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It’s a hat trick of surprises in governor race

Politics makes strange bedfellows, frenemies and good friends, and Thursday saw a good dose of all three in the race for governor of New York.

The strange-bedfellow moment came when the state’s left-leaning teachers union made nice with the Republican candidate, Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino.

Meanwhile, the Democratic governor, Andrew M. Cuomo, got a little help from some of his frenemies in the form of an unusual hold-your-nose-and-vote endorsement letter from the small but influential Working Families Party.

Then, at the end of the day, the governor stood in the warm embrace of one of his oldest – and certainly his most important – political friends: former President Bill Clinton, who joined the governor and his candidate for lieutenant governor, Buffalo’s Kathy Hochul, at a rally in Manhattan.

Clinton’s appearance in the campaign was something of a surprise, given that polls show Cuomo with a big lead over Astorino and that Clinton is in high demand for campaign appearances in much closer races.

Still, the biggest surprise of the day was the friendly exchange between Astorino and New York State United Teachers.

It’s well established that the Democratic governor and NYSUT do not get along, 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” – the state’s public school system.

On Thursday, Astorino – who has talked about 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.

In a letter “to our esteemed teachers,” Astorino 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 educational standards to an evaluation system to the level of state aid to public schools.

Astorino wrote that if he is 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. As Astorino did, NYSUT noted their differences, but said it pledges to acknowledge any political leaders who “commit to statements of respect and support” to teachers.

NYSUT has not endorsed a candidate in the governor’s race.

Still, the union’s outreach to Astorino did not sit well with the Buffalo Teachers Federation, which has endorsed Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins. BTF President Philip Rumore 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 over-reacting by praising a candidate that opposes most of what we stand for,” Rumore said.

As NYSUT and Astorino performed their dance, the Working Families Party sent an especially odd endorsement letter to its supporters.

An email sent to “friends” of the labor-backed party urges them to vote Cuomo for governor 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, a copy of which was obtained by The Buffalo News.

“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,” Lipton wrote 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, or WFP, line next week even if they don’t support Cuomo. The Cuomo campaign dismissed all the criticism from NYSUT and complaints by the WFP as “political blather.” Cuomo received 155,000 votes on the WFP line in the 2010 election.

Cuomo spent Thursday evening with his old boss Clinton at a get-out-the-vote rally at the Manhattan headquarters of a private-sector union that has endorsed the governor: Local 1199, Service Employees International Union, the big health care workers labor group.

Praising Cuomo’s economic record and Hochul’s courage in supporting the Affordable Care Act while serving in Congress, Clinton told the crowd of several hundred people that even though Cuomo is highly favored to win re-election, they needed to come to the polls Tuesday to help down-ballot Democrats.

“People can look at the polls and say: Cuomo’s going to win, do I need to vote?” Clinton said. “The answer is yes. There are at least three close House of Representative races in New York that will make a big difference. There are close races for the State Senate that will make a difference.”

Even though Clinton was speaking to a downstate audience, his mind seemed to be on upstate, as he defended Hochul’s selection for the Democratic ticket, as well as Cuomo’s passage of the controversial SAFE Act gun-control legislation.

Cuomo, who under Clinton was secretary of housing and urban development for four years after serving as an assistant HUD secretary for the first term, said that as president, Clinton “proved that this thing called government can work. We took that lesson and brought it to the state of New York.”

The campaign will continues today as Cuomo and Hochul 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 Nicholas J. Forster, who added that he also expects Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman to attend.

email: tprecious@buffnews.com and jzremski@buffnews.com