(Bloomberg) — The decision by New York City’s largest teachers union to stand by mayoral hopeful Scott Stringer as he fights a sexual-misconduct allegation has implications beyond the race to elect the next mayor of the most populous U.S. city. Its action stakes out a position on sexual harassment in any workplace or institution, not just political campaigns.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew said its continued support arises out of a traditional labor movement principle that any allegation against a union member shouldn’t just be presumed to be true.
“It has to be taken seriously, sure, but are we now saying as a society if there’s an allegation — any allegation — against anyone running for office it means that they automatically shouldn’t run?” Mulgrew said in an interview. “One reason why unions got formed is that people get treated unfairly. There are lots of allegations all the time in the work we do.”
Just before the allegation surfaced last month, Stringer was consistently polling third among likely voters in the crowded race. His campaign picked up momentum with endorsements from the teachers union and the progressive Working Families Party.
Then, on April 28, Jean Kim held a press conference to say that when she was volunteering during Stringer’s 2001 campaign for public advocate, he kissed and groped her in a taxicab and put his hands down her pants without consent. She has since filed a formal complaint with the state attorney general’s office against Stringer, who has denied the claim and said theirs was a consensual relationship.
Greg Floyd, president of Teamsters Local 237, said his union went ahead with an endorsement this week after deciding that Stringer appeared more credible than his accuser. “I’ve known Scott for years, and he’s never exhibited such behavior,” Floyd said.
While the Teamsters and UFT stuck with Stringer, the WFP withdrew its support. Others who abandoned Stringer include U.S. Representative Jamaal Bowman, state Senators Alessandra Biaggi, Julia Salazar, Jessica Ramos and Gustavo Rivera, and Assembly members Yuh-Line Niou and Catalina Cruz, Queens Councilmember Jimmy Van Bramer, and UFCW Local 1500, which represents about 20,000 New York grocery workers.
Weighing misconduct allegations is different in a politics than in the workplace, said WFP spokesman Ravi Mangla.
“We’re not talking about prosecuting. It’s not relevant in a political campaign,” Mangla said. “Different organizations have to make decisions that are best for their members.”
The organization maintained its support for two other candidates it endorsed in the race — nonprofit executive and progressive activist Dianne Morales and civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley.
The WFP said its leaders spoke with Stringer, campaign staff, and supporters. The group said its decision hinged less on the allegations than on the way Stringer dismissed the claims. Stringer’s campaign also circulated documents and issued statements accusing Kim of lying and questioning her motives.
“His response fell short of taking any responsibility for the harm caused,” said Sochie Nnaemeka, the party’s state director. “We approached the moment with the reflection, discussion, and input from members and leaders it required, and our officers came to a unanimous decision.”
The UFT also said it solicited feedback from rank-and-file members, as well as Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, who supported the decision. Weingarten didn’t respond to a request for comment.
“Our committee came back and said, ‘Not only do we see no reason to rescind the endorsement, we want to make sure we’re doing everything we need to do to make Scott the next mayor,”’ Mulgrew said.
The UFT endorsement carries weight. Representing more than 100,000 teachers and staff, the group has pledged to organize candidate phone banks and door-to-door canvassers. Cash donations to political action committees could also help Stringer exceed the limits placed on donating to individual campaigns.
Mulgrew said the union is prepared to give guidance to members about what to say about Stringer’s sexual misconduct accusation while making phone calls to voters, or having conversations with friends and neighbors.
“We’re not going to shy away from it,” Mulgrew said. “Our point of view is basically that you’re a union member, you know an allegation without more is just an allegation.”