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NYC chancellor emails show push for Oprah's help

Karen Matthews, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- Emails between New York City officials and publishing executive Cathie Black show how hard they worked to secure celebrity support for Black's unpopular appointment to head the city's public school system.

The 78 pages of emails from November 2010 were released late Thursday after the city lost a legal battle to keep them private.

The emails show that Black sought Oprah Winfrey's endorsement and tried to help the talk-show queen frame her support. Black also courted Caroline Kennedy, who apparently did not answer her email.

The emails reveal a frantic public relations campaign after Mayor Michael Bloomberg's surprise choice of Black, then chairwoman of Hearst Magazines, to succeed Schools Chancellor Joel Klein.

Black's tenure as schools chancellor lasted just 95 days. Bloomberg accepted her resignation in April 2011 after Black committed a series of gaffes such as booing back at parent activists who booed her at a public meeting.

Reporter Sergio Hernandez, then with the Village Voice, filed the Freedom of Information request for the emails and followed up with a lawsuit when his request was denied. The courts sided with Hernandez, and the emails were released after the state Court of Appeals rejected the city's bid for an appeal.

"We are disappointed that the Court of Appeals declined to review this issue of substantial public importance, but we are complying with the order," city lawyer Susan Paulson said Thursday.

A Nov. 16, 2010, email shows Black reacting to a critical piece in The New York Times.

"Is our strategy working?" she asked. "Based on nyt this am do we have to take another course? Or hold steady? I am ok, honestly."

Then-City Hall aide Micah Lasher responded: "All our focus needs to be on getting allies to come out in support and on getting you prepared for a debut as soon as possible. We will make a few more base-covering calls, but clearly the political community will do what they will do. We will be fine."

Black was to be the first female head of the city's 1.1 million-pupil public school system, and Bloomberg staff members drew up lists of prominent women who they hoped would lend their support.

The emails show they considered Winfrey a big prize.

Black sent city officials a copy of her own email providing Winfrey with talking points.

"How you know me ... why a great schools chancellor," Black suggested. "Tremendous leadership, excellent manager, innovator, mother of two and cares about the future of all children. Grace under pressure."

Black ended her email to Winfrey: "I owe you big time."

Winfrey, who did endorse Black, did not respond to a call seeking comment Friday.

Kennedy was more elusive. Black emailed her on Nov. 18, then hours later sent a copy of her email to Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris.

"I sent this at the crack of dawn but no response," Black complained. "Have you heard anything?"