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Adrian Walker

Test time for teachers union in mayor’s race

Do unions still wield muscle in local elections? Richard Stutman hopes so.

The president of the Boston Teachers Union, at least, thinks his group has the clout to make a difference in a close mayoral primary.

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So just days after declaring that his 11,000-member union would not endorse a candidate in the election Tuesday, the group is poised to recommend Felix Arroyo and Rob Consalvo as the two candidates who should compete in the final election.

The full membership must approve those choices Wednesday, but that is a mere formality. This will be the BTU’s first endorsement since 1991, when Stutman’s predecessor, Edward Doherty, waged a kamikaze campaign against Ray Flynn.

Stutman pointed to charter schools as a defining issue in the endorsement. “What separates Felix and Rob is that they don’t see eliminating the cap as the best and only way to help our school system,” Stutman said. “We seek better opportunities for those who don’t seek charter schools.”

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But the back story of the BTU endorsement is about far more than whether to lift the cap on charter schools, popular with parents but anathema to the BTU. The union itself has become a campaign issue. More precisely, its record of opposing reforms has become an issue. The union has, among other battles, vehemently opposed charter schools and extended school days, both regarded by many as a path to lifting performance.

The leader in the race, John Connolly, fiercely opposes the BTU’s position on a host of issues. At times, he almost sounds as though he’s running against Stutman.

Connolly, who declined to participate in the BTU’s endorsement process, says he does not think the group necessarily speaks for teachers on issues of reform.

“What I’ve preferred to do is meet with teachers in small groups, and we usually have a good dialogue,” Connolly said. “They can see that I’m really into this to make the Boston public schools work. We have disagreements, but we have good discussions.”

Labor darling Marty Walsh got no traction with the union, thanks to his support for more charter schools. That stand might be his best answer to the persistent claim that he won’t stand up to a union. Both Connolly and Walsh have apparently made the calculation that they can win the race without the BTU’s support, if need be.

They are banking on the belief that supporters of education reform outnumber Stutman’s forces. They believe frustrated parents far outnumber voting BTU members. In sheer numbers, they are almost certainly right about that.

None of this is to denigrate the candidates the union has endorsed. Arroyo — the son, husband, and brother of Boston school teachers — declared himself proud to be tapped for their endorsement.

“They are good people who do good work, and I’m honored by their support,” Arroyo said in a phone interview Tuesday.

Stutman says about two-thirds of the union’s members live in the city. That’s a decent chunk of votes that could be influenced, though of course there’s no guarantee that most of them will vote as their leadership tells them to.

Some will frame this as a battle over what unions can deliver, but the stakes are far higher than that. Not by accident were the candidates who have pledged the most sweeping educational reforms — Connolly, Walsh, John Barros — dismissed by the union. Change remains a tough sell to the union.

But they may be swimming against the tide. In a race in which few issues really divide candidates, school reform has emerged as a galvanizing issue for parents who vote. After generation of incremental improvements, they want something more than clinging to the status quo.

Perhaps the love of the BTU’s executive board can lift its candidates — fine guys both, but not known as reformers — into the final. But I wouldn’t count on it. Education is one area in which voters may have had their fill of stability.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.
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