This is the latest installment in our ongoing coverage of Yonkers’ troubled school system.
Mike Spano rolls deep.
Spano crowds into McGeary’s Irish Pub in Albany as he does most everything — surrounded by a crew who loves him or, at least, are loyal to him.
The mayor of Yonkers files into this bustling, wood-paneled tavern with four staffers, all in New York’s capital to help him pitch his $2 billion bid to rebuild his city’s crumbling schools. Day One of his two-day, late February politicking effort had been tiring but the 51-year-old Yonkers native has endless social stamina. His brother, John, and associate, Jim Cavanaugh, are already at the bar ordering drinks for all. Spano takes a club soda.
When Tess Collins, McGeary’s rollicking owner, sees Spano, her eyes grow wide, her arms fling open for a hug. Collins, who has known Spano for more than 15 years, greets him like family.
“Do you want the back room or do you want to sit facing the door like Nick, so you can see who is coming in?” she asks.
Spano’s brother, Nick, is a former state assemblyman and senator who was one of the most powerful politicians in Albany before serving 10 months in jail in 2014 for tax fraud. Now back in Albany as a lobbyist, Nick, 63, is often said to be engine of the Spano family’s political powerhouse.
“He went to jail and took responsibility for what he did. He handled things with such dignity,” Mike Spano says. “I love my brother.”
He’ll need his brother’s help for this lift, and the assistance of a myriad of other legislative figures, including (and especially) the governor himself. He has a “monster task” ahead of him, as he puts it. For starters, however worthy his project, Spano is competing with what in Albany is known as the “Tin Cup Brigade,” local governments endlessly asking the state for money.
The competition is real.
“We have to make sure we’re balancing the needs of Yonkers with other districts,” State Sen. Carl Marcellino, R-Oyster Bay, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, told The Journal News. “He is going to have to justify every number.”
$2 billion hurdle
“The hurdle is the number,” says Nick Spano, Mike Spano’s informal political adviser and unabashed cheerleader. “When people look at $2 billion, it’s mind boggling. His hurdle is going to be to explain how this expenditure that looks so big is actually broken down annually over 13 years and what it will mean in terms of the future. That will be the challenge.”
The mayor is aiming to overhaul the city’s 39 public schools and the construction of three new schools. To fund the project, he is seeking to increase state reimbursement for so-called building aid by as much as $600 million over the 13-year duration of the project.
Yonkers’ school buildings are among the oldest in the country — nine are more than 100 years old. Enrollment — at 26,800 students —is already 4,100 over capacity. Each year, between 250 and 300 new students enter the district. Basements and storage rooms double as classrooms and computer labs — often excessively overheated.
“My job is to package it, to drive the message and get it to the right people,” Mayor Spano says. “The real work is getting to those legislators and getting people to hear you.”
Nick Spano is the oldest of 16 children. Mike Spano is ninth, “the oldest of the second half of the family,” he likes to joke. All but one sibling still live in Yonkers, New York’s fourth-largest city perched just above the Bronx. Both Nick and Mike Spano were schooled by their father, Leonard, a son of Italian immigrants who turned his door-to-door oil-delivery business into a political dynasty. Leonard Spano was first elected a Westchester County legislator in 1971 and served there until 1993, when he was elected county clerk, a post he held until 2005.
Mike Spano, who, in the third grade, hung campaign posters for his father, learned many lessons from the retired Marine. Chief among them: “Take things one step at a time. Keep your eyes on your boots. Keep moving and don’t look up at the mountain.”
The mayor, who never graduated from Manhattan College, spent time as a seasonal park ranger at Rye Playland, Republican district leader and worked at the family oil company before following Nick to Albany. In 1992, at age 28, he was first elected to the state Assembly as its youngest member. He served until 2004 as a Republican and, following the partisan tides in Yonkers, returned as a Democrat from 2007 to 2011, when he was elected mayor, a job he’d wanted since he was a boy. Punctuating his assembly terms, Mike Spano worked in 2005-2006 for Pat Lynch, an influential lobbyist now contracted by Yonkers.
Brother Vincent Spano is the city clerk, brother John is a lobbyist at Nick’s firm, Empire Strategic Planning. Another brother, Gerard, is a police detective. There are hundreds of Spano relatives in Westchester, many of them willing campaign foot soldiers, and dozens — including in-laws, cousins and spouses — in the county and city bureaucracies.
“I always joke that Yonkers has three major parties: Democrats, Republicans and Spanos,” says John Murtagh, an attorney and former Republican Yonkers councilman who ran against Spano for mayor in 2011. “Right, wrong or indifferent, they’ve been power brokers for a few generations.”
The Yonkers firefighters’ unions, with whom Mike Spano has well-documented contract clashes, regularly lambastes him for patronage and favoritism.
The family has long dismissed such criticism. As Leonard Spano told The New York Times in 1996, “You go into some families, the father is a cop, the son is a cop. You go into politics, so the family gravitates in that direction.”
Given their scrappy roots, the Spanos sometimes bristle at comparisons with two of Westchester’s other political dynasties — the wealthy Kennedys and Rockefellers. This blue-collar political dynasty was borne of elbow grease and shoe leather.
Growing up with so many siblings has given Mike Spano plenty of practice in negotiation. If one sibling is angry with another, “there’s a general non-acceptance” of long-term conflict, the mayor says, and another sibling will step in to help mend hard feelings.
The immediate family — now numbering 90 — gathers regularly for pasta dinners and always on Thanksgiving.
“Last year we had three turkeys,” Mike Spano says, describing a common sight: 16 people piling together on a couch, jostling for a spot.
Mike Spano says that his wife, Mary Calvi, jokes, “Haven’t you ever heard of personal space?”
Calvi is a CBS television news anchor with whom Mike Spano has three children, ages 12, 14 and 16. His two sons play ice hockey, his daughter studies dance. The couple met at a Columbus Day parade in Yonkers when a teenage Calvi, also a native, was Miss Columbus and Mike Spano was running the city’s bicentennial committee. They began dating after Calvi graduated from college.
The Spano squad
Back at McGeary’s, Collins prepares a large table for Spano & Co., asking a group of patrons to move from there to seats at the bar — her offer came with a free drink.
Nick Spano couldn’t join the crew this night but the brothers will see each other later — Mike Spano crashes at Nick’s Albany apartment when he’s in town. The two lived together when both were in the Legislature — the only pair of brothers to ever serve there at the same time, says Nick Spano.
Mike Spano still co-hosts a longstanding annual tradition at Nick’s apartment with Assemblywoman Amy Paulin, D-Scarsdale — a meatball-making contest.
“I’m Italian, so that’s my thing,” Mike Spano says of the competition that draws 30-60 participants each year.
Nick Spano says, “The contest is for camaraderie and bragging rights, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the day, sit down and relax and tease each other about who has too many breadcrumbs in their meatballs.”
Mike Spano is no vegetarian. At dinner, still in his jacket and red tie from the day, he orders the house chili and a hamburger with no bun. Despite his suit and middle-aged girth, he is boyish and informal.
“I have to watch my weight,” he says, pushing the bread aside.
On his phone, the mayor shows a video he shot two weeks prior at a Bruce Springsteen concert in Albany. Jason Baker, his senior assistant, was invited along.
“I won the lottery on that one,” Baker says, sipping an IPA.
Cavanaugh, a lobbyist and Yonkers Board of Education trustee also attended the concert. Christina Gilmartin, the city’s communications director, teases the mayor for calling her and others, bragging that he was at the concert. Also at the table: Deputy Mayor Sue Gerry and a hulking Yonkers police detective and driver of “The Beast” — the shiny black Suburban that shuttles Spano along the 150 miles between Yonkers and Albany.
“The mayor doesn’t claim to know everything but he takes pride in surrounding himself with people who know what they’re talking about,” Gilmartin says.
Cuomo is key
Mike Spano has longstanding ties to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, beginning with Nick Spano, who served in the state Legislature when Cuomo’s father, Mario, was governor.
“I’m not saying we’re personal friends where we’d eat at each other’s house for dinner, but we had a very good relationship,” Nick Spano says of the governor. “So it’s a natural succession that the governor and my brother would have a good relationship. They know Michael’s solid in his support for the governor and that he’s not going to cry wolf.”
Mike Spano agrees.
“The governor has been very responsive, very good to me,” the mayor says. “He says, ‘Give me a plan. Don’t ask for a handout.’ I don’t call with a list of complaints. Like any CEO, he wants to hear how you are going to solve problems.”
Cuomo is key to the school project. If he includes the bill and even a tiny amount of state aid for it in his budget by March 31, the rest of the project can likely move forward. It would signal to Albany’s political powers that the governor wants it to happen.
Two weeks before that budget is due, state Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, took Mike Spano up on his offer to tour Yonkers’ schools to see their condition.
Elia said “it was obvious the schools need to be brought up to 21st century standards,” says Gilmartin.
If Cuomo doesn’t include the Yonkers rebuild in the budget, Mike Spano’s bill will need a sponsor in each house, and would go through a lengthier process that could last until the legislative session ends in June — if it gets passed at all.
In any case, Cavanaugh says, “It will likely be a multi-year request.”
Mike Spano is packing in as many meetings with influential legislators or their staffers as he can. In addition to his delegation, and Senate leaders, the mayor is meeting with Cuomo’s top aide, Secretary to the Governor Bill Mulrow, and with Robert Mujica, Cuomo’s budget director. He plans to meet later with Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx.
“The speaker is critically important,” Mike Spano says, recounting Heastie’s 2015 visit to Roosevelt High School’s football field. After seeing the bare dirt and run-down conditions of the storied field, he pledged $1 million.
Political intrigue: county executive race
One underlying dynamic that might help Mike Spano’s efforts: the Democratic governor who lives in Westchester’s New Castle might want the popular Democratic mayor to challenge Republican Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino in 2017. The acrimony created during Astorino’s unsuccessful bid for Cuomo’s job in 2014 still reverberates, according to Republican political commentator Michael Edelman.
“The personal disparagement that went on in that last campaign, with Astorino calling him corrupt, did not go over well with the governor,” Edelman says. “Cuomo would do anything to defeat him.”
Spano, who won his second mayoral term in 2014 with 83 percent of the vote, is widely expected to run.
“Mike Spano makes, on paper, the strongest candidate,” Edelman adds. “Mike comes out of largest city with the largest plurality of votes. And he can get voters out in Yonkers. I don’t want to quote Donald Trump but, ‘It’s huge.’”
Securing legislative approval to rebuild Yonkers’ schools would be a considerable feather in Mike Spano’s cap if he were to run.
“It makes sense that the governor can make a Spano run more logical by giving him the ability to say, ‘Look what I did for the school system. Look what I can do for the county,’” Edelman says.
The mayor says the governor hasn’t yet tipped his hand on the issue.
“Cuomo hasn’t asked me yet. Maybe he has his own candidate,” Mike Spano says. “This governor has his own way of thinking.”
But more to the point, Mike Spano says he doesn’t know if he wants to run for county executive, but needs to decide by the fall.
“I have personal considerations,” he says, explaining that his kids are soon headed to college, his wife has a busy job and he could make a good salary in a government relations firm.
Nick Spano says his brother’s concerns are legitimate.
“Mary leaves at 3 a.m. to go to work. Both have high-pressure jobs,” he says. “It’s not an easy life for either one of them. It’s still early, though. He has time to decide.”
Mike Spano says his clan likely expects him to run.
“They think it’s the most logical next step,” he says. “But, like I said, one step at a time.”
Substance, not politics
Former Assemblyman Richard Brodsky doesn’t see the county executive race as shaping the governor’s decision, though he agrees that Cuomo’s endorsement is crucial.
Brodsky says Cuomo will consider Yonkers’ legitimate need and will likely be swayed by the fact that Mike Spano has turned the city’s education system “into a functioning, effective school district” since the state Legislature granted him authority to take it over in 2014. Mike Spano called for mayoral control when the city schools’ superintendent abruptly retired after a $55 million accounting error surfaced.
“What the mayor has already accomplished is a powerful help to him,” Brodsky says. “The school district is back on a working basis. Numbers are no longer untrustworthy. He’s managed to govern in a way that reflects well on the city. And the need is clear.”
“Our bond rating has gone up to A. We haven’t had that in 40 years,” Mike Spano says.
A mayor’s legacy
Mike Spano, his wife and children all attended parochial schools. He is passionate about rebuilding Yonkers’ public schools — wagering so much political capital on the project — because “it’s the right thing to do.”
Indeed, given the 13-year span of the project, Mike Spano says, “I won’t be around for the ribbon cutting.”
State Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, D-Yonkers, sees the plan as a Spano legacy affair. And she approves.
“Unfortunately, with all of the stuff that has plagued the school district for such a long time, the infrastructure was not a front-burner issue for many folks for a very, very long time,” she says. “This mayor wants to focus on that. I think that’s laudable.”
He may face legislators who want to look good at his expense, says Nick Spano. But Mike Spano, with his humble and disarming style, is well-suited for such entanglements.
The mayor famously displayed humility and strength of character in his earliest days in the Assembly. Arguing in favor of a bill requiring that communities be notified when child molesters are released from prison, he described his own molestation at the age of 13.
Nervously fidgeting with the microphone, a youthful Mike Spano told colleagues how he was pulled into a Yonkers park by a predator. He memorized the man’s khaki pants, goatee and loafers. Then he talked his way to freedom by convincing the assailant he would return the next day. He did — with the police close behind. Mike Spano’s efforts ultimately helped lead to passage of Megan’s Law.
Perhaps it’s that kind of leadership that garners the support he has enjoyed in his political career.
“They are the type of family where, if you’re in their world, they’ll do anything for you,” said restaurant owner Collins, noting that the Spanos treat everyone with respect, including dishwashers.
“When my brother, who is now an Albany police officer, worked as a busboy at my restaurant years ago, Mike give him a ‘Spano’ mug, just to be nice,” she said. “My brother uses that mug to this day.”
The party of eight wraps up dinner around 10:30.The Beast is soon outside to sweep up the eight-person crew, eventually delivering the mayor to Nick Spano’s apartment.
The pitch: ‘It’s our turn’
About 10 hours earlier, Mike Spano took aim at lawmakers and other power brokers in the state Capitol. Maneuvering the familiar maze-like hallways lined portraits of former governors, he encountered a lot of “hurry up and wait.”
“My brother has the right type of temperament,” Nick Spano says. “He’ll come into the room and not demand attention. He already has the respect of the members of the Legislature. So, in his unique way, he’ll be able to say, ‘Look, here’s our problem. Here’s how we can find a solution to the problem.’”
The crux of Mike Spano’s pitch to legislators is simple.
“It’s our turn,” he says.
Since 2000, the state has passed special legislation so three of the other “Big Four” cities could rebuild their school systems, but Yonkers would be the costliest.
Former Assemblyman Brodsky puts it this way: “Once the governor set aside special treatment (for the other Big Four cities), it opened the door for other communities to say, ‘We have specific and extraordinary problems as well.’ ”
A week before he began his Albany rounds, Mike Spano sat in his Tudor revival, wood-paneled office surrounded by family portraits and New York Islanders paraphernalia.
“You have to capture the moment and ride the wave in,” he said. “Rochester, Buffalo and Syracuse have created that moment.”
Spano boils his sales pitch down to three digestible nuggets: “Number one, we’re last in. Number two, we have the need. Number three, we can’t pay for it on our own.”
The delegation’s impact
Mike Spano says his plan’s success depends on getting full support from Yonkers’ delegation to the Legislature — its two Assembly members and two senators. They’ve already given him an initial buy-in.
Asked whether he could just meet with the legislators back at home, the mayor flinches.
“You don’t not visit your delegation when you’re in Albany,” he says. “That’s a no-no.”
He meets separately with all the members of his delegation, Stewart-Cousins, Assemblyman Gary Pretlow, D-Mount Vernon, and Sen. George Latimer, D-Rye. Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer, D-Yonkers, has a personal obligation calling her away so they meet briefly in the hallway.
“Shelly Mayer is one hardworking legislator,” he says. “She reads everything. She really makes us work hard. That’s good.”
As Democrats in the majority, Pretlow and Mayer will likely have an easier time pushing the school rebuild bill in the Assembly. Despite (or perhaps because of) Stewart-Cousins’ role as Democratic Conference Leader in the Senate, she and Latimer, also a Democrat in a Republican-controlled Senate, may face a rougher road.
This is where Mike Spano’s longstanding friendships (and those of his brother Nick Spano, the former Republican senator) could make a difference.
Mike Spano has known Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan, R- Smithtown, for 20 years, since his Assembly days.
To encourage straight talk, when Mike Spano meets with Flanagan about his bill, he leaves all of his staffers but his deputy mayor outside
“I want him to feel comfortable enough able to say, ‘Mike, What the f—,’ if he needs to,” he says.
Mike Spano has also known Sen. Jeff Klein, D-Bronx, for 20 years. Klein is Senate co-leader. His five-member Independent Democratic Conference shares control of the Senate with Republicans.
“I’ll use as much influence as I possibly can to get our message out. It’s my job to make sure people hear it,” he says.
Shortly after arriving in the Capitol, Spano makes his way to the Assembly floor, where, as a former member, he is always welcome. Strolling beneath the coffered ceiling, shaking hands and slapping backs, Mike Spano looks even more comfortable in his own skin than usual. This is his happy place.
Leaning against a towering granite column, he chats with Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, D-Bronx, a member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus. He will meet again later with Crespo, who he calls a “significant player” in the caucus that Spano deems “very powerful. It has tremendous influence.”
Back in the hallways, Spano & Co. wait to meet with budget director Mujica, who sprints past Mike Spano’s party after postponing their meeting. The two meet the next day for a brief huddle after which the mayor appears satisfied.
Mike Spano’s approach is what he calls a “soft sell with the big guns and hard sell with the staffers.”
The mayor puts on the soft mode when he meets with Cuomo’s top aide, Mulrow, and another member of the governor’s staff, Jim Malatras, director of state operations.
“I felt heard,” Mike Spano says after the meeting, noting that the pair asked many questions about financial details.
As he moves between meetings, Yonkers’ lobbyists buzz around him, escorting him into offices and constantly chattering on phones.
“They make sure bills get sponsors, get amended, they make sure that (a plan) is actually in the budget. There’s a lot of badgering that goes on,” Spano says to justify their taxpayer-funded salaries.
The power surge is winding down. Over two days, Mike Spano has met with more than a dozen Albany names and looks spent but satisfied. He refuels with an iced tea at a Dunkin’ Donuts tucked into the first floor of the Capitol. A woman whizzes by and greets him as if he had never left Albany, “Hi, assemblyman.”
“I feel good,” he says. “It’s always encouraging when they ask a lot of questions. But it’s hard to get a temperature read right now.”
If the legislative leaders’ staffers call him back in Yonkers, requesting details, he’ll know the tour was a success.
Fast forward three weeks. Mike Spano has heard from all the people with whom he met in Albany and is headed back to meet with several face to face, including his delegation, and state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, who oversees the fiscal affairs of local governments.
“It’s easy to get overwhelmed,” Mike Spano says. “There are so many moving pieces. As my Dad said, ‘You gotta’ take it one step at a time.’ ”