Mike Deely is the regional director of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), the political arm of the state’s public teachers’ unions. He is tasked with spending million of dollars — from the paychecks of hardworking teachers in the classroom — on electioneering that is intended to advance the interests of teachers in Albany.
In the 2014 election cycle, Deely spent over $1.4 million to get freshman Senator Marc Panepinto elected to the 60th district. He spent wildly on direct mail, television, and radio advertising that was designed to viciously smear incumbent Senator Mark Grisanti.
The spending was seen as overkill, but the union backed candidate defeated Grisanti and Republican Kevin Stocker with barely 31.5% of the general election vote. Now, Panepinto is polling at barely 34% in head to head match ups against Republicans Chris Jacobs and Stocker.
But Panepinto is unlikely to get to a general election. He is projected to badly lose the Democratic Party primary. Former Senator Alfred T. Coppola, a fervent longtime supporter of public school teachers, is polling ahead at a 2-to-1 margin.
Now, many teachers are angry that they have spent $1.4 million to elect a State Senator with no chance of being reelected — and who has served as a largely ineffectual freshman in the minority caucus.
They don’t think the spending paid off, so to speak, and are raising questions about Deely’s judgement and strategic decisions. He knew about Panepinto’s election fraud conviction, and despite it spent huge sums to get a deeply flawed individual election who has been embattled with ethics concerns his entire tenure.
Many teachers say that Deely’s design choices for direct mail pieces were distasteful and offensive. They call the campaign literature sophomoric and childish and yearn for real substance in political activities that reflect on an entire profession.
“I think it’s fair to say that we need an operative who is less brash and goonish,” says one teacher who asked not to be named. “We need more of a statesman who focuses on bold, visionary campaigns — not gutter politics.”
Deely didn’t stop with louche mail. He developed a radio jingle that mocked the Senator, which became a point of particular backlash.
“Why are we, as teachers, spending all this money on radio advertisements to poke fun at Mark Grisanti rather than talk about the pressing policy issues confronting public education,” says the teacher. “There is a movement to privatize public education and all Mike Deely can find to talk about is Mark Grisanti’s vote on gay marriage?”
“It’s unbecoming of someone in his position; he should respect the profession more because it reflects very poorly on us all,” he says.
Deely is, perhaps not officially but in practice, hired and fired at the discretion of Phil Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation. His members largely fund Deely’s political spending.
Rumore has been under pressure in recent months to replace Deely with a more likable, more seasoned, more charismatic figure. Ideally a retired female school principal would serve as a regional spokesperson and political czar.
Names like Crystal Barton, Liz Martina, and Florence Johnson have been suggested as strong successors to Deely, who may or may not be able to dampen the criticisms of his tenure.