When the Spinmasters Are the Newsmakers

     BROOKLYN, N.Y. (CN) — In the U.S. political lexicon, perhaps no phrase inspires more cynicism than the “spin room,” where throngs of reporters thrust microphones in front of campaign surrogates to massage their candidate’s message.
     At Thursday night’s Democratic debate inside the Navy Yards, however, the mouthpieces for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders also included newsmakers prominent in the same controversies discussed that night on the stage of the repurposed Brooklyn Navy Yards warehouse.
     Fielding questions in Clinton’s corner about the state’s new $15 minimum wage, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo confronted the boos his name elicited from teachers at a recent rally by the former first lady.
     Cuomo faced a similar tension Thursday as the president of the teachers’ union stumped for Clinton while also criticizing the governor’s education policy.
     Lack of foreign-policy experience has long been seen by many pundits – some say unfairly – as an Achilles’ heel for Sanders this primary season, but a prominent Palestinian-American activist praised the U.S. senator from Vermont for speaking out about war, unemployment and suffering in Gaza.
     Courthouse News asked the spinners about the intersection between their life’s work and the debate.
     
The Cuomo Sword and Shield
     CNN’s debate moderator Wolf Blitzer invoked Cuomo’s name first on the stage with a question pressing Clinton on why her support for a $15 minimum wage in New York did not extend nationwide.
     When asked if she would sign a federal equivalent from a Democratic Congress, Clinton replied: “Well, of course I would.”
     In previous debates, Clinton said that she would push for a raise to $12 a hour, still well above the $7.50 hourly wages of today, and Sanders picked up on the discrepancies in her evolving stances.
     “I am sure a lot of people are very surprised to learn that you supported raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour,” Sanders said.
     Struggling to clarify her position, Clinton reached out for a gubernatorial lifeline by telling viewers that she was “proud to stand on the stage” with Cuomo on April 4, the day he signed the recent increase.
     Touting the governor’s endorsement hasn’t always worked out well for Clinton.
     Days before the debate, Clinton delivered a closed-door speech to a friendly teachers union in Rochester, New York, where the crowd jeered after she said Cuomo deserved credit for getting the minimum-wage bill enacted.
     Asked about this incident in the spin room, Cuomo candidly acknowledged that his support for a controversial standardized-testing policy was to blame.
     “Teachers don’t like Common Core, or the implementation of Common Core,” he said in an interview.
     Often attacked from the right as a federal encroachment on state boards of education, Common Core has come under increasing fire from the left for putting too much emphasis on testing to determine the fates of teachers and schools.
     In an interview, Cuomo blamed its poor reception largely on its implementation with the Board of Regents, which is not affiliated with his office.
     “The way Common Core was rolled out, it was done very poorly,” he said. “It created a lot of resentment. The teachers weren’t ready. The parents weren’t ready. The students weren’t ready, and they’re still feeling the reverberation of that.”
     Cuomo also acknowledged that the Common Core backlash may be an expression of general dissatisfaction with a test-based system.
     “The Common Core resentment has blended into the standardized test resentment,” he said. “The standardized tests are the Common Core tests.”
     Although Cuomo also drew fire for his aborted plan to dramatically cut funding from the City University of New York (CUNY), the governor said that this did not account for his reception in Rochester.
     “They weren’t in that room,” he noted, before moving on to the next battery of interviews awaiting him.
     
Complications in Education
     As AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten is deeply familiar with the controversy over Common Core, but she noted that the booing of Cuomo was not the entire story.
     “What they did afterward, when [Clinton] actually pushed back and said, ‘I know you don’t like him about other things, but he deserves credit for the Fight for 15, for getting to a $15 minimum wage, and getting to paid leave, and people clapped at that point,” she said.
     Support for Clinton did not stop Weingarten from criticizing Cuomo for what she called the “foundational mistakes last year in going after teachers and in doing things that put a premium on testing instead of teaching.”
     Once a member of the Common Core Task Force, also known as the Cuomo Commission, Weingarten faulted the state for not following her recommendations to make standards appropriate for a broader spectrum of New York children, including those with special needs and language barriers.
     “Tests have a place as diagnostic and not high-stakes,” she said.
     Neither of the candidates spoke — or was asked — about standardized testing during the two-hour debates, but both called for better funding of the schools that have typically performed more poorly on these exams.
     “We have got to help more kids get off to a good start,” Clinton said. “That’s why I want a good teacher in a good school for every child, regardless of the ZIP code that child lives in.”
     For Sanders, education problems were a sign of misplaced national priorities, particularly in the so-called war on drugs, which he wants to dramatically reform.
     “The media doesn’t talk about it — you got 51 percent of African-American kids today who graduated high school who are unemployed or underemployed,” he said. “You know what I think? Maybe we invest in jobs and education for those kids, not jails and incarceration.”
     Sanders, who calls for public colleges and universities to be tuition-free, noted at a recent campaign event at Harlem’s Apollo Theater that the CUNY system operated on a “virtually free” system before 1976.
     Attacking the plan as impractical, Clinton quoted her late father as saying, “If somebody promises you something for free, read the fine print.”
     Bristling at the criticism, Sanders grew animated, saying “damn right” he could implement it.
     “In terms of public colleges and universities, please don’t tell me that we cannot do what many other countries around the world are doing,” said Sanders, who previously noted that many European countries have such a system.
     Even Weingarten acknowledged that Sanders gave a powerful oratory on this issue.
     “Bernie is very, very good in terms of the speech that he makes, in terms of articulating what’s wrong,” she said. “What the secretary is good at is articulating not only what the problem is, but how to fix it.”
     
‘Peace Is Going to Start in Israel and Palestine’
     One of the most intractable problems in U.S. foreign policy is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and on debate night, Sanders found a way of making the nation’s official policy sound revolutionary in the eyes of many.
     Since the Oslo Accords, the United States has presented itself as a neutral broker between two governments hoping to set up a two-state solution, but it has long been a taboo for any presidential candidate to express sympathy for more than one party to those negotiations.
     Sanders broke that unwritten rule, inside a Navy Yards warehouse built to construct warships in 1942, by waving an olive branch to people both sides of the dispute.
     Before becoming the most successful Jewish candidate for president, Sanders grew up in Brooklyn to a Polish immigrant family that had been ripped apart by the Holocaust. Having spent his early adulthood on an Israeli kibbutz, Sanders called himself “100 percent pro-Israel,” but noted that compassion is not a zero-sum game.
     “God only knows, but in the long run if we are ever going to bring peace to that region which has seen so much hatred and so much war, we are going to have to treat the Palestinian people with respect and dignity,” Sanders said, as the auditorium erupted in applause.
     Sanders noted that unemployment in Gaza hovers at “somewhere around 40 percent,” citing World Bank statistics from 2014, the year of Israel’s war in Gaza.
     Calling Israel’s response to Hamas rocket fire “disproportionate,” Sanders called attention to “houses decimated, health care decimated, schools decimated,” in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government called Operation Protective Edge.
     “I believe the United States and the rest of the world have got to work together to help the Palestinian people,” Sanders said.
     One of New York’s most recognized Palestinian-American activists cheered on those words.
     “The issue of Israel-Palestine is one of the most important issues, particularly from the perspective of foreign policy, and I dream of a day in my lifetime that there be peace in that part of the world,” Brooklyn-based Linda Sarsour said in the spin room. “That peace is going to start in Israel and Palestine, and that peace is going to trickle effect across the Middle East when we find some sort of resolution to that problem.”
     As a former secretary of state, Clinton touted her credentials negotiating the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2012, but Sanders noted that she could not bring herself to criticize any of Israel’s wartime conduct on the debate stage.
     “You evaded the question,” the senator told the secretary. “The question is not ‘does Israel have a right to respond’ [to Hamas rocket fire], not ‘does Israel have a right to go after terrorists and destroy terrorism.’ That’s not the debate. Was their response disproportionate?”
     Sarsour, who is 36, pinned hopes on Sanders being able to mend a conflict that has endured for nearly double her lifespan.
     “I think that can happen under the support and leadership of Bernie Sanders,” she said.
     Shortly before the debate, the Sanders campaign disappointed some supporters of Palestine by suspending its Jewish outreach coordinator Simone Zimmerman, for a profanity-laced Facebook post criticizing Netanyahu.
     Sarsour declined to state on opinion on that development, except to praise Zimmerman’s activism as an organizer and emphasize that she played no role in that decision.
     American-Muslims living in Dearborn pushed Sanders to victory in the Michigan primary, and polls show a strong backing in their community for the candidate who would be the first Jewish president.

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