Jaime Franchi

Jaime Franchi is the Executive Editor of Morey Publishing. She covers education and contributes news and entertainment pieces for the Long Island Press, along with occasional op-eds when she's in the mood for some hate mail. Her work can also be found on Salon.com, Milieu Magazine, Huffington Post and The New York Times.

Zephyr Teachout, Anti-Common Core Firebrand, Running For Congress

Zephyr Teachout
Anti-Common Core firebrand Zephyr Teachout is running for Congress.

After teasing supporters all last week, Zephyr Teachout, the Fordham Law professor who challenged New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic primary, formally announced her bid for Congress Tuesday.

Teachout, whose unsuccessful attempt to unseat the governor had galvanized many Democrats backing her stance against controversial education reform, Common Core, will seek to represent the state’s 19th district, which she carried in her gubernatorial contest, and which comprises parts of 11 upstate and Hudson Valley counties. The seat will be vacated by Chris Gibson, a Republican who announced last year he would not seek reelection in November.

“I’ve shown that I’m not afraid to be independent and stand up to political insiders, and I’m not willing to give up,” she texted the Press Tuesday. “The people of the 19th aren’t willing to give up—every day I see people creating their own media, sharing their stories, and demanding their voice back.”

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Teachout’s insurgent run for governor resulted in impressive numbers, securing 34 percent of the overall vote—a significant total representing tens of thousands of dissatisfied voters–and a tribute to her campaign prowess since she’d never run for public officer before. Though her popularity can surely be credited to her progressive stand on such issues as public campaign financing and hydrofracking, Teachout’s outspoken opposition to Common Core was undoubtedly largely responsible for her remarkable showing—fueled by a loyal core of parents and teachers who saw her challenge to Cuomo as a rejection of standardized testing and its disastrous roll-out.

“I’m running to raise up the voices of people who are shut out—and that includes the voices of parents and teachers,” she declared. “As you know, education policy will be important in my campaign. And, as Congressperson.”

Hundreds of thousands of parents opted their children out of taking the Common Core exams last year, with rallies and highly charged protests against Coumo and the initiative held across the state. It’s a subject that still resonates with families throughout New York.

Shortly after announcing her congressional run, Teachout posted on Facebook that she’d already received 1,257 contributions in just 28 hours—more than double her initial goal.

“I’ve learned so much talking to parents and teachers over the last few years, and I look forward to learning even more,” she said.

Teachout reportedly won’t face a Democratic primary. John Faso, a former Assembly minority leader, and Andrew Heaney, an investor, are both vying for the Republican nomination.

NY Women in Politics Talk Gains, Struggles in Breaking Glass Ceiling

Zephyr Teachout
Zephyr Teachout at a public discussion held in Hauppauge called “Why Educators Should Run,” sponsored by the New York State United Teachers union and the Working Families Party in June. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

When the Working Families Party first approached Zephyr Teachout about throwing her hat in the ring to challenge New York’s formidable Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the Democratic primary last year, her immediate reaction was, “How dare I?”

This emotional response is the typical reaction many women have to overcome as they summon the courage necessary to fight their way into the boys’ club that is New York government—where women make up only 11 percent of the State Senate and just 20 percent of the Assembly, and where no woman has ever held the position of governor, attorney general or comptroller. Locally, the Nassau County Legislature boasts nine women among its 19 members and is led by Presiding Officer Norma Gonsalves (R-East Meadow), but just five of 18 members of the Suffolk County Legislature are women.

This lack of parity in politics is astounding, considering that New York women have long demonstrated they can succeed at the top level of leadership in corporations, law, real estate and beyond. The challenges—both internal and external—that keep women from running for office does a disservice to the their natural constituency, as issues that range from choice to childcare to education fall by the wayside. Women’s voices are sorely needed in the highest echelons of New York politics. But first, they must “dare” to run.

To find out more about this discrepancy, the Press spoke with a handful of prominent women in New York politics. Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City), state Assemb. Michele Schimel (D-Great Neck), former gubernatorial primary challenger Zephyr Teachout, former Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy, outgoing Republican Hempstead Town Supervisor Kate Murray, and Nassau County District Attorney-elect Madeleine Singas, a Democrat, discuss their experiences, from coping with the emotional toll campaigning might have on their families to overcoming feelings of inadequacy to contending with the challenges of unequal fundraising.

When Hempstead Town Councilwoman Lee Seaman (D-Great Neck Estates) first asked Schimel to run for the Assembly, she remembers she became physically ill.

“I felt the heat on my face,” Schimel told the Press. “She said, ‘People know you. You’re an activist.’ I had young children. I went home. I actually threw up.”

Schimel got over it. She’s served in public office for 22 years.

“I had to be asked to run,” she said. “If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here today.”

Her reluctance isn’t unique. On average, women need to be asked 14 times to run for elected office, according to a story that ran last year on NPR, because it takes that long to break through their objections before they will seriously consider running, whether it be for the school board or a seat in Congress.

McCarthy wants more women to take the initiative—on many fronts.

“They shouldn’t be waiting to ask for a pay raise if they know that they deserve it,” said the former Congresswoman. “They shouldn’t wait to advance themselves in whatever area they’re in. You’re not going to be asked. It’s still a man’s world. When I went to Congress, it was the first time in my life that I got equal pay because we all get the same paycheck. That doesn’t happen in the real world here.”

Teachout, a law professor at Fordham University in the Bronx, says too many women rule themselves out for the wrong reasons.

“I met a woman in Auburn (in upstate Cayuga County) the other day, covered in tattoos,” Teachout said. “‘People like me don’t run for public office,’ she said. ‘I’ve been divorced three times.’ We’re sort of stuck in a 1950s model of a politician, when we aren’t living in a 1950s world.”

Teachout held center stage this June at a public discussion held in Hauppauge called “Why Educators Should Run,” sponsored by the New York State United Teachers union and the Working Families Party. The room was packed with teachers eager to hear how they could channel their activism, born out of a protest against the governor’s punitive Common Core evaluation system, into a change in public policy.

“This is not a state in which women are not accomplished in every other area,” Teachout said, “so there’s something clearly systemically wrong in the way we’re selecting and supporting our candidates.”

While on the campaign trail last year in Southampton, Teachout said that more women should be in New York politics, particularly so they could influence education policy.

“Luckily we have women who are representing us federally, but not in Albany,” she told the Press, “and it’s affecting priorities.”

“You know it’s a broken system when there are no women,” she added, “because it’s not that people don’t support female leaders, it’s that it’s a closed club.”

Recently she was asked what ultimately gave her the courage to run against Cuomo in the Democratic primary.

“I’ve wondered that myself!” she responded in a text message. “Even went and looked back over emails. But the key was, so much good could come out of it, and it was too good an opportunity to pass up.”

She wanted to make it clear to women that running against someone is not being disrespectful.

“It’s a sign of respect for the other people in your district or region that you think that they are adult enough to make these difficult decisions,” she explained. “Not that you are disrespecting this other person.”

Former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Rice was elected to Congress last year. (Photo: Nassau DA's office)
Former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice. Rice was elected to Congress last year. (Photo: Nassau DA’s office)

Rice believes women’s voices are crucial at all levels of government.

“Women tend to be more pragmatic and collaborative,” she told the Press. “We absolutely bring a unique perspective to the table. And it’s not just about ‘women’s issues,’ but issues that affect all of us, from homeland security and veteran affairs to emergency preparedness.”

“When I first announced that I was going to run for District Attorney, people thought I was crazy,” Rice added. “People said, ‘But no woman has ever held that position [in Nassau County] before. You’ll lose.’”

Not only did Rice beat her opponent, 31-year incumbent DA Denis Dillon, she’s now in Congress, replacing Carolyn McCarthy in the seat she held for 18 years as the first female member of the House of Representatives elected from Long Island.

“Just say, ‘Yes,’” Rice offered. “Say ‘yes’ to everything. Men do. Don’t let anyone else decide your potential.”

McCarthy, retired last year after first being elected in 1997, told the Press that she’d had doubts about her own capabilities when she was first approached to run by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo.

“I was speaking to a group of young women who were thinking about running, and I think they all came to the same conclusion: ‘Who am I that I think I can run for public office?’ I certainly had those thoughts myself,” McCarthy admitted. “I didn’t know anything about politics. I certainly didn’t know about fundraising and all the things you have to do to win an election. It’s difficult, and it depends how passionate you are about trying to make change.”

McCarthy’s passion was fueled by her desire to make meaningful change in New York’s gun laws after the tragic 1993 LIRR massacre in which Colin Ferguson killed her husband, Dennis, and severely wounded her son, Kevin, as they were taking the train home together from Manhattan. She credits Kevin with persuading her to enter politics.

“If my son hadn’t said to me, ‘Mom, you should run,’” McCarthy told the Press, then she probably wouldn’t have.

“He said, ‘You’re already doing all the things it takes to be someone that wants to change legislation to try to save people’s lives,’” she continued. “So it was really [Kevin] that pushed me. It’s a difficult decision. Particularly because I was taking care of Kevin, and at that point of his recovery, he really couldn’t do a lot of things on his own, but he made a promise to me that if I run, that he will learn to do all the things he needs to do so that I could go out and campaign. So I had his support very strongly.”

Family support is one of the biggest considerations that female candidates face. Often tasked with the primary responsibilities of taking care of children, women have to reconcile what affect their candidacy and elected office responsibilities would have on their family’s lives.

“Women tend to be a lot more self-reflective and probably more self-doubting,” said Singas, who had replaced Rice as acting Nassau County District Attorney and won the job herself in Tuesday’s election.

“For me, the decision to run was really about that I’d been doing this job for my entire professional career, and I never doubted my qualifications to do the job,” Singas said. “It was just about what effect it would ultimately have on my family and on my children. Did I want to put myself out there and my family out there for the kind of scrutiny and the unfairness that comes with campaigning? That was my only hesitation.”

Singas hinted at the impact campaigning has on family time during her victory speech Tuesday.

“They can finally have their mom back,” she said of her two children.

Madeline Singas
Acting Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas won the Nassau DA Race by a wide margin Tuesday. (Rashed Mian/Long Island Press)

Few of the women who spoke to the Press said that a career in government was their primary goal. What thrust them into the political arena was their personal experience as an activist on an array of issues.

Both McCarthy and Schimel came into office via their passion to make lasting change in the state’s gun laws.

“I was involved with Governor Cuomo in passing the assault weapons ban,” said Schimel. “I used to go to Albany every two years. They all knew me because I would yell at them.”

But after a long time spent in the legislative process, Schimel says that other concerns arise for idealistic women like her.

“You come in with a bunch of ideals, and by the end of the decade you have to look at all of the influences and make sure you are still true to your belief system,” Schimel said. “It’s difficult. I represent over 130,000 constituents who have so many different views. How do you represent them all and still stay true to the ideals that you came into the office with?”

The Press spoke with McCarthy the day after a self-identified white supremacist gunman had opened fire in a South Carolina church, killing nine people on June 18. McCarthy was shaken by yet another American mass shooting, but her resolve to inspire lasting change has not wavered.

“When I heard that there was a girl younger than nine or 10, who played dead, my heart just stopped,” McCarthy said. “That will never go away for all of these families that go through these kinds of tragedies. It’s heartbreaking, and I think that we do need more women that will be fighting for this because this is a family issue. It shouldn’t be a Democratic or a Republican issue. It should definitely just be an issue of protecting our people.”

Thinking of others led Murray, the Hempstead Town Supervisor, to enter politics.

“I always think of the vulnerable and people who need to be protected,” Murray told the Press at the Broadway Diner in Hicksville.

“Actually, the three offices that I’ve held–I was the first women in each of those,” Murray said. “So, I like to think three fewer glass ceilings to shatter, I’m proud of that.”

Before becoming town supervisor, she was town clerk and a state Assemblywoman.

Former Democratic congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy seen in the film "The Long Island Railroad Massacre: 20 Years Later."
Former Democratic congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy seen in the film “The Long Island Railroad Massacre: 20 Years Later.”

The transition from advocating for issues to launching a campaign for public office is rife with difficult choices for anyone, but for women, certain campaign responsibilities, particularly fundraising, appear to be more difficult. The playing field is not level.

Women’s PACs, such as Emily’s List and Women’s Campaign Fund, have tried to help equalize women’s political fundraising capabilities, but women candidates remain at a disadvantage because funds tend to flow more readily toward the incumbents. Since men hold a vast majority of political offices, their war chests are exponentially more substantial.

“It took me a lot of years to figure out when I was trying to raise money that the men—same issues, same ranking as I had—it was easier for them to get money,” McCarthy revealed. “I finally said to one group, ‘What’s the issue here? Because I’m a woman, I don’t deserve to raise the same amount of money as a man?’ And you know what? That changed. I was getting equal support. You have to ask for it.”

Schimel observes that women often seem more comfortable giving money than asking for it, making fundraising particularly difficult.

“It’s very frightening to ask for money to campaign,” she said. “It’s the hardest part. I daresay it’s harder for women.”

But that’s the price women have to pay if they want to make a difference in public life, and women overcome tougher challenges than that every day, says McCarthy.

“Give yourself more credit,” she said. “You’ve got more strength in you than you realize. And you can do the job. Because if you look at your daily life, you’re making executive decisions constantly.”

In her best-selling business book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, coined the term “Impostor Syndrome,” a condition she says can limit a woman’s ambition and her sense of what she could accomplish.

“Many people, but especially women, feel fraudulent when they are praised for their accomplishments,” Sandberg writes. “Instead of feeling worthy of recognition, they feel undeserving and guilty, as if a mistake has been made. Despite being high achievers, even experts in their fields, women can’t seem to shake the sense that it is only a matter of time until they are found out for who they really are: impostors with limited skills or abilities.”

For these Long Island women in public life, they’ve faced themselves in private and found they had the ability all along.

Common Core Critics Blast Cuomo’s Latest Comments On ‘Deeply Flawed’ Program

Common Core Protest Long Island
Common Core critics blasted New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo his Sept. 3, 2015 comments about the 'deeply flawed' and controversial education reform program, deeming them politically motivated and ingenuine. More than 1,000 parents, teachers and school administrators (above) rallied on March 9, 2015 at Long Island University Post Campus in Brookville against Common Core. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo released a statement Thursday reiterating what he described as his longtime belief that the implementation of the controversial Common Core education reform by the State Education Department “has been deeply flawed,” announcing it “must be fixed,” and calling for the creation of a “comprehensive review” of the program.

His remarks kicked off a fresh firestorm of criticism from longtime anti-Common Core activists and opposition groups, who deem the governor’s recent comments little more than politically motivated backpedaling and an ill-fated attempt at appeasement.

“A growing chorus of experts have questioned the intelligence of SED’s Common Core program and objective educators across the state have found the implementation problematic, to say the least,” Gov. Cuomo declared in his Sept. 3 statement. “The new Commissioner of Education has inherited this problem and I understand has been meeting with parents, educators and students, and has heard the same concerns. Recently, SED has made comments about organized efforts to have parents choose to opt out of standardized tests. While I understand the issue and SED’s valid concern, I sympathize with the frustration of the parents.

“The fact is that the current Common Core program in New York is not working, and must be fixed,” the governor continues. “To that end, the time has come for a comprehensive review of the implementation of the Common Core Standards, curriculum, guidance and tests in order to address local concerns. I am taking this action not because I don’t believe in standards, but because I do.”

Officially adopted in New York State in 2010, Common Core—the Obama administration’s education reform policy—has been a lightning rod of complaints from scores of parents, teachers and students alike. These critics have been extremely vocal about their concerns, too, flooding public forums across the state to discuss ways to both cope with its practices and mobilize political opposition to fight back and eventually have it repealed. Their loudest protest culminated in the Opt-Out Movement, in which record-breaking numbers of parents throughout the state refused to have their children even take the exams. Last spring, 225,000 students “opted out” of state mandated tests, with that number expected to grow next year.

Created by the National Governors Association and the Council of State School Officers, Common Core aims to make American students globally competitive, with skills that promise college and career readiness, accomplished through standardized testing in English Language Arts and Math beginning at grade three. Its dual purpose is to hold teachers accountable for students’ achievement, using high-stakes test scores to determine teachers’ effectiveness.

Some local education advocates, who have been on the frontlines in the battle for quality education in New York State and against what they perceive as a punitive and punishing Common Core-based new teacher evaluation law Cuomo passed as part of the 2015-16 state budget, are questioning the sincerity of the governor’s latest positioning on the effects of Common Core.

“The blame game continues in NY,” blasts Jeanette Deutermann, a Long Island mother who co-founded New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE)—a coalition of 50 parent and teacher organizations who oppose the standardized tests—and created the popular “Long Island Opt-Out” Facebook page. “Governor Cuomo, the mastermind behind the evaluation system tied to Common Core assessments that is ripping our schools apart, now claims to want to play the role of hero.

“What Governor Cuomo doesn’t understand is that that role has already been filled: by the hundreds of thousands of parents that have taken a stand against the high-stakes testing machine built upon Cuomo’s corporate reform agenda,” she slams. “As more talk of commissions and committees continue, our children, who have already slogged through four years of a reform nightmare, are facing yet another year of test prep, countless hours of assessments, and this failed CC experiment.

“If the Governor was truly intent on saving our children, he would reverse his own laws immediately, and put the brakes on before another class of students is subjected to this insanity,” adds Deutermann.

As for a commission review of the current system, Carol Burris, former principal of Southside High School in Rockville Centre and current executive director of the Network for Public Education Fund, is not convinced.

“It is laughable,” she tells the Press via email. “Does the governor not remember that he had a Common Core Commission in 2014? It issued a preliminary report in March after meeting twice. His commission never issued a final report; and after those two meetings, the governor shut it down.

“This is political posturing to try to curry favor with parents who are fed up with his education reforms,” continues Burris. “It is shameful. He is as responsible as any member of SED for the mess we are in today.”

Mark Naison, professor of history and chair of African and African-American Studies at Fordham University and co-founder of the anti-Common Core coalition Badass Teachers Association, aka BAT, views Cuomo’s latest stance as a testament to the strength of the parent-led Opt-Out Movement.

“The Cuomo statement reflects a sober recognition that the parent-led Opt-Out Movement is not only too strong to suppress, but that it is response to serious inequities, inequities and injustices surrounding testing in New York State,” he explains. “While the governor recognizes that some of these issues arise from the content of the Common Core standards, it is deeply troubling that he never mentions the toxic influence of using testing for the purposes of teacher evaluation.

“The statement is therefore both incomplete and designed to drive a wedge between parents and teachers,” adds Naison. “Nevertheless, it is a testimony to the power of the Opt-Out Movement. It is a response to serious inequities, inconsistencies and injustices.”

The battle for an efficient and effective education system in New York is far from over, the anti-Common Core activists warn.

“On to the great Opt-Out 2016,” Deutermann proclaimed to “Long Island Opt-Out” members on the group’s Facebook page.

‘Best Of Enemies’ Vidal-Buckley Debates Doc: Required Viewing For Presidential Mud Wars

Best of Enemies
'Best of Enemies,' a documentary about the contentious Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr. debates, is required viewing in preparation for this year's presidential mud wars.

As we plunge headfirst into election season, kicked off Thursday night with the raucous Republican debate at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, Ohio, it’s interesting to consider just how we got here. The world of political punditry is diametrically divided into two distinct camps: right and left. The news comes at us through either filter, shaded by not only a shadow of subjectivity, but replete with disdain for all who share a different perspective. [See: Donald Trump.]

But it wasn’t always this way.

The documentary Best of Enemies—written and co-directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, who won last year’s documentary Oscar for Twenty Feet From Stardom—traces the genesis of the faux debates that operate as standard political punditry to the year 1968, when then-faltering network ABC took a gamble during the Republican and Democratic presidential conventions by changing their coverage to hosting live debates between Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley, Jr.

At the time, both Buckley and Vidal were the voices of the intellectual elite, their syntax indicative of their American aristocratic upbringings. However, despite their similar social and economic standings, they represented ideologically opposing sides: Vidal, a noted historian, novelist, and playwright, was a voice of the progressive left. He loudly opposed American expansionism and supported the Civil Rights Movement, which was coming to an explosive head at the time. Vidal had famously purported that “we are all bisexual to begin with,” and he sought to dismantle what he believed were the social constructs making homosexuality seem immoral, unnatural or criminal.

Buckley stood in direct opposition to Vidal on almost every important issue of the time. As the founder of the conservative movement and the editor in chief of the National Review, Buckley took positions that supported white supremacy in the South during the early Fifties, later distancing himself when the movement grew violent. His devout Catholicism formed the foundation of many of his positions, and informed the moral authority he believed government should operate from. His economic and foreign policy opinions veered drastically from Vidal’s, and, through decades of television appearances on his TV talk show Firing Line and his editorship of the National Review—where he stayed until 1990—helped give shape to the modern idea of American conservatism. He was often credited with paving the pathway to Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

These opposing ideals wouldn’t have amounted to much television drama, however, if it wasn’t for the uniquely combative debating style they both employed—and for the personal disdain with which they held each other and nearly everything their opponents represented.

While Buckley arrived on set for the first debate in Miami Beach during the GOP convention to discuss issues pertinent to the presidential race at the time, Best of Enemies shows that Vidal came with two goals in mind: to personally crush Buckley by inciting him enough to expose himself, and to use the national stage in order to bring greater attention to his novel Myra Breckenridge (and in doing so, boost book sales).

He accomplished both.

Vidal came armed with an encyclopedic amount of knowledge about Buckley, his family, and the positions he’d taken in the National Review (including inaccurate stories and editorials based on false premises, according to veteran TV journalist George Merlis, who wrote a blog about the significance of the infamous debate). Buckley came to the set only with his innate intelligence and ample oratory skills.

They weren’t enough.

Vidal came out swinging, first asking how the party so inextricably intertwined with “Republican greed” could lead the country. The clearly flustered Buckley put his rhetorical prowess to good use, dismantling Vidal’s arguments and accusations as skillfully as possible. The “debates” quickly degenerated into personal and ideological attacks that grew more heated as mudslinging substituted for discussion of national policy and political discourse.

Vidal succeeded in two distinct ways: in creating an avenue for marketing for his book—Buckley continued to refer to Myra Breckenridge as a pornographic and immoral work (while Vidal refused to acknowledge the National Review by name)—and in the ninth debate that served as the culmination of the growing animosity between the two, which exploded into Buckley’s striking loss of temper that Vidal regarded as the ultimate exposure of him as “cuckoo.”

Vidal’s victory came in Buckley’s outburst of a gay slur and threat of physical violence against him. After Vidal called him a “crypto-Nazi” (the film shows that he’d meant to say “crypto-Fascist”), Buckley lost control of his carefully wrought image.

“Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the goddamn face,” he said, half-rising from his seat. “And you’ll stay plastered.”

Christopher Buckley, William F.’s son and brief editor in chief successor of the National Review, once wrote that it was only due to his father’s collarbone injury at the time that Vidal remained physically unscathed in that moment.

“During the Chicago debates, he was wearing a clavicle brace,” says Christopher Buckley. “It’s possible that the brace prevented the moment from being truly iconic.”

Yet the damage was done. Both Buckley and Vidal knew it.

“That was a disaster,” Buckley said as soon as the cameras stopped rolling.

“We gave them their money’s worth tonight,” Vidal responded.

In their own way, each drew from this exchange for the rest of their lives. Buckley, unable to let it go, penned a 12,000-word defense of his performance in Esquire titled “On Experiencing Gore Vidal” in August 1969. Vidal’s acerbic response in the same magazine earned him a libel suit put forth by Buckley that stretched years into their lives, further fueling the lifelong shared enmity that haunted and inspired them until their respective deaths.

Their legacy is the ugliness played out on national television, disguised as reasonable political discourse.

Best of Enemies was recently featured at the 2015 Stony Brook Film Festival and is currently playing at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in Manhattan. Check out lincolnplazacinema.com for showtimes.

Michael Ricigliano, Jr.’s ‘A Queen For A Day’ Keeps It In ‘The Family’

Acclaimed actors David Proval (L) and David Deblinger (R) join fellow 'Sopranos' mobster Vincent Pastore in playwright and producer Michael Ricigliano, Jr.'s "A Queen For A Day," running through July 26 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in Manhattan. (Photo by Russ Rowland)

Set in an abandoned warehouse in New Jersey bathed in deep grays and dark shadows, iconic figures recognizable to anyone well-versed in mob filmography command the stage.

David Proval—the ruthless, violent capo Richie Aprile of Sopranos infamy, also known for his portrayal of mobster Tony DeVienazo in the Martin Scorsese cult favorite Mean Streets—plays the intense and cunning Giovanni “Nino” Cinquimani, a heavily Italian-lilted Mafioso, speaking of backdoor deals with union presidents and an ill-timed mob hit on a longshoreman before removing the mask of mob-persona and becoming heartbreakingly human.

Vincent Pastore—aka The Sopranos’ “Big Pussy”—is Nino’s brother Pasquale, dubbed “The Prince” by the media in very much the same way “The Teflon Don” had graced so many covers of New York Daily News. Reminiscent of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone, Pastore plays a giant of violent intimidation. Audiences learn how one who was once an innocent youngster on the road to legitimacy was pulled into “family life” he was never meant for, but took to with prodigal aplomb.

Theater maven Portia, whose resume includes Mama Nadi in the Pulitzer Prize-winning production of “Ruined,” among a long list of acclaimed television and stage productions, transforms the role of US Attorney Patricia Cole into a well-practiced persona. Smart, tough, and acid-tongued, she holds her own with the likes of the Cinquimani brothers in the constantly changing shifts of power.

David Deblinger, who played Sopranos mobster Dr. Rene Katz and who portrays attorney Sanford Weiss, Esq., rounds out the all-star cast.

A Queen for a Day,” written by playwright and producer Michael Ricigliano, Jr. and directed by John Gould Rubin, counts on audiences’ recognition of these characters: the thick-necked mob boss with a steely glare and hot temper; the mafia captain—an older brother who somehow ended up as the subordinate; the cautionary Jewish lawyer; and the no-bullshit US Attorney, who is an expert on the inner-workings of the “family” because she can never be part of it. You know these guys. You’ve met them in films directed by Scorsese and Coppola, in the banquet booths of certain Long Island restaurants, and in the stories of our oldest generation, whose childhoods in Brooklyn sound as exotic to our suburban ears as the Old Country had been to theirs.

The beauty—and the genius—of this screenplay is that once audiences settle into this well-traveled world, it turns that familiarity on its head and shakes it to its core.

“A Queen for a Day” is the term for a one-day immunity proffer session between an informant and a prosecutor. Nothing revealed in this session can be used against the witness. This is the tool that has been instrumental in tearing down the time-worn infrastructure of the modern-day mob, where one by one, defendants cop plea deals with the government, turning in “family members” in exchange for their own freedom. Or, in the case of “A Queen for a Day,” actual blood relatives.

"A Queen For A Day" Michael Ricigliano, Jr.
David Proval (L) and Vincent Pastore are just two of the all-star cast members in local playwright and producer Michael Ricigliano, Jr.’s “A Queen For A Day,” running through July 26 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in Manhattan. (Photo by Russ Rowland)

When Ricigliano, a Long Island attorney by trade, overheard a friend, a former enforcement supervisor for the US Securities and Exchange Commission, mention the term, he immediately had the idea for the screenplay mapped out in his mind.

“I said, ‘Wow! What a great idea for a play!’” Ricigliano tells the Press in a phone interview en route to one of the show’s final rehearsals. “From there I just started writing and writing and writing.”

Ricigliano, 44, grew up in Garden City, Long Island. He maintains a successful career as an attorney, and is raising his family in Locust Valley. He formed Jackson Leonard Productions, LLC with his partner Jeffrey Schneider, with whom he develops and produces feature films, as well as stage and television projects, including scripts for Brooklyn Law, The Scorpion Tale, The Devil’s Banker, and Created Equal based on the book by R.A. Brown. The intersection between a creative mind and an encyclopedic knowledge of the law gives Ricigliano an unlimited well of ideas for stage and screen. Growing up enveloped in Italian-American culture doesn’t hurt either when he’s trying to develop characters.

“Practicing law helps me understand the legal nuances,” he tells the Press. “My father and my whole family are from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. A lot of my bedtime stories were either when my father played for the Brooklyn Dodgers or when he was growing up in Brooklyn. You know, growing up, you spend a lot of time with Italians. So a lot of the nuances in the way Italians speak and act, they have a certain cadence—it’s a fact. Italians carry themselves a certain way—especially the ones from Brooklyn. And so all of that is what goes into making a character.”

Although Ricigliano is fairly new to writing, his 2010 film debut, Lily of the Feast, a short, earned multiple accolades, including “Best Short Film” at the 2011 Long Island International Film Festival; its director, Federico Castelluccio (you know him as Carmellas’s man-tease Furio in The Sopranos), won “Best Director of a Short Film” in that competition, and last year, directed its feature-length adaptation. The latter also stars Proval, along with Troy Garity (Jane Fonda’s son) and Paul Sorvino.

“It’s really just getting good people around you. That’s all it is,” he confides to the Press. “Talented people who have been through this before and they guided me in the right way.”

One of those people is director John Gould Rubin, who had run the Greenwich Village-based LAByrinth Theater Company with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. Rubin recognizes talent when he sees it.

“I really think that the playwright is a prodigy,” Rubin tells the Press. “This is his first play and it’s just better written than it should have been. It’s more skilled than it should have been. He’s a special guy.”

"A Queen For A Day" Michael Ricigliano, Jr.
(L-R) David Deblinger, Portia and David Proval deliver passionate, memorable performances in local playwright and producer Michael Ricigliano, Jr.’s stellar “A Queen For A Day,” running through July 26 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s in Manhattan. (Photo by Russ Rowland)

“A Queen for a Day” is based on the largest coordinated organized crime takedown in history—a January 2011 sweep in which the FBI and US Attorney’s Office rounded up and indicted 127 mafia associates. Nino Cinquimani (Proval) is a captain in an unnamed crime family who is pressured to give up his brother, the “Capo de tutti Capo” (Pastore). Deblinger and Portia, the two prosecutors in the play, also hail from LAByrinth, where they’d worked with Rubin before. This ensemble came together in perfect symmetry of well-heeled mob actors and theater natives, balancing the cadences of the dialogue with practiced nuance and emotion.

The depth of acting talent took Ricigliano by surprise, he admits. “A Queen for a Day” is his first theatrical experience, and watching the actors take ownership of characters he’d written, by creating detailed backstories, thrilled him.

“The reason you are who you are is because of a million factors that happened in your life,” Ricigliano says. “How you grew up, who you grew up with, your parents, your friends, your schooling—all of that is what makes you, you. When these actors read a script, they attach themselves to it and then they start making up what their life would have been like before these three hours on Sunday in the winter of 2011. It is really so gratifying that they care so much about that character to really become invested.”

The play explores blood ties, where loyalty comes at a price with profound repercussions that won’t come to light until intense pressure provides a relief valve. Director Rubin keeps the action at a riveting pace, building intensity until an explosive finale unravels shocking revelations that delve into issues of family, sexuality, identity and loyalty.

In one of the most dramatic scenes of the 90-minute performance, Pastore takes the stage, filling the theater with an almost unbearable tension. Known among his fellow mobsters onstage as “Pat,” the younger brother and mafia kingpin has just discovered a stinging betrayal that both shook and frightened the entire house, evident by several minutes of complete and utter silence. He didn’t play a mob boss—he became one, right there, on the stark stage. When his voice, soft-spoken and measured at first, broke into a roar of unrestrained rage, the audience jumped in their seats.

“What can I do to make this right?” is an oft-repeated refrain in the last scene of the play. “Right,” of course, is a debatable term.

As the US Attorney, Patricia convinces Nino that confessions help purge the soul of sin, these religious themes pervade the theater, aptly housed in an off-Broadway space within St. Clement’s Episcopal Church on West 46th Street.

As with most mob-themed productions, the answers to many of “A Queen For A Day’s” recurring questions are inevitably soaked in blood. Righteousness has many avenues, each evocatively explored in this captivating story.


“A Queen for a Day” is running through July 26 at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St., New York, NY 10036. Tickets can be purchased online by visiting AQueenForADayPlay.com and calling 866-811-4111.

Jim Breuer’s Hilarious ‘Comic Frenzy’ Special Premieres On Epix

Jim Breuer Comic Frenzy
Jim Breuer's hilarious comedy special 'Comic Frenzy,' which was filmed at The Paramount in Huntington, premieres on the cable/satellite television network and video-on-demand subscription service Epix May 29! Don't miss it!

On Friday night, Jim Breuer will throw out the first pitch at Citi Field.

The Mets mega-fan, who has been creating viral homemade iPhone video recaps since opening day and posting them to his Facebook profile, will take to the infield, marking the launch of not only the journey from pitcher’s mound to catcher’s mitt, but signifying the rocket-like trajectory of his acclaimed career. On the same day, May 29, his comedy special Jim Breuer: Comic Frenzy premieres on the cable/satellite television network and video-on-demand subscription service Epix.

This Valley Stream-raised comedian’s star has never shined brighter 20 years after his debut on the iconic Saturday Night Live stage and 17 years after his feature film co-starring Dave Chappelle Half Baked became a cult hit. #ComicFrenzy, a one-hour special taped this February on Long Island, is the first where he has maintained all creative control.

It’s also his best.

“I always wanted to film on Long Island,” he tells the Press in a phone interview from his home in Chester, N.J. “So this is the first time I did everything, like, ‘How much is this gonna cost? I’ll front the money. I’ll get who I want and I’m going to play where I want to play.’”

The special was filmed at The Paramount in Huntington on Valentine’s Day. After the huge success of two back-to-back performances there last winter, Breuer, 47, knew he was onto something special.

“When I played The Paramount last year, I literally came off the stage and went right to the management and said, ‘I wanna film my special here. Can I film it a year from now?’ And that’s pretty much what I did,” he explains.

The Press, being the Jim Breuer mega-fans we are, were privy to an advanced copy of Comic Frenzy. It’s a tight, well-paced show that runs fluidly through topics where Breuer shines: family, where he touches on the recent death of his father, a World War II veteran who Jim took care of right until the end (and the subject of the 2010 documentary More Than Me, about taking his then 84-year-old father on the road with him), impressions of not only his wife of 20 years and his teenage daughters, but such notables as Metallica’s James Hetfield and AC/DC’s Brian Johnson. And then he talks about guns.

“I didn’t get political, just where it came out of ‘Should I get a gun for the house?’” he explains. “And it goes in a very funny direction. I think that’s my favorite bit because people automatically go, “Oh, my God, where is he going with this? Is he a Democrat? Is he a liberal?’ And it doesn’t go in any direction you imagine.”

READ “Jim Breuer: LI’s Former Bad Boy Jokester Opens Up About Life, God and Heavy Metal” HERE

The bit takes a turn you could never imagine. It’s pure Breuer, as we’ve come to know and love him: sharp observational humor with exaggerated, side-splitting facial and vocal expressions, replete with enthusiasm and energy that hasn’t dwindled with age or experience. If anything, he’s just getting going.

The special kicks off a slew of exciting projects Breuer has been working on, including a rock album that was partially recorded in West Babylon. Due to be released early next year, the album will feature a lineup of some of Jim’s heroes-turned-friends-turned-collaborators, including AC/DC’s Brian Johnson, who laid down tracks just before our phone conversation. The rest of the lineup is top secret, but we can speculate that some of his bold-type big-name rock star friends will be making appearances.

Just don’t expect this roster to impress his teenage daughters, who remain age-appropriately nonplussed by any of their father’s famous friends.

“It’s almost like I’m hanging out with ’50s stars,” he says about rock legends Metallica. “And they don’t even see them as cool. Hetfield. They don’t see them like that. He’s Mr. Hetfield. They don’t even KNOW! They know, but they don’t know. ‘Is that Mr. Hetfield? Why is he at the White House singing? What is he doing? Who’s the old guy—Bruce Springsteen? Who’s that?’ Oh my God.”

And it’s not just the rock gods who hang by his pool or vacation with his family that fail to impress. He describes a conversation with his daughters when he came home from the Saturday Night Live 40-year anniversary special and after-party.

“I’m like, ‘I was talking to Leonardo DiCaprio and Bradley Cooper and Jack Nicholson and Guiliani and I was behind Taylor Swift…’ ‘YOU WERE BEHIND TAYLOR SWIFT?’ ‘Well, yeah, then I saw McCartney…’ ‘YOU WERE BEHIND TAYLOR SWIFT?’ That’s all they cared about. Taylor Swift and the fact that I said hello to Miley Cyrus. That’s it. The rest, nothing.”

Unlike his daughters, Long Islanders continue to be enthralled by one of our own, who returns that ample affection. You can see it in the shout-out on Comic Frenzy, when he talks about what makes Long Island the best place to perform.

“I wrote to the network, I said, ‘I know it’s not national, but you gotta leave the opening Long Island stuff in there,’” he said. “I want it to be authentic and the world to know where I come from.”

READ “Jim Breuer Rocks The Paramount In Huntington” HERE

The audience reciprocated in kind.

“Walking out in that environment, that’s the best I ever felt on any special,” he confides. “I felt like I was at a gathering with a bunch of friends and some family, and the barbecue’s coming toward an end, and now we’re heading toward the backyard, where there’s just a couple of us left and now it’s time for me to start going.”

“Start going,” indeed.

Trust us. He hits it out of the park.

Jim Breuer’s Comic Frenzy airs Friday, May 29 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Epix and will be available on the cable/satellite television network and subscription video-on-demand service. To learn more, subscribe, stream it on your iPad, iPhone, or really any other device—and consequently laugh your tuckus off—check out epixhd.com.

Million Mom March Marks 15 Years Fighting for Gun Violence Prevention

It’s an image seared into the minds of mothers everywhere: a daisy chain of children being led out of a building, the dichotomy of sweetness and innocence against a backdrop of an unconscionable tragedy.

Gun violence in America has become so commonplace that it’s mostly the mass shootings that break through the airwaves, shocking an almost unshockable society. When the victims are children, that shock becomes outrage. And when outraged mothers organize, mountains can move.

Case in point: After five people, including three small children, were shot at a Jewish Community Center in California 15 years ago, Donna Dees, then a public relations associate for the Late Show with David Letterman, was so enraged that she gathered hundreds of thousands of fellow moms (and dads, grandparents, celebrities and other activists) to march on Mother’s Day 2000 in Washington, D.C. in the Million Mom March Against Gun Violence. Speakers included Rosie O’Donnell, Reese Witherspoon, Susan Sarandon, Roseanne Cash, Emmylou Harris, Melissa Etheridge, mothers of victims of the Columbine massacre, elected officials, surviving victims of gun violence themselves, and religious leaders across the country. Thursday marks the fifteenth anniversary of that monumental eventand they are still inspired, enraged and more coordinated than ever in their fight against gun violence as well as their push for common sense gun laws.

“It was August 10, 1999, a beautiful summer day,” recalls Dees. “At the time, I was living in Short Hills, New Jersey but was on Fire Island that particular evening. And there was a shooting earlier that day at a JCC day camp in Granada Hills, California. I turn on CNN showing the little daisy chain of kids with officers leading them out of this Jewish Center. I had a visceral reaction.”

That day, a white supremacist unloaded 70 gunshots at the day camp, wounding five, including three children.The gunman later murdered a postal worker who was delivering mail several miles away. After learning how disparate and ineffective American gun control laws are, Dees, whose children were then the same ages of the students who had been shot, thought she could use her PR experience and connections to help.

“I had worked in news for many, many years,” Dees tells the Press. “I remember so many school shootings. I never took action. Always felt like there was Sarah Brady out there, doing her job,” she adds, referring to the gun control activist and wife of Jim Brady, President Ronald Reagan’s press secretary who was seriously wounded during an assassination attempt in 1981. He died last August, and she died in April after leading the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

But, after mass shootings, volunteer organizations often get overwhelmed with activists looking to help. Dees couldn’t get anyone to return her phone calls, beyond requests for monetary donations, which she was happy to supply. She wanted to do more.

“I thought, ‘There must be mothers out here like me who are just completely outraged,’” Dees remembers. “So I went ahead and applied for a permit to march in Washington. I called it the Million Mom March, Mothers Day 2000.” With the rallying cry, “Looking for Few Good Moms to Mobilize for Common Sense Gun Laws,” a movement was born.

With key sponsorships from companies like Dannon Yogurt and iVillage.com, the Million Mom March was held on May 14, 2000, on the National Mall outside the Capitol. Still working in a part-time job share for Letterman, Dees launched what ultimately became a mission that consumed the majority of her time. Between organizing the march and crossing the country talking to PTAs, church groups and legislators about the need for background checks on gun buyers, Dees worked tirelessly to enact change.

She didn’t work alone.

Moms on The Ground

Dees credits the chutzpah and the camaraderie of her fellow women who created an atmosphere of tireless support that got the job done in nine months.

She recruited fellow professional moms, stay-at-home moms, friends, neighbors, and what she calls “play-date” moms. The march featured dozens of speakers, including former U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-Mineola); Commack-native Rosie O’Donnell; Patti Nielsen, an injured teacher from Columbine; Dawn Anna, the mother of a slain student; and too many gun violence survivors to list, including Mindy Finkelstein, a 16-year-old camp counselor shot at the JCC day-camp in 1999.

As many Long Islanders remember, McCarthy’s husband, Dennis, and son, Kevin, were both shot in the Long Island Rail Road massacre in 1993–a mass murder committed by Colin Ferguson, who killed six and wounded 19. Dennis died of his injuries. Kevin survived, but was severely wounded. McCarthy, a nurse at the time, was so outraged that she launched a campaign that propelled her to the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served the 4th district from 1997 until January of this year, when she retired after deciding not to run for re-election. Former Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice has since been elected to fill her seat.

“When I finished speaking at the event…I was speaking to one woman’s husband who had asked her what she wanted for her anniversary and she said, ‘I want to go to Washington, I want to be a part of this movement to protect my child for the future,'” McCarthy remembers. “I tell you, my heart could have broken. There were so many stories like that, and it was just inspiring for me because I have to tell you trying to get anything done on gun violence in Washington has been quite difficult.”

McCarthy, who Politico described as “the fiercest gun-control advocate in Congress,” worked tirelessly to close loopholes in existing gun laws during her tenure, but couldn’t re-enact the assault weapons ban, curb the sale of high-capacity magazines or ensure background checks for sales at gun shows. Still, she remains optimistic.

“I think we’re in a much better place than we were certainly 15 years ago,” McCarthy tells the Press. “Do we know that it’s going to take time? Yes. But I’m more encouraged today than I’ve been. But many of us, especially those of us who have had personal tragedies in our lives, we’re not going to give up on this. I may not be in Congress, but I certainly plan on using my voice to reduce gun violence because most of us who got into this cause just didn’t want to see it happen to another family.

“We’re not going to win every battle,” she continued. “I understood that. I’ve spoken about that as being an ICU nurse. I couldn’t save every patient, but that didn’t stop me from going back to work every day and doing the best I could to protect those patients that I could.”

The March

Dees launched a whirlwind media tour that included press from NBC Nightly News, an Oprah Winfrey interview and spots on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. She found a captive audience of like-minded advocates who stepped up to donate time, money and support.

“The march was a huge success,” Dees tells the Press. “Seven-hundred-fifty-thousand at a minimum were there and we were low-balling that figure because any exaggeration would be challenged by the gun lobby. They just kept pouring in.”

Two stages had been set up at either edge of the Mall to accommodate everyone. Across the country, they had 77 sanctioned support marches, including 5,000 people in Oakland, Calif., on a rainy day. More than 5,000 in Chicago, Denver, Tucson, and Jackson, Mississippi. Ladies on a cold day in Juneau, Alaska, holding up signs.

Dees did not plan on continuing a movement.

“After the march, I don’t know why I foolishly thought I could go back to my life,” Dees recalls. She turned the database of activists over to the Bell Campaign and went back to the Late Show. But the movement didn’t leave her. With the 2000 Presidential election impending, Dees started educating voters about gun laws in their states and where their elected representatives stood on gun issues.

“The days I wasn’t working at CBS, I would be on the road to meet with whomever candidate that wanted the media attention,” says Dees. “Right up until the election, I was working this crazy schedule. Right from the march, to campaigning.”

In February of that year, Dees left Letterman to regain national control of the Million Mom March, which was in danger of collapsing from financial strain due to “too much interest, not enough resources,” according to Dees. The Million Mom March merged with the Brady Campaign, run by Sarah Brady, who died April 3.

“Most people think Sarah got involved because her husband was shot,” Dees tells the Press. “But it was only a couple of years later when she was in Illinois, and they were in somebody’s pickup truck and her son, Scott, reached under the seat and got a gun. It was the same [type of] gun that the shooter of Reagan and Jim Brady used. And that’s what incensed Sarah.”

Her son was 6 at the time. Sarah realized that if her son, who was aware of the dangers of handguns, wasn’t able to control his curiosity, she knew that would apply to other kids at that vulnerable age as well. That’s when she stepped up as an activist.

“Because we didn’t have social media back then, Sarah probably didn’t know the impact she had on people when she spoke to them,” Dees says. “She would go back to her home in Washington or Virginia and have no idea that she’d just inspired five women in a certain congressional district to take on their congressman.”

While the Million Mom March, in conjunction with the Brady Campaign and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, worked to educate voters and lobby for gun control legislation, they were out-organized and out-funded by pro-gun lobbyists such as the National Rifle Association. Still, the moms had some victories, such as stopping H&R Block from having an advertising partnership with the NRA. They staged protests and merged with other like-minded groups, such as the Protest Easy Guns in Virginia.

They also faced crushing defeats, most notably, the failure to renew the assault weapons ban when it expired in 2004, a decade after it had first passed. The moms had lobbied for its renewal, but Congress never let it get to a vote. Despite the advocates’ high hopes, the Obama administration did little to advance gun control legislation, even after former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.) was one of 13 people wounded in an Arizona shooting that killed six in 2011.

Then came the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six educators dead. Americans watched again as children were led out of their school building, hand-in-hand, an eerily similar daisy chain of senseless loss.

“When Obama said it was the worst day of his life, many of us in the movement knew he meant it,” Dees recalls. “We knew. He had ignored the issue and now he had to do something.”

Many believed that the massacre would lead to passage of long-sought gun control legislation, but just as the Million Mom March and the Brady Campaign saw increasing support, they also became the target of attacks to their credibility from the pro-gun lobby. A Long Island-based lawyer named Meg Farrell volunteered to help them fight back.

“I told Donna on day one, Churchill once said: ‘A lie makes its way around the world before the truth has a chance to put one leg in its pants,’” Farrell said in an email. “So, with tactical precision I did the research, conducted the analysis and was there as a strategic legal consultant to ensure the narrative, commentary and MMM reference was reported with accuracy. The scores of women who volunteered for years advocating for gun control and gun safety deserved proper historical reference and recognition. And the accurate historical narrative alongside the official documents I obtained, also gave the Brady Campaign the ammunition…to clean up the disinformation campaign against the Million Mom March.”

Together, these women collaborated to bring the disparate groups who supported the gun violence prevention movement together.

“This movement is really about the women who came before me, the Diane Feinsteins and the Carolyn McCarthys–it’s really been propelled and worked on by these women who are very selfless and will do anything, any job, no matter how thankless it is–to move the issue forward,” Dees said. “And that’s where I find myself here on our 15th anniversary.”

The core volunteer leadership of the original Million Mom March has decided to celebrate the anniversary with a “Moms in the House (as in House of Representatives)” Day in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 28, 2015. The goal is to reach out to the original MMM organizers to finish the job in Congress they started in 2000 by calling on supporters to help convince Congress to pass HR 1217, which was re-introduced with bi-partisan support to close the loopholes in the Brady background check bill.

“Over the course of the next few months, we will be recruiting 535 moms from across the country to join us in Washington, D.C. on October 28 to tell each member of Congress it is time for them to expand Brady background checks to all gun sales,” says Martina Leinz, who represents the MMM/Brady chapters on the Brady Campaign board of directors. “It is time for them to put the health and safety of our children ahead of the greedy interests of gun manufacturers who want to keep the lucrative criminal market wide open.”

The rallying cry is the same: Looking for a few good moms to mobilize for common sense gun laws.

Math Problems: Common Core Opt-Out Revolution Continues With Latest Exams

Common Core Long Island
More than 1,000 parents, teachers and school administrators rallied March 9, 2015 at Long Island University Post Campus in Brookville against the controversial education reform Common Core. Record-breaking numbers of LI students opted out of taking the latest round of ELA and Math tests, according to preliminary figures. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

Diane Ravitch, renowned education historian, policy analyst, research professor, author and blogger, is fond of asking: “What if they threw a test and nobody took it?”

New York is about to find out.

Record-breaking numbers of students throughout Long Island and New York State refused to take the Common Core ELA (English Language Arts) exam two weeks ago, and unprecedented scores opted out of the math portion of the standardized tests last week. An integral part of the Common Core education reform initiated by the Obama administration and championed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the mass rejection of the controversial exams provoked responses from state and federal school officials about potential ramifications that’ve only further incited opponents’ fury.

At press time, unofficial tallies of opt-out numbers from last week’s math exams for approximately one-quarter of LI’s 124 school districts compiled by Jeanette Deutermann—founder of anti-Common Core Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out” and a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a coalition of 50 parent and teacher organizations who oppose the standardized tests—counts more than 36,000 students who’ve refused. More than 82,000 students rejected the latest round of ELA exams, according to her figures, and last year, approximately 22,000 refused the math tests. Because honor-level eighth graders will be taking the New York State (NYS) Regents exam as well as the Common Core Regents exam this year, they are exempt from this round of testing, skewing the refusal numbers, explains Deutermann, though these preliminary math figures still show even higher percentages of refusals than those rejecting the ELA exams.

“You’ll see the total numbers go down, but the overall percentages go up,” Deutermann tells the Press.

For example, Comsewogue School District went up to 84 percent [from 82 percent for the ELA test last week], according to her tally, which she collects from school officials. Connectquot went up to 74 percent from 69 percent. Hewlett-Woodmere had 608 refusals and 46 percent for ELA; they went down to 579, but their percentage went up to 50 percent, says Deutermann.

An East Islip school official tells the Press their district’s math refusals went up from 61 to 65 percent.

Though hopeful the staggering numbers of refusals on both recent exams—administered to students in grades three to eight throughout three days—will help instigate a complete dropping of the testing here in New York, Common Core opponents say it’s at least shifted the national dialogue in their favor.

“Parents’ conversations at the ball fields have changed from ‘Why opt-out?’ to ‘Why high-stakes testing?’” says Anthony Griffin, a Central Islip High School teacher and the co-founder of student advocacy group Lace to the Top. “I hope this will change soon to excitement about new assessments that are fair, transparent, and useful to students, families and teachers.”

Fueling the mass rejections are a litany of complaints among parents and teachers, two being that their objections are falling on deaf ears and that Common Core supporters continue to mischaracterize them as frightened of academic challenges and what state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch dubs as students being caught in the crosshairs of a “labor dispute” between teachers unions and the governor.

“This is a governor who is just fixated on firing teachers and breaking the union,” slams Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School and 2013 New York Principal of the Year, in a phone interview from the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago April 25. “There’s no other lens to see it because it’s not in the best interest of the children.”

Other gripes harbored by parents opposing the Common Core tests include their belief that the exams lack diagnostic value, as test scores are returned during the summer and cannot be used to further instruction. Zephyr Teachout, Fordham professor and former Democratic gubernatorial primary challenger to Cuomo, tells the Press: “The tests have no pedagogical value, so parents are opting out because they aren’t helping the kids.”

Opponents are concerned that with such a heavy focus on high-stakes testing, teaching in the classroom would resort to an increasing amount of test preparation at the expense of various other learning opportunities and a more diverse curriculum. They contend the assessments are age- and grade-level inappropriate, charging as proof that several reading samples for the recent ELA tests were coded two to three grade levels above appropriate reading levels.

The large number of students rejecting the exams has sparked speculation among critics that the federal government will get involved—and possibly punish those that do not embrace the standards. Nonprofit educational change news organization ny.chalkbeat.org reported that when asked whether districts with substantial boycotting would face consequences, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan replied he expected states to make sure districts get enough students to take the tests.

“We think most states will do that,” said Duncan, speaking at the Education Writers Association conference in Chicago last week. “If states don’t do that, then we have an obligation to step in.”

Anti-Common Core stalwarts such as Deutermann take his and similar, more blatantly explicit statements by education officials as threats to withhold federal funding from states with low participation rates or levy sanctions.

“They throw around these attacks and threats like it’s just nothing,” Deutermann slams in a recent phone interview. “Like, ‘If the state doesn’t come after them, we will.’

“What point have we gotten to when the Secretary of Education starts saying that if a state doesn’t punish parents for looking out for the best interest of their kids, we will step in and punish them?” she continues. “This is what they don’t get: You can’t punish a teacher, a district, a school—without punishing a child. You can’t do one without the other. It doesn’t work that way. You want to strip Title 1 money away from kids who are economically disadvantaged? Guess who gets hurt? Not the school. Not the administrators. The kids who are economically disadvantaged.”

Burris, the South Side High School principal who announced her resignation after the New York State legislature approved Cuomo’s budget allotting 50 percent of teacher evaluations to be based upon these tests, agrees that financial penalties will do little to stem the tide of this growing resistance.

“If they think people will all of a sudden feel intimidated and say this is okay, it won’t happen,” she blasts. “The number of] principals who think this is a bad course to follow is only going to grow, not shrink.”

Yet Tisch, the state Regents chancellor, says she doesn’t want the children to suffer, either.

“Over the past few weeks, I’ve heard from administrators, teachers and school boards across the state,” she said in an April 22 announcement that teacher evaluation deadlines may be extended to September 2016. “They’re concerned about the very tight timeframe, and they’re right. And I’m worried about the fiscal implications for districts that can’t meet that deadline. Students should not be denied resources because of adult disagreements.”

Deutermann doesn’t buy the chancellor’s newfound sense of compassion, and along with the rest of NYSAPE, she’s calling for Tisch’s resignation and a slew of other demands. Among these: a dramatic reduction of testing in grades three to eight; an independent review of the NYS career- and college-ready standards; the establishment of a taskforce including parents, educators and stakeholders to study Common Core Learning Standards and make recommendations to adjust and adopt NYS standards; adherence to a public and transparent process for selecting a new state commissioner of education; legislation that decouples student test scores and restores local board of education control over teacher evaluations; and legislation requiring parental consent to share any identifiable student data beyond school district administrators.

Deutermann says the historic and ever-growing number of op-out refusals is just the beginning of what she and so many other parents and teachers hope is a total, statewide retraction of Common Core, something she’s predicted and will continue fighting toward.

“When I told people back a couple of months ago when they asked, ‘What’s going to happen if we get a tremendous amount of people refusing the test?’ I told them, ‘You’re going to see a systematic breakdown. This thing’s going to crumble. You’ll see the bricks falling off the walls. One after another.’

“And this is it.”

Record-Shattering Numbers Of Long Island Students Opting Out Of Common Core Testing

Common Core Protest Long Island
Common Core critics blasted New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo his Sept. 3, 2015 comments about the 'deeply flawed' and controversial education reform program, deeming them politically motivated and ingenuine. More than 1,000 parents, teachers and school administrators (above) rallied on March 9, 2015 at Long Island University Post Campus in Brookville against Common Core. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

With day one of three controversial Common Core ELA (English Language Arts) examinations for grades three through eight completed in New York State, the total score of students refusing to take the tests continues to rise exponentially.

Compiled by Jeanette Deutermann, founder of anti-Common Core Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out” and a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), a coalition of 50 parent and teacher organizations who oppose the standardized tests, Long Island school officials—including Board of Education members, administrators and educators, she says—are reporting an astounding number of test refusals.

As of press time, her preliminary unofficial count from more than half the 124 school districts on Long Island had already tallied more than 82,000 students opting out—more than last year’s total figure for the entire state and double the 30,000 students from across Long Island who refused the tests last year—according to a Google Drive spreadsheet on Long Island Opt Out’s Facebook page. Comsewogue School District, home base of vocal public education advocates including Dr. Joe Rella, its superintendent, and Beth Dimino, an eighth grade science teacher and president of the Port Jefferson Station Teachers Association, who stood as a “conscientious objector” earlier this year and vowed to refuse to administer Common Core exams to students, saw 82 percent of their eligible students refuse the test–a new record for that district.

Sisi Wong Townson, co-president of the Plainedge Middle School PTA, reports that a record-shattering 74 percent of Plainedge students opted out of the test yesterday, including an entire third-grade class. A vocal opponent of high-stakes standardized testing, she testified against Common Core before New York State legislators two years ago drawing upon her personal experience as a student in Hong Kong.

It’s stories such as these that resonate loud and clear with Deutermann.

“Each time another number comes in, it validates all the work we’ve been doing,” she tells the Press Wednesday morning in between phone calls with school administrators for the latest figures. “Two years of work to advocate and educate. It makes you feel like all this work—people appreciate it, they’re grateful, and they understand. It means the information reached through in a way that inspired them to action.”

Renowned education historian, policy analyst and New York University Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development research professor Diane Ravitch, in a blog post Tuesday titled “Long Island: This Will Be The Biggest Opt Out Ever,” estimated more than 100,000 students statewide would opt out of taking the exams this time around.

“Last year, 50,000-60,000 students opted out in New York. The figure will be more than double that this year,” she writes. “Parents are reacting against the overuse and misuse of tests. They are reacting against Governor Cuomo’s harsh and punitive education legislation.

“In a democratic society,” she continues, “parents can’t be pushed around by public officials who are more interested in politics than in children. It makes parents angry.”

Parents across Long Island have spoken in an unmistakable roar of defiance, determined to disrupt what they believe to be an unacceptable system delivered by government officials they do not trust—with Gov. Andrew Cuomo at the top of the list.

Parents and school officials have been rallying against the Obama administration’s education reform program since the Common Core’s botched roll-out two years ago. Parents were alarmed by the detrimental effects they said the implementation had on their children, among other gripes, but since Cuomo’s State of the State address earlier this year—in which he announced his plan to ramp up what many education activists believe was already an overly aggressive and vindictive teacher-evaluation plan—opponents say they felt compelled to raise their voices even louder.

The test refusals are their megaphone, amplifying a collective rage against Common Core.

“I’m realizing, ‘Wow—there are some really angry parents out there,’” says Deutermann. “It gives a clear picture of how parents are feeling about the direction the state is taking public ed.”

The idea is to “starve the beast”—a common refrain among dissenters—to withhold students’ test data from the state in order to collapse a system that has become increasingly test preparation-based, with a myopic focus on testing subjects ELA and math, at the expense of other subjects and art, gym, music, and recess, opponents say. Parents and education experts demand a more holistic approach to teaching and learning.

“The current teacher evaluation system is demoralizing,” Richard Willis, a North Babylon teacher, tells the Press. “Non-ELA and math teachers are evaluated by a test in a subject that they do not teach. Special education teachers who work with children below grade level are doomed to always be developing or ineffective when judged on tests that are actually above grade level. Many of the teachers in my building are demoralized and defeated. It is sad because I work with some truly great teachers who love their students but no longer love the profession.”

Parents and teachers hope the message of refusal reaches the ears of government officials and that the standardized tests are invalidated, once and for all.

Calls to the New York State Education Department and Nassau-Suffolk School Boards Association for final official opt-out tallies and verification for this story were unsuccessful, with a spokesperson for the latter telling the Press: “We don’t have that info, and whatever we have is sporadic.”

State Education Department spokesperson Jeanne Beattie tells the Press in an emailed statement the official number of test-takers and those who refused the exams will be available “over the summer when we release test scores.”

Common Core Opponents Predict Record-Breaking Numbers Of Students Opting Out

Common Core Protest Long Island
United We Stand: Anti-Common Core activists (L-R) Carol Burris, Joe Rella, Jeanette Deutermann, Beth Dimino and Kevin Glynn were among the panelists criticizing the controversial education reform initiative during a protest rally at Long Island University Post Campus in Brookville Monday, March 9, 2015. Common Core opponents predict record-breaking numbers of students will opt-out of the latest round of tests April 14, 2015. (Jaime Franchi/Long Island Press)

Parents and school officials across Long Island and New York State were met with more than the typical back-to-school anxiety following spring break this year.

Tuesday marked the first test in the latest round of controversial Common Core examinations for grades three through eight, and parents who hadn’t yet made the decision to opt their children out were running out of time, while letters from parents who had were piling up across the desks of school administrators.

More than 50,000 students across the state refused to take the Common Core standardized tests last year—more than 30,000 of those on Long Island—and local education activists tell the Press they expect even more opting out this time around. Though exact figures were still rolling in as of press time, preliminary numbers on related social media sites Tuesday afternoon, such as anti-Common Core Facebook group “Long Island Opt Out,” tallied several school districts as having a more-than 50-percent opt-out rate among test-eligible students.

Yet where a good deal of opponents’ vitriol against the Obama administration’s education reform program last year was born of its botched roll-out, what parents deemed to be the detrimental effects on their children, and the testing’s accounting for a high percent of teacher evaluations, among other gripes, Common Core opponents now credit Gov. Andrew Cuomo with pouring more gasoline on the already scorching anti-Common Core inferno.

Local and regional education activists, such as the founders of New York State Allies for Public Education (NYSAPE), Badass Teachers Association (BATs) and state teachers union NYSUT all kicked their anti-Common Core reform campaigns into high gear after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in January—in which he announced his plan to ramp up what many believe was already an aggressive approach to the teacher evaluation plan, calling for the controversial high-stakes test to account for 50 percent of teacher evaluations, among other caveats.

“The legislators spoke on April 1st about what their plans are for their children’s classrooms,” blasts Jeanette Deutermann, founder of Long Island Opt Out and a founding member of NYSAPE, referring to the state legislature’s passage of the governor’s budget bill. “The parents will answer on test day.”

In addition to the increased weight the standardized testing will have on teacher evaluations, Cuomo proposed other sweeping education reforms in his State of the State that have education activists ticked off, including extending tenure requirements, expanding charter schools and boosting state oversight of failing schools.

Opponents’ efforts to rally defiance to the tests included mobile billboards and robocalls, some from Zephyr Teachout, Cuomo’s formidable, though ultimately unsuccessful, former gubernatorial primary challenger and outspoken high-stakes testing opponent, which went out last week and urged parents to consider their “constitutional right to refuse them without any negative consequences to your kids or financial loss to your schools.”

“I want you to know that 70 percent of New Yorkers are opposed to these tests and that, by design, 70 percent of students will fail these tests,” Teachout’s message continued.

Teachout has become a familiar face of those who challenge the status quo, and some anti-Common Core activists tell the Press they believe Cuomo’s contentious approach to teachers and the teachers union is a direct result of their strong backing of Teachout in the Democratic primary.

“It’s a remarkable and unusual movement, grounded in three powerful motives: parents’ fierce protectiveness of their children, teachers’ drive to protect the classroom from a culture of fear and senseless unusable tests, and the public desire to protect our democracy,” Teachout tells the Press via text message. “The tests have no pedagogical value, so parents are opting out because they aren’t helping the kids. I support them because, at root, this testing seems designed to undermine public education itself. “


Despite pleas from the New York State Department of Education, local school administrators and the OpEd page of Newsday slamming the Opt Out movement, parents on Long Island have become increasingly outspoken about opting their children out of the standardized tests, citing staunch objections to the test-based curriculums they will undoubtedly inspire. They complain about recess and art programs being cut to make way for test preparation. They fear the loss of local control of their children’s public education.

“The most dangerous place on Earth is between a mother and her child. Cuomo has crossed the line,” declares GiGi Guiliano of East Islip, a mother of three who will refuse the test. “We want our classrooms back. We want our teachers to be able to teach again. I want my kids to enjoy the love of learning, not how to fill in bubbles. I want them to be lifelong learners.”

Parents have formed groups in many pockets across Long Island to share their concerns and educate their neighbors.

Allison White is a parent in Port Washington. Although her own children have graduated, she became active in her community as an advocate for public education two years ago by focusing on the student-data privacy issue. But, as she educated herself on the broader issues surrounding Common Core and its high-stakes testing, she was inspired to help form the Port Washington Advocates for Public Education, an ally of NYSAPE. She also acts as a liaison to Long Island Opt Out.

“I’m concerned as a citizen,” she tells the Press. “I’m concerned about what’s happening to an entire generation of students. I’ve also been concerned about attempts to limit the information that gets out there, and that school districts have not been so open about sharing what is going on.”

Stacy Leckler co-founded Mineola Concerned Parents for Public Education. In a community forum on April 9 at the Portuguese Heritage Society, she and approximately 50 parents participated in an educational forum in which they participated in taking sample ELA (English Language Arts) tests. They were allotted 12 minutes to complete a reading assignment and answer questions.

“Some wouldn’t take it,” she explains. “Others were flipping back and forth trying to figure out the answers. When the reading maturity was later revealed, it was shocking.”

Kathi Heggers’ seventh grader opted out of the state tests this year and last in Rocky Point.

“The tests are completely flawed,” she bashes. “They’re used for the wrong purposes.”

Heggers, a school board member who became critical of the Common Core standards when they were first introduced in 2010, has only grown stauncher in her objections to the reforms.

“They’re reading passages that are two to three grade levels above what they are capable of comprehending,” she laments. “There’s embedded field test questions in the exam so that the children don’t even know the question that they’re trying so desperately to answer and have never been taught, which is all taking time away from the time they need to take the real test. Most of them don’t finish because they’re spending so much time on a question they don’t know the answer to because they can’t know the answer to it. They change the cut score constantly to manipulate their own self-serving needs.”

Those “self-serving” needs, according to Common Core opponents, include the dismantling of public education and the rise of private and charter schools. The education tax credits written into the governor’s budget supports this tactic, they argue, contending that it grants dollar-for-dollar tax incentives for private and religious school spending.

“While NYSAPE supports a parent’s choice of private education, one of the core values of our nation is separation of church and state,” slams Lisa Rudley, Westchester County public school parent and founding member of NYSAPE, in a statement. “Enabling public dollars to pay for private and religious education is an affront to New Yorkers and Americans. The education tax credit creates a back door for Cuomo’s wealthy backers to drive their privatization agenda, attempting to sneak a voucher system past a public that rejects their attempts to destabilize our public schools.

“This scheme is an outrage and simply unacceptable,” she continues.

Deutermann says the governor’s combative approach to teacher evaluations backfired and served as a catalyst for parents all across Long Island, strengthening their resolve to learn more about what is going on in their children’s classrooms.

“Rarely will you have a parent who has taken the time to become informed—[and when they are,] rarely do they choose to have their children sit for the test,” she says.

The total number of students opting out Tuesday, she believes, will support this.