and give a couple of sound bites and the heavy lifting is still going to be done by Randi.”
Some of Mulgrew’s colleagues from his early days in the union saw him as an obvious choice for the UFT’s top job.
“I was calling him Mr. President about a year ago,” Dorso said. “I teach social studies, I know how politics works, he’s the fair-haired boy even though he shaves his head.”
Mulgrew declined to comment for this story.
“I think he’s a great person. I think he has a lot of guts,” Weingarten said. “He’s a great teacher, came up through the ranks. … He’s willing to break a lot of glass.”