Bill de Blasio and a brief history of public-school parents for mayor

Abe Beame, public-school parent. ()
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During the lightning round of a Democratic mayoral debate in 2005, then-NY1 host Dominic Carter asked then-Council Speaker Gifford Miller a question that effectively ended his campaign for mayor.

“If you are elected mayor, will you send [your children] to New York City public schools through high school?” Carter asked Miller.

“I don’t know,” said Miller. “My kids are too young.”

“Yes or no?” demanded Carter.

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“Pam?” said Miller, looking into the audience for his wife. “Pam? We haven’t made that decision. I don’t know the answer to that question. My kids are four and three.”

The audience booed. 

“Look, let me tell you what I’m not gonna do,” he said, pointing his finger and getting angry. “I’m not gonna give you a yes or no question to the question of where my children are gonna spend the next 18 years of their education before I have a chance to look at every school.”

Miller ended up losing the primary, and his kids ended up going to St. Bernard's, a private school on the Upper East Side, according to someone who knows the family. (Miller could not be reached for comment.)

This week, at a televised debate between the 2013 Democratic mayoral candidates, the issue of parental school choices came up again. But this time the topic was brought up voluntarily, by Public Advocate and public-school parent Bill de Blasio.

De Blasio pointed out that if he wins, he will become the first mayor in the city's history with children in public school.

It's not a claim I could substantiate. I can say with certainly, however, that he would be the first mayor with a child in public school at the time he was mayor in at least 50 years. 

(Abe Beame sent his children to public school, but they graduated long before he became mayor.)

None of the other leading candidates from either party who have children made the decision to send them to public school: Bill Thompson sent his daughter to private school and his step-children are in boarding school, while Republicans Joe Lhota and John Catsimatidis sent their children to private schools.

The two Democrats with connections to public education—John Liu, who sends his son to public school in Manhattan, and Anthony Weiner, who has said he plans to send his son to public school—trail their rivals by significant margins in the polls.

Fernando Ferrer, the Democratic nominee in 2005, said his daughter graduated from public school, although she actually graduated from Catholic school.

In 2001, when Michael Bloomberg was mounting his first run for mayor, his youngest daughter, Georgina, was a senior at the Spence School and his older daughter Emma was a senior at Princeton. 

His opponent Mark Green (and Green's opponents in the Democratic primary: Peter Vallone Sr. and Alan Hevesi) all sent their kids to private schools.

Ruth Messinger, the Democratic candidate for mayor in 1997, sent her kids to public school, but they weren’t school-aged by the time she ran for mayor and anyway she lost to incumbent Rudy Giuliani, who sent his kids to private school.

Ed Koch didn’t have any kids. Dinkins sent his kids to private school, the Ethical Culture School and Fieldston, but they weren’t school-aged. 

Beame's two sons went to public school, according to his former campaign manager, though they were grown-ups by the time their father got to City Hall.

John Lindsay had school-age children, but he sent them to private school.

Bobby Wagner, the son of Robert Wagner, went to the Buckley School and Phillips Exeter Academy. (I can't find any information about the Wagner siblings. Help, please, if you know.)

Vincent Impellitteri had no children.

Bill de Blasio has two.

His daughter Chiara is in college now, but she graudated from the Beacon School, M.S. 51, and P.S. 372.

Fifteen-year-old Dante de Blasio attended he same elementary and middle schools and is now a student at Brooklyn Tech.

De Blasio’s status as a public school parent comes gives him an undeniably appealing talking point, one he has shown no hesitation in using. "Lucky husband of @Chirlane. Proud public school parent," reads his campaign Twitter profile.

And it's no doubt been helpful to de Blasio in making his case to voters.

“To have a mayor who says, 'I’ll tell you how much I’m going to care about the public schools, I got my own kid there,' is a very powerful signal,” said Ken Sherrill, a Hunter College political science professor. “That’s more than spending one night in public housing."

It's hard to tell just how much it will matter when it comes time for people to vote, though, since there's so little precedent for becoming mayor on the strength of being a public-school parent.

When I asked Kevin McGrath, who managed Beame's run-off and general-election campaigns in 1973, about it, he said, "I don't think we used it. It wasn't an issue."

I asked him if he thought the decision to send children to public school ought to be a factor for voters in general.

He didn't.

"Children are children and we don't elect public officials for their children," McGrath said. "I know they take pictures of their children and things like that. Whether a child is brilliant or not or he goes to a certain school or not, I don't think has any relevance whatsoever."