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The City Council Speaker Race Explained

by Chester Soria, Nov 19, 2013
 

speaker-race-explained

When the 51-member City Council returns after the New Year, one of the first orders of business will be to pick, from their ranks, a speaker to preside over the legislative branch. That person will instantly become the second most powerful political office holder in the city.

“It’s incumbent on the Council to get together as soon as possible to pick its speaker,” said Peter Vallone Sr., the first Council member to hold the seat, in a recent interview. “Speed is of the essence.”
 
The race to replace Christine Quinn, the current speaker who is being term-limited out of office, began long before New Yorkers even went to the polls to vote for mayor in November. The outcome will largely be shaped by backroom dealing among political power brokers and special interests, with Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio potentially stepping in to ensure a candidate ideologically aligned with his progressive agenda is picked for the job.

And while a series of public forums and Council members have promised that this time around the process of selecting the next speaker will be more transparent, that pledge has been made before.

To help bring some much needed clarity to the selection of the next speaker, we’ve put together this primer on who is running, why it matters and the powers that will make the final decision.

A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SPEAKER’S OFFICE

Before 1994, many of the duties now wielded by the speaker were held by the majority leader. There was also a Council president. But after the City Charter revision that year, the Council president became the public advocate and the office of speaker was created and put in charge of Council operations.

There have only been three Council speakers since then — Peter Vallone, Sr., Gifford Miller and Christine Quinn.

Vallone, a Queens councilman, served 16 years before being barred from re-election because of term limits. He was succeeded by Miller, a councilman from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, who served four years before a failed run for the mayor’s office. Christine Quinn came into the speaker’s seat in 2006 and is leaving after her own unsuccessful bid for mayor this year.

The history of the speaker’s office has, of course, been shaped by whomever is sitting in the wing across from the Council’s offices in City Hall. Vallone lasted through three different mayors, growing the power of the speakership as a counterweight to the executive. Miller and Quinn faced off with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Few yardsticks demonstrate the tone of the relationship between the two wings of City Hall than the veto override — one of the most powerful tools that a speaker can pull.

While few bills make it to the floor of the Council without already having the votes needed to override a mayoral veto, some speakers count on the 34 necessary votes more than others. Quinn has presided over 27 mayoral overrides — the most recent examples being the Council’s overrides of vetoes of the Community Safety Act and paid sick leave legislation. Miller saw 38 overrides; Vallone organized 30.

SEAT OF POWER

According to the City Charter, the speaker “shall preside over the meetings of the council.”

Broadly speaking, this has come to mean that the speaker controls which legislation is brought to a vote before the full Council, appoints members to committees and distributes discretionary funding. How the process works is usually determined in rules agreed upon after the selection of a new speaker by the Council.

It might only take a simple majority of Council members to pick a speaker, but getting to that magic number of 26 is not easy.

The speaker is also a principal partner in the yearly budget dance with the mayor, whose office drafts the budget. The Council responds, giving the administration another chance at negotiations. And year after year, the speaker and mayor join their staff and peers in City Hall’s marble rotunda stairs to celebrate an agreed upon budget.

A portion of that budget includes member items. Seen by critics as a political tool that can be used to reward allies and punish the disloyal, member items are individual allocations to Council members for local projects that are traditionally distributed at the speaker’s discretion. The results are mixed: some view the system as an incentive for Council members, other see it as yet another excuse for political patronage.

But money isn’t the only way that the speaker reveals his or her relationships to fellow Council members. The speaker can also dole out key leadership and committee chair positions as bonuses to loyalists. Those jobs sometimes come with financial perks called “lulus” that have ranged from $4,000 to $28,000 in the recent past.

NAMING A SPEAKER

It seems to happen each time a new speaker is named: lawmakers and power brokers claim that the process of selecting the next person to hold the seat will be more transparent than ever before. But it’s not a democratic process. It all comes down to which candidate can gather enough support from peers and from powerful special interests.

It might only take a simple majority of Council members to pick a speaker, but getting to that magic number of 26 is not easy. Much the same way a speaker might work to secure votes for legislation, candidates for the job have spent the last few weeks lobbying the future Council’s various factions and delegations for support.

In recent years, party leaders from the five counties have seen waning influence on city politics. Even so, they’ve historically served as a means for candidates to ensure support from the borough delegations, often receiving top committee seats soon thereafter. Of the three speakers, two have hailed from Manhattan, yet neither would have won the seat without outer-borough support from party leadership.

Quinn, in her inaugural address to the Council as its speaker, directly pointed to then-party bosses Assemblymen Vito Lopez and Jose Rivera, of Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively. She also embraced former Queens Congressman, party leader and then-kingmaker Thomas Manton, who was widely reported to be influential not just in Quinn’s bid for speakership but also Gifford Miller’s.

It’s not to say, however, that the selection of the fourth City Council speaker needs to follow the same route. Vallone, who served as majority leader before the position of long before speaker was created, said that County leaders have an important role, but that “hopefully the county leaders can play a role as well as the Council members.”

If the votes don’t coalesce around the party leadership, there are other groups that candidates can and already have made appeals to, including the Council’s various caucuses. The Black, Latino and Asian caucus already has a majority of the Council membership, but insiders point to the fractious nature of the group. The Women’s Caucus shrunk since last year while the LGBT Caucus doubled to six members.

The only group visibly mustering force from within Council is the Progressive Caucus, with its ties to newly resurgent labor unions and the Working Families Party, sweeping in at the same time as an ideologically aligned mayor-elect.

It’s unclear how many members make up the upcoming iteration of the caucus, but many anticipate it growing significantly — close to doubling — from the current slate of 11 members. And even those who don’t join it are already lining up behind key rules reforms that most of the leading prospective speakers have signed off on.

However, members of the caucus won’t say if the reforms are a prerequisite for a speaker candidate. It might not matter much; 31 incumbent and anticipated new City Council — not all members of the caucus — have agreed to rules that would effectively decentralize the powers of the speaker’s office on member items and legislative influence.

And while Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio denies having any say in the race, his political allies aren’t as shy this year as they were in 2006. Back then, healthcare union and progressive stalwarts SEIU 1199 declined to endorse a candidate.

But after backing de Blasio solidly in his race for the mayor’s office, it is likely that they will play an outsized role in helping to select the next Council speaker. They’ve already hosted at least one reception for one of this year’s candidates, openly lobbying county leaders.  Buidling workers union 32BJ is also flexing its muscles this year, with reports that its political director is also courting the borough bosses.

LOOK WHO’S TALKING

Since 2006, Councilwoman INEZ DICKENS has represented the 9th City Council District, which includes Central Harlem and Morningside Heights. A known Quinn ally, Dickens was rumored to be a leading contender to take charge of the Council when Quinn dominated the mayoral candidate field — a lifetime ago in New York City politics.

While serving as chair of the Council’s ethics committee, Dickens recently had to push back on widely reported accusations of being a slumlord. In August, the New York Post published a report that Dickens and her sister owed $265,000 in building fines. Even so, Dickens still has powerful friends. Capital New York reported on a gathering organized by Rep. Charlie Rangel to give Dickens’ chances a leg up.

MELISSA MARK-VIVERITO would appear to be one of the names replacing Dickens on the list of top candidates for Speaker. With serious back-up from some of the city’s loudest progressive voices, the Harlem lawmaker has political cache with Blasio, having been an extremely early supporter when few thought he could break into the top three during the primary.

Having joined the Council in 2006, Mark-Viverito is a founding member of the Council’s now-burgeoning Progressive Caucus, which has spent the last few weeks warming up for a greater role in the next Council. She also has the unofficial support of de Blasio’s biggest labor backers SEIU 1199, and at least one solid fan found by the New York Observer who is running a one-man campaign for the councilwoman from District 8.

Just a few blocks of the south of Mark-Viverito’ district is DAN GARODNICK, whose 4th district includes the stretch of land between the Upper East Side to Stuyvesant Town. An attorney by trade, Garodnick also joined the Council in 2006. Chair of the Consumer Affairs committee, Garodnick has built up reputation as an independent moderate.

Garodnick leads up the Council’s Manhattan delegation and was a key player in the recently scuttled plan to rezone Midtown East before the end of the Bloomberg administration. Last month, the New York World looked at a series of donations Garodnick made in other council campaigns, noting the $35,000 spent on both incumbents and new faces at City Hall.

Garodnick wasn’t the only one to give a boost to the new class of Council members. The same report revealed that Queens Councilman MARK WEPRIN spent $25,000 on Council races and another $20,000 on the Bronx and Brooklyn Democratic parties. Like Garodnick, Weprin is often looked upon as one of the Council’s most centrist voices.

He was known for much of the same during his 15 years with the New York State Assembly, joining the Council in 2009. Representing most of northeastern Queens in District 23, Weprin recently fended off intense criticism from police unions for voting in favor of the Community Safety Act after the labor groups — after they had already endorsed his campaign.

Across the water to the north lies the 18th Council District, represented by ANNABEL PALMA. Elected in 2004 to represent neighborhoods in East Bronx, Palma also chairs the Council’s general welfare committee. Most recently, she was a loud opponent of Mayor Bloomberg’s teen pregnancy prevention ad campaign that many critics said relied on fear tactics and social stigmas, Palma having raised had a son while in high school herself.

Palma’s otherwise managed to keep a low profile on the Council, but has managed to build relationships with her fellow legislators — including Speaker Quinn, who had Palma’s support during the mayoral race.

Like Palma, JAMES VACCA has also managed to fly under the radar into the speaker’s race. Representing the Bronx’s 13th district — encompassing Throgs Neck, Pelham Bay and more — Vacca joined the Council in 2009 by running on the Democratic and Republican party lines.

A moderate Democrat, Vacca previously served as district manager for Bronx’s Community Board 10 for 25 years before. Today, he chairs the Council’s transportation committee.

Of course, other names have been floated as prospective City Council speakers, even if they’re not winning the race for headlines. Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras and Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens have both had their names thrown about, as has Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams.


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