A Harlem realtor known for founding a controversial social club and playing a role in a high-profile loan dispute is now entering the world of charter school politics.
Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a charter school parent, thinks Harlem’s political leaders don’t sufficiently support the charter schools that dot their districts. So he has formed a political action committee to help finance candidates who would.
The committee, called the Harlem Charter School Parents PAC, made its debut this week in a letter to charter school advocates outlining its political goals: to raise $250,000 over the next year to support candidates in Harlem’s three 2012 City Council races and local Democratic Party district leader races. The group also said it would find volunteers to help those candidates get out the vote.
Lopez-Pierre, whose son is finishing first grade at Harlem’s New York French American Charter School, said he and two other parents aim to create a new unified voice for parents in a community that has served as the front line of the political wars over charter school expansion. (Lopez-Pierre declined to name the other parents but said their children attend Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy and one of the Harlem Success Academy charter schools.)
“Elected officials only respond to two things: votes and money. Our goal is to elect officials that support charter schools,” he said. “My son is in first grade, and he’s going to be in a charter school for at least 10 years. This is not about an election cycle. It’s about transforming Harlem and expanding school choice.”
Harlem has the highest density of charter schools of any city neighborhood: Its more than 20 schools, run by a dozen different operators, enroll about a quarter of the neighborhood’s elementary- and middle-school-aged children. It also has a robust charter school advocacy community, with multiple operators regularly turning out large numbers of parents to public meetings and lobby days to defend their schools. One of the operators, Eva Moskowitz of the Success Charter Academies network, is particularly well known for training and mobilizing the thousands of families enrolled in her network’s 12 schools, which include five in Harlem.
Lopez-Pierre comes from outside of that world. His son’s school is small; not part of a network; and, unlike virtually all of the schools at the front lines of the political battles, has teachers who have joined the city’s teachers union. Late last year, parents pressed the school’s board chair to resign against his will.
Lopez-Pierre said no charter school or network is behind his campaign.
“Are we taking our marching orders from the leadership of any charter school? No,” he said. “This organization is run by charter school parents and we’re not interested in taking direction from any charter school staff member.”
Lopez-Pierre said his belief in the power of education stems from his personal experiences as the son of drug-addicted foster parents in Brooklyn who spent his teen years in a group home. “It was school teachers that helped save me on many occasions from my drug addict father who would beat me with a pipe when I got stopped by the police after buying his drugs,” he wrote in an email to his mailing list today.
Inspiration for the PAC came in part from a brush-off Lopez-Pierre said he received from State Sen. Bill Perkins when he and founders of his son’s school asked Perkins for a letter of support when they first applied for a charter.
“He was an hour late and then when he arrived he wasn’t interested in talking to us,” Lopez-Pierre said. “So that gives you an example of a taste we had of the nastiness of the political process.”
Perkins said in a phone interview that he did not remember the meeting taking place, but that he did meet with some parents from NYFACS last year when the school ran into financial problems.
“Parents, whether they’re from a charter school or not, I meet with them,” Perkins said. “Whether they criticize or ask for support or come to inform me about their school, I attend. I’ve even visited Eva Moskowitz’s schools, so I don’t see myself as against charter school parents or anti-parent or anything like that.”
Perkins has been a vocal critic of charter schools and their hold on Harlem. In 2010, he held a scathing hearing about the schools as legislators weighed whether more should be permitted to open. (The legislators decided they should.)
Although Lopez-Pierre is not working with existing charter parent groups, he said he has had “meetings with senior executives at large charter school networks” to discuss his plans and is scheduling more. He said would like parents from each charter school or charter network in the community to select a representative to join the PAC and help it decide which candidates to endorse.
Those charter school leaders so far do not include Moskowitz or other Success Academy leaders, according to spokeswoman Jenny Sedlis. “We haven’t spoken with him and don’t know anything about his plans,” she said.
Seth Andrew, the leader of another multi-school network in Harlem, Democracy Prep, also said he was not involved with Lopez-Pierre’s group.
Lopez-Pierre said his fundraising strategy so far has been to contact “wealthy Wall Street professionals,” some of whom he is connected to through his day job as a real estate broker, and charter school supporters from within and outside of New York State. So far multiple donors have committed about $10,000 in total to the PAC, he said.
Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, an influential political action committee that has backed charter schools, said he had not heard about Lopez-Pierre’s efforts before receiving the first email this week. But he said he thought the group could achieve its goals.
“Organized parents and donors can have a tremendous impact on the political landscape, even if they raise only a fraction of what they are talking about,” Williams said in an email. “Thoughtful political engagement can be extremely powerful.”
Some of Lopez-Pierre’s contacts could come from his days working for State Sen. Adriano Espaillat’s first political campaigns in the 1990s. Or he could tap into the network of businessmen, lawyers, and doctors he met as the operator of a social club and matchmaking service geared toward single, college-educated black and Latino men and women.
The Harlem Club, which operated from 2004 to 2008, drew criticism because of Lopez-Pierre’s approach to class and gender issues. His recruitment strategy targeted only professionals and he said he rejected applications from overweight women and women over 40, calling them “career women.”
Lopez-Pierre also has a checkered past with some Harlem community members. He was arrested last year on stalking and harassment charges after he sent emails to community members detailing a loan dispute with a Harlem restaurant owner and warning the restaurateur that his life was “at risk.”
This week, Lopez-Pierre explained that he had been informing the restaurant owner, Joseph Holland, that “hard-money lenders from Washington Heights” with whom he brokered a loan for Holland were upset that they hadn’t been repaid. “They’re going to kill him,” Lopez-Pierre said.
Lope-Pierre said he is “proud” of his behavior as the Harlem Club founder and in the loan dispute. But he said both cases are unrelated to his charter school push, and from his perspective, not particularly unusual.
“People do that all day long in Harlem, in Washington Heights,” he said about borrowing money from potentially dangerous lenders. “It’s the way business is done in the ‘hood.”
A post on the teachers union’s blog Wednesday brought up the Harlem Club and said Lopez-Pierre had a “disturbing background.” Lopez-Pierre responded by emailing community members and education stakeholders recent news stories about a lawsuit alleging that the union’s president committed sexual misconduct as a teacher, along with a note.
“UFT President Mike Mulgrew was just the kind of guy who would have made a great member of the Harlem Club,” read the typo-laden note. “Instead of talking about who he is having sex with school staff on school property or who I used to work for — lets talks talk about education policy and our ideas on how to make public schools in NYC better for all children.”