SYRACUSE, N.Y. ― John Mannion wants to shift the balance of power at the statehouse in Albany. But before he could even try, he had to get approved for leave from teaching four periods of high school biology ― and buy three reasonably priced suits for the campaign trail.
“Long before I ran for office, I would hear this phrase, ‘Parents trust their kids’ teachers,’” Mannion said on a recent October afternoon, hurrying between campaign events in his Chevy Volt. “I’ve been teaching for 25 years. I’ve had 2,500 students. Those students have parents. They have aunts and uncles who vote.”
Nearly 1,500 current and retired educators across the country have tossed their hats into state-level races this year, flexing their political muscle after an unprecedented series of strikes in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. But few of them have the potential to shake up state politics as quickly as Mannion could.
A 50-year-old AP biology teacher and father of three, Mannion is competing for an open New York State Senate seat that has been in Republican hands for half a century, even though the district went decisively for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Republicans hold a thin one-seat advantage in the state Senate. If Mannion wins, he could help tip control of the chamber to the Democratic Party.
Like Mannion, many of those teachers-turned-candidates are political neophytes navigating a foreign world, new to the alliances, compromises and relentless phone-banking needed to reach the statehouse. Teachers may have won broad public support when they went on strike, but whether voters are willing to elect them en masse to state legislatures is a different matter.
Bob Antonacci, Mannion’s Republican opponent, is far more seasoned, as the elected comptroller for Onondaga County. An accountant by trade, Antonacci has been calling for lighter government regulation and a permanent cap on taxes. (There is no public polling available on the race.)
Mannion said his plunge into politics required “just enough egomania and not enough decision-making skills.” His quasi-political experience comes from helming his 400-member local teachers’ union for the last five years, negotiating contracts, handling grievances and putting out other labor-management fires by late-night text.
“I’m in the media a little bit, and I’ve got a big mouth, so somebody asked, ‘Will you consider running for this?’” he said. He waffled a bit and talked it over with his wife, Jennifer Mannion, who teaches in an elementary school in the same district. The timing felt right for an outsider campaigning on honesty, ethics and a fair economy. “I had to convince the county Democratic committees that a teacher with no experience could do this,” he said.
The 50th District seat that John Mannion seeks is being vacated by John DeFrancisco, a 72-year-old Republican who was first elected to it in 1992. DeFrancisco is retiring after an unsuccessful run for the governor’s mansion this year.
The GOP’s lock on the 50th may well end with DeFrancisco’s departure; registration in the district is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, 61,498 to 62,316. In a sign of the stakes, the two campaigns together have raked in more than $700,000 in contributions, and a teachers’ union political action committee has spent an additional $233,000 to boost Mannion.
I had to convince the county Democratic committees that a teacher with no experience could do this.
Working his way through a packed itinerary this particular afternoon, Mannion delivered a speech to about 100 retired teachers ― an adoring crowd that would make for his easiest event of the day ― before rushing to a rollout of his jobs plan at Digital Hyve, an online marketing agency based in Syracuse. (“I want [Syracuse] to become the Silicon Valley of the Northeast,” he said as the firm’s employees, seated on couches in an open-office layout, typed away on their laptops.)
When he hopped back in his car, his daughter Quinn, a high school junior, texted to say she needed a ride to her soccer game. As he detoured home, it became clear how his decision to run has, as he put it, “upset my family’s apple cart.”
When the Mannions walk out their front door, the first thing they see is an Antonacci sign directly across the street. If they turn to their right, they see another Antonacci sign in the adjacent yard. Mannion doesn’t take it personally, saying these are Republicans who vote Republican — next-door neighbor on the ballot notwithstanding.
As he drove down his street, the ratio of Antonacci to Mannion signs tilted decisively in his favor. He smiled.
“Are you feeling better?” he asked. “I’m feeling better.”
After dropping off his daughter, he headed to his cramped campaign office, which sits on the back side of a stained-glass studio. Inside were his campaign manager, Ian Phillips, and a handful of volunteers. Three of them, including a retired teacher, were at the phones calling voters ― a grassroots effort Mannion believes will give him the edge he needs. Unaccustomed to seeing him dressed up, one of them remarked that he looked sharp in a suit.
“It’s a lot of people that have never volunteered for a political campaign before,” Mannion said of his team. “It’s a lot of friends and a lot of teachers. There are certainly some members of the town Democratic committees that are helpful, but a lot of these folks have never made a phone call or knocked on a door before.”
To prepare for his campaign, he went through a training program run by the National Education Association and designed for first-time candidates, called See Educators Run. The two-day crash course in Atlanta introduced him to like-minded teachers from Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky, many of them campaigning against deep cuts to education funding and most of them running as Democrats. Mannion learned about messaging, fundraising and time management.
But no course can replicate the trail. After his stop at the campaign office, Mannion headed out to knock on some doors. The first house he visited belonged to a prominent lacrosse coach whose kids Mannion taught and who guaranteed a vote in Mannion’s column. Mannion left door-hanging literature at a few empty homes before rousing a woman from her nap. She was excited to see him.
“You’ve got two votes in this house,” she assured him.
In what turned out to be his longest doorstep chat of the day, she talked about how difficult it has become to park at her Catholic church on Sundays. He nodded in sympathy but said his hands were tied.
“There’s not much I can do on that one, with the whole separation of church and state,” he said diplomatically.
With no time to spare, Mannion hustled over to a Q&A with construction workers at the local carpenters’ union training center. Although the union already gave him its endorsement, the event wouldn’t come off as a coronation. It would turn out to be his toughest crowd of the day.
I’ve had 2,500 students. Those students have parents. They have aunts and uncles who vote.
The workers wanted to know where Mannion comes down on a deeply divisive issue: what to do with the I-81 viaduct that cuts through the town’s core. Urban-planning types want to replace it with a community grid, a network of streets aimed at bridging neighborhoods and spurring development. A lot of the carpenters would rather replace the stretch of highway with a new viaduct — an easy guarantee of many construction jobs.
Mannion’s sympathy for the grid plan didn’t go over well, prompting head shakes and pushback. It seemed he was losing the room ― until the conversation steered toward guns. He said gun regulations are already tight in New York and he wouldn’t seek tougher ones, a line that might displease left-leaning Democrats but went over well with the gun owners in the room.
“You just appeased a lot of people with that answer,” one worker said with a smile.
Greg Lancette, the president of the local building trades council, stood up to reassure the workers about Mannion and the community grid. No candidate is perfect, Lancette said, but Mannion is with them on the vast majority of issues. (Lancette had warned Mannion about the likelihood of fallout from his I-81 position.)
Mannion shook hands with workers and left with dinner ― his second campaign sandwich to go of the day ― as well as a check from the union. Organized labor has been one of the pillars of his campaign, recognizing that a Mannion victory could make for a more union-friendly Senate in Albany.
“Well, that got really interesting,” he said, climbing into his car.
He was pleased with himself for laying out his concerns with rebuilding I-81, even if it comes at a political cost. People trust their kids’ teacher, after all, and he doesn’t want to make assurances he can’t keep, he said. He even seemed to relish the back-and-forth inside, suggesting maybe he was cut out for this politics thing.
“I could have just told them what they wanted to hear, but I didn’t do that,” he said.
Mannion lasted only about 15 minutes at Quinn’s soccer game before having to rush to a candidate forum in a church basement a few miles away. The space holds just a few rows of chairs ― and most of them would be empty ― but he made a commitment to be there and didn’t want to be late.