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In a polarized education climate, Bill Thompson appeals to all

Even as Bill Thompson has continued to criticize the Bloomberg administration’s education policies, he has courted the mayor’s education allies.

Thompson has privately dined with charter school backers and assuaged their fears about what his mayoralty would mean for them. He’s taken thousands of dollars in campaign donations from a Success Academy board member and won the fundraising support of Merryl Tisch, a top state education official who helped expand the charter school sector.

Most recently, he has distanced himself from some Democratic rivals by refusing to oppose a key education policy that the Bloomberg administration has used to help non-union charter schools thrive.

Thompson has managed to stay in favor with these groups even while getting support from Randi Weingarten, an old friend, and emerging as a favorite to get the United Federation of Teachers endorsement, which is scheduled to come on Wednesday (The principals union, a close UFT ally, is endorsing him on Tuesday). His ability to cultivate support from advocates who are often at odds with one another on education is a testament to his political savvy and his experience as a schools policymaker in New York City, political observers say.

“He’s been around a long time, he knows the political landscape and he has a lot of education cred,” said Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Teachers College Columbia University, referring to Thompson’s tenure as president of the Board of Education.

It also doesn’t hurt that Thompson’s odds of making it to a run-off in the crowded Democratic primary look increasingly good, said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “The UFT doesn’t want to back a loser and the smart money is that Thompson is in the run-off,” he said.

But the balancing act has drawn criticism from his rivals, including a Democratic opponent who is competing for the UFT’s endorsement.

“I think any organization wants to know if a candidate is consistent,” said Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, who said Thompson had changed his opinions on education to placate certain interests. “If you can’t believe in someone’s position, why would you feel comfortable endorsing him?”

In a brief interview last week, Thompson disputed the notion that support from certain groups would sway where he stands on education.

“I just continue to put forward what I believe is right for New York City schools, for our education system,” he said. “And I’m going to continue to do that no matter who finds that acceptable.”

A power breakfast

Throughout the early stages of the mayoral campaign, Thompson was doing what de Blasio and other Democratic candidates had also done: cozying up to the UFT and bashing Bloomberg’s record on education. In late January, Thompson stood with UFT President Michael Mulgrew and called for a temporary ban on charter school co-locations. A few weeks later, Thompson told WNYC’s Brian Lehrer what he thought about Bloomberg’s legacy on schools.

“In so many ways his administration has really had a failed approach to education,” Thompson told Lehrer on Feb. 15.

But just days later, Thompson had an intimate breakfast meeting with a small group of New York City’s deep-pocketed and influential charter school backers. The venue was Tisch’s home. The Regents chancellor would not publicly endorse Thompson for another two months but was already working feverishly behind the scenes to build support.

“Come January 1, 2014, the world is not going to end,” Thompson told the group, according to Gideon Stein, a Success Academy Charter Schools board member who attended the meeting.

Stein said it was the second time he’d met with Thompson and came away “impressed and encouraged with his evolution in thinking on a number of things that I care about in education.”

Stein said he took Tisch’s presence in the campaign as a strong indicator about how Thompson would govern the city’s school system. As New York State Board of Regents chancellor, Tisch appointed two commissioners, David Steiner and John King, who have overseen sweeping changes to state education policies, and was part of a lobbying effort that doubled the number of charter schools allowed to operated in the state.

“While I don’t agree with Thompson on every position, he has shown flexibility on the issues and, given the fact that Merryl is so involved in his campaign, I believe that he will be a real champion for all kids in New York City,” said Stein, who later gave nearly $5,000 to Thompson, the maximum allowed under the city’s public campaign finance rules. (Stein is the board treasurer of the Education News Network, GothamSchools’ parent organization.)

Thompson declined to discuss the meeting in an interview. “Bill’s had scores of meetings with people interested in improving education for kids across the city, because nothing is more important,” said Jonathan Prince, Thompson’s campaign manager.

Campaign officials also pointed to Thompson’s education speech for an idea of where he stood on the issues relating to charter schools.

Where he stands

Thompson didn’t talk much about charter schools in his speech, except to say that he’d hold them to the same standard as district schools, a pledge he’d have difficulty following through on since much oversight of charter schools take place at the state level.

A review of Thompson’s positions expressed at forums and in interviews suggest that he’s harder to pin down than as being in the UFT’s pocket or a serial Bloomberg critic, as he has been portrayed at times. He opposes school closures and has said he’d cede some of the mayor’s control, notably pledging to give up the majority on the city school board. But he supports expanding the charter school sector, supports giving charter schools space in city-owned buildings, and opposes requiring them to pay rent.

The February breakfast at Tisch’s home seemed to relieve others in attendance, who included New York City Charter School Center CEO James Merriman and Democrats for Education Reform Executive Director Joe Williams. Neither would comment for this story, but a political memo that Williams’ group released to supporters in May noted Thompson’s viability and Tisch’s role in reviving his campaign.

“His recent surge in momentum has surprised everyone but Merryl Tisch, who has been working behind-the-scenes to secure support for his race for months,” the memo says. “He is a real candidate who seems to be pacing himself well for the entire race.”

A tightrope act

Thompson’s ability to please — and frustrate — different sides of the education camps was on display last week. On Tuesday, Thompson angered many charter advocates when he skipped a mayoral forum hosted by a group that organizes charter school parents.

“I thought it was telling that he didn’t show up for the forum,” said Bill Phillips, president of the Northeast Charter School Association, one of the groups that sponsored the event. “I think if you wanted to show an interest in education that served all public school students in New York, you don’t cancel at the last minute. I don’t know how you take that as a positive sign.”

On Friday, Thompson showed up at a mayoral forum and was asked if he would require charter schools to pay rent in city-owned buildings. He said no, a response that drew some gasps from the charter-averse audience and a rebuttal from de Blasio.

“Lotta respect for Bill Thompson,” de Blasio said, “but totally disagree with his answer about rent for charters.”

De Blasio piled on after the forum ended. “He clearly is not willing to demand that they pay their fair share of rent and I was struck by the fact that DFER feels comfortable with him.”

Privately, charter school advocates say they still have reservations about Thompson, but he might just be the best option they have to work with. One of them paraphrased former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments about the U.S. Army to characterize his support for Thompson.

“You go into the campaign with the candidates you have, not the candidates you want,” said the supporter. “What are your alternatives? There’s some cause to say that he might be okay.”