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Astorino cozies up to NYSUT as Cuomo gets tepid backing from Working Families Party

ALBANY – With just days left in the governor’s race, Thursday produced an odd-bedfellow moment, with the state’s left-leaning teachers union making nice with Republican Rob Astorino as the small-but-influential Working Families Party urged people who don’t like Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to vote for him anyway on its ballot line – even if it is like swallowing a “bitter pill.”

That the Democratic governor and the New York State United Teachers union do not get along is well established, though tensions intensified this week after Cuomo told the New York Daily News editorial board that he would “break” what he called “one of the only remaining public monopolies,” which he described as the state’s public school system.

On Thursday, Astorino, who has talked of charter schools’ being an option for students in failing schools and a voucher-type system for parents who send their children to private schools, sought to make inroads with NYSUT’s 600,000 members.

“To our esteemed teachers,” Astorino wrote in an open letter to the state’s public school teachers. In the outreach, he thanked them for their service and noted how his wife is a special education teacher.

“Mr. Cuomo’s adversarial stance toward teachers borders on disdain,” Astorino wrote of the series of battles Cuomo has had with teachers over everything from Common Core to an evaluation system to the level of state aid to public schools.

Astorino wrote that, if he were elected, he would treat teachers “with the respect you deserve as educational professionals.”

While that might have ended things, what surprised some NYSUT local leaders is that the union wrote back to Astorino.

“We thank Rob Astorino” for his letter, the top two NYSUT leaders wrote in their own open letter. Like Astorino did, NYSUT noted their differences, but said the union pledges to acknowledge any political leaders who “commit to statements of respect and support” to teachers.

NYSUT has not issued an endorsement in the governor’s race.

The NYSUT outreach to Astorino did not sit well with Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has endorsed Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. Phil Rumore, BTF’s president, said in a letter to the NYSUT board that to thank Astorino – who he said wants to weaken tenure and backs the property tax cap – “is beyond my comprehension.”

“Any justified anger with Cuomo and his recent statements does not justify overreacting by praising a candidate that opposes most of what we stand for,” Rumore said.

Another public employees union, also sitting out the race because of its own concerns about Cuomo, could not stay silent after the nice-nice letters between Astorino and NYSUT. Civil Service Employees Association President Danny Donohue, whose membership includes local government workers in Westchester County, where Astorino is county executive, dismissed the Republican’s attempt to cast himself “as the champion of public employees.” He noted Astorino has “vilified” county workers and laid some of them off. CSEA members there have been working without a contract.

As NYSUT and Astorino performed a dance, the Working Families Party, meanwhile, sent one of the oddest endorsement letters to its supporters.

An email sent to “friends” of the labor-backed party urges them to vote for Cuomo on its ballot line – “however you feel about our governor.” Bill Lipton, state director of the small but influential party, acknowledged in the email to party backers that many members are “understandably frustrated” with Cuomo’s positions on education, taxes, fracking “and more.”

He also acknowledged that, for many party members, it would be a “bitter pill” to vote for Cuomo. “Many of you are considering not voting for governor, or voting for Hawkins,” Lipton wrote in the email, which The Buffalo News obtained.

“We’re taught that you’re supposed to vote for the candidate whose beliefs are most like your own. But the truth is that politics is not simply just a contest between individual candidates. When you pull the camera back, it’s also a contest between institutional forces,” wrote Lipton, as he checked off groups his union battled, including real estate developers and a statewide business lobby.

Lipton urged recipients of the email to vote for Cuomo on the Working Families Party (WFP) line next week even if they don’t support him. Sample letters are included that party members can send to friends urging them to do the same. One letter begins: “Most of you know that I was bitterly disappointed that Zephyr Teachout did not receive the WFP nomination for governor. But now is the time to face reality. Andrew Cuomo is going to be our next governor and what we need to do is hold him to the promises he made in order to win our nomination,” the sample letter states.

Among the promises Cuomo made last spring in order to get Working Families Party delegates to endorse him is a hike in the minimum wage, public financing of elections and his pledge to work to help Democrats take control of the Senate.

Since getting that party line on the ballot, Cuomo has not worked to promote his Working Families Party candidacy but instead has promoted his placement on the Democratic line and the new Women’s Equality Party he created.

The Cuomo campaign dismissed all the criticism from NYSUT and complaints by the Working Families Party as “political blather.” Cuomo received 155,000 votes on the Working Families Party line in the 2010 election.

In a separate email sent out this morning to supporters – with the subject line “This is important” – Cuomo urged his supporters to vote for him on the Women’s Equality Party line.

“It’s time for a party whose singular goal is equality for women,” Cuomo wrote in the mailing. He added that if the line gets 50,000 votes “we will ensure that women’s issues are no longer something politicians think they can disregard.”

Cuomo, meanwhile, was expected to spend Thursday evening with his old boss, former President Bill Clinton, at a get-out-the-vote rally at the Manhattan headquarters of a private sector union that has endorsed him: 1199 SEIU, the big health care workers labor group.

On Friday, Cuomo and his running mate, Erie County resident Kathy Hochul, are expected to appear at the Como Restaurant in Niagara Falls for a get-out-the-vote rally at 4:30 p.m.

“Cuomo at the Como,” said Niagara County Democratic Party Chairman Nick Forster, who added that he also expects Attorney General Eric Schneiderman to attend.