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UFT chief hits Florida to sway 2012 election, and maybe 2013's

When UFT chief Michael Mulgrew touched down in Florida this week, his goal was to support President Barack Obama’s reelection bid. But his visit could be useful in a different presidential election — his own.

The trip is bringing Mulgrew to West Palm Beach and Orlando, where more than 3,500 of Florida’s 7,000 retired New York City teachers live. He is meeting with some of the UFT members who have been working the phones since last week to lobby fellow retirees in the state, according to a union press release. Obama is considered likely but not assured to win Florida.

The Florida phone bank is part of the union’s multi-pronged get-out-the-vote effort. Union members are also reaching out from New York City to as many as 100,000 union members in swing states, through phone banks set up at the UFT’s Lower Manhattan headquarters.

But while all eyes are on November right now, Mulgrew’s Florida visit could also be seen as a first campaign stop in his own reelection bid. In April, Mulgrew’s first full three-year term as UFT president is coming to an end, and retirees are likely to play a crucial role in his effort to preserve and potentially consolidate power.

The UFT has always been dominated by a single internal party, Unity, and there have been no nail-biters in its electoral history. In 2010, after filling out the last year of former UFT chief Randi Weingarten’s term, Mulgrew coasted to an easy victory with 91 percent of the vote.

But forces within the union are hoping to toughen the road to reelection. An internal caucus, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, aims to unite opposition to Unity and its positions on charter schools, school closures, and mayoral control. And another group, Educators 4 Excellence, has signaled that it might put forth a slate of candidates. The group has conscripted teachers to study and push for changes to policies about teacher hiring, firing, and evaluation rules.

Retirees could be key to preserving Unity’s dominance at a time when the union is poised to influence the mayoral election and the future of the city’s schools. They contribute significantly to the union’s political fund and also turn out in large numbers for advocacy campaigns, officials have said.

They also vote. In the last two union elections, less than a quarter of active teachers voted in union elections, but nearly half of retired UFT members cast ballots.

And their votes will count even more next year than they did in 2010. A change to the union’s bylaws early this year increased the cap on retirees’ votes, so more of them will count in election results. Under the old cap, retirees’ ballots accounted for 39 percent of all votes, but under the higher cap, they would have made up 46 percent of the vote.

Mulgrew’s stops on Tuesday in West Palm Beach and today in Orlando are not the only ways that the UFT reaches out to retirees from New York. The union also conducts voting by snail mail to ensure that retired members, who might lack internet connections or computers, can weigh in.

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