It’s not every day that an hour-long grip-and-grin by an out-of-town politician creates such a perfect storm of national and local political resentment. But that’s the storm that House Speaker Paul Ryan walked into Tuesday when he visited a charter school in Harlem.
Ryan was coming off last week’s big win (for him) of passing a health care bill to repeal and replace Obamacare, a stance that is deeply unpopular in true-blue NYC. An estimate from the left-leaning Center for American Progress — cited by Mayor Bill de Blasio — found that a million city residents could lose their health insurance, if the plan is adopted.
But the particular site of Ryan’s visit drew more local liberal ire, too. He was invited to a Success Academy network school by founder Eva Moskowitz, who has been waging bitter battles with de Blasio, teachers unions and public school advocates for a decade. Critics point to the network’s test-first focus, non-unionized teachers, and high suspension rates which can push students who are having trouble back into the regular public school ecosystem.
Both of those levels of political anger were on display Tuesday when Ryan came to Harlem after an appearance on “Fox and Friends” earlier in the day. And though the news only broke on Monday afternoon that Ryan’s visit was forthcoming, by around 11 a.m. on Tuesday there was already a diverse collection of New Yorkers waiting for him.
Rage from all sides
There were the people glad to get the chance to vent at the new health care bill’s architect up close.
Cynthia Taylor, 53, an attorney on her lunch break, came to Success Academy to call the health care bill a “disgrace,” and castigate Ryan for rushing it through. Others criticized his cultivation of an image of intelligence and fairness while he slashed the budget on the backs of the poor.
There were people angry at Moskowitz, like Fatima Geidi, who has been a longtime outspoken critic of the way Success handles cases of students with special needs since her son’s three years and many suspensions while attending a Success Academy school.
There were people who drew connections between the national and local concerns, both to some extent about “privatization” of education and health care, said Gloria Brandman, 65, a former teacher and activist. Such arguments have particular weight given Moskowitz’s recent flirtations with Republican politicians. Though Moskowitz once held a city council seat as a Democrat, her schools have hosted Ivanka Trump and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
The dual lines of attack from Democratic critics provided protesters with a tantalizing possibility on Tuesday, showing an opposition plenty vocal hours before the president’s firing of FBI Director James Comey. That action wasn’t yet on protesters’ radar, but they had plenty to focus on anyway.
The hastily arranged demonstration, led mostly by smaller and newer progressive groups, was soon joined by some more starpower in the form of Bob Bland, a co-organizer of the national Women’s March, who struggled to be heard by the crowd. Public Advocate Letitia James, on the other hand, brought a megaphone.
Waiting for Paul
But hours into the school day, still Ryan had not come. The chants of “shame” and “go home Ryan” became intermittent, and the crowd of hundreds dipped to some 75. There was room to see the chalk messages demonstrators had written on the wall of the school, including “I have a pre-existing condition,” “Evil Eva the game is over,” and “I will not get sick,” written 12 times down the blue-painted wall. Some demonstrators had included curse words, until a police officer came over and asked one of the chalk writers if he realized they were writing on a school near where kids would soon walk. The writer did some erasing as the police officer walked away.
Kiki Abraham, 42, a woman who lives in the neighborhood, walked past the scene and castigated both the police officers, who were there in strength though she said they could be scarce in the area at other times, and the House speaker, who was doing nothing but “messing up traffic.”
It all had the feel of a dignitary visiting enemy territory. Given the confluence of ways to politically disagree with him, maybe Harlem was just that for Ryan.
When he finally arrived at 2 p.m. he entered the school quickly to jeers. An hour later, he waved at the protesters still there to greet him. Someone threw an empty plastic bottle. Two black SUVs whisked Ryan away to safety.