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UFT hands pols money; a mayoral endorsement could be next

With less than a month to go before the Democratic primary, the teachers union is establishing itself as a major campaign donor in the upcoming city races.

As of August 10, candidates in the November election have received some $79,000 from the United Federation of Teachers’ committee on public education, according to the latest reports to the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

The UFT doled out slightly less than some of the city’s other powerful unions, such as the Service Employees International Union, which has given more than $90,000 and the International Union of Operating Engineers, which has contributed over $80,000. But it’s substantially more than unions like D.C. 37 and the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, both of which have members working in the city’s schools.

A union official said more money is yet to come. But the union’s biggest power will likely be its endorsements — the most important of which have yet to go out.

The official said it’s still possible that the UFT will endorse a candidate for mayor.

“There’s a distinct possibility that we will [make more endorsements]. We’ve got no time frame right now. We’re still assessing everything,” the official said.

A UFT endorsement means not only money but manpower in helping get out the vote, a major boon in an election year where the biggest ticket contest is a lackluster mayor’s race.

“It’s the member outreach that really really matters,” said Peter Goodman, a longtime UFT member. “We can run to our computer and see who lives in the district. We can do phone calls. We make robocalls. We can do all kinds of outreach,” he said, adding that these efforts are especially important in districts with large populations of black and Latino voters, many of whom work in the city’s schools.

Although the races for comptroller and public advocate are among the most competitive in the city, the union has yet to endorse anyone in either race. It has also not chosen a favorite in the mayoral race. The UFT gave $4,950 to mayoral candidate Bill Thompson and $500 to his Democratic challenger Tony Avella before the city’s term limits were changed and Mayor Bloomberg became a candidate.

This summer, the union endorsed four Council candidates, siding against the incumbent in one of them — a rare occurrence for the UFT.

Candidates for City Council who request an endorsement from the UFT are first vetted by the union’s political action committees — it has one in each borough — and then recommended to the executive board, which votes to recommend the person to the union’s 1,000 member delegate assembly. The delegates vote on who gets an endorsement, but don’t decide whether that candidate will get $500 or $4,950.

Some candidates — especially in races where there are many candidate to vet — are endorsed over the summer without coming before the assembly.  In District 14 in the Bronx, where Councilwoman Maria Baez is threatened by several challengers, the union chose Fernando Cabrera.

“Certain positions that Baez has taken were problematic,” the union official said, citing union issues such as crossing picket lines and wages. “Cabrera is a former UFT member, he’s been a counselor in the schools, he’s been there. Baez’s record just did not stand up to scrutiny,” the official said.

The official said that, often, how much money a candidate receives is more indicative of how early he or she entered the race, rather than how close they are to the UFT.

In the race for public advocate, the UFT has given both Bill de Blasio and Eric Gioia similar amounts of money, even though they are rivals. The union has some the same thing to Melinda Katz and John Liu, competitors for city comptroller.

“Rather than anyone thinking that we had made a decision, that there’s a favorite son in there, we’re trying to keep them as level as we possibly can,” a union official said. “It’s kind of pitting friends against friends.”

In one unusual case, the UFT has chosen to endorse two rivals vying for a Queens City Council seat, Helen Sears, the incumbent, and Daniel Dromm, a public school teacher.

At this point in the race, comptroller hopeful Katz has received the largest UFT contribution, though by accident. According to the Campaign Finance Board, the UFT has given her roughly $5,000, which is just over the legal limit. A union official said the money was given in error and would be returned.