Gifford Has A Plan

The speaker has cash, backers—and a low rank in polls. What gives?

There's a mystery in the mayor's race, and his name is Gifford Miller. He's the speaker of the New York City Council, the second-most-powerful elected figure in city government. He's raised, and still has on hand, more money than his Democratic rivals. He was smart enough to get elected to the City Council at 26 and become speaker at 32. And yet he trails badly in the polls, frozen at around 12 percent, trading with Anthony Weiner for last place.

"What is the answer?" puzzles Doug Muzzio, public affairs professor at Baruch and longtime observer of city races. "You know, I'll be damned, because everything points to greater impact."

Maybe it's that he looks so young. That Miller is a youthful-looking 35 is something he has no control over—unless he goes in for gray highlights—but it allows his rivals to try to not treat him seriously. When Miller pushed the Council to extend a tax surcharge to hire more teachers earlier this year, Bloomberg communications director Bill Cunningham dismissed the move as "a cute ploy by a cute candidate for mayor."

Up with me: Miller's ambitions have earned him critics, and victories.
photo: Kate Englund
Up with me: Miller's ambitions have earned him critics, and victories.

Perhaps the problem is where Miller's from. A lifelong Upper East Sider, Miller does not have the built-in personal appeal to an electoral base that Fernando Ferrer (Latinos), Virginia Fields (blacks), or even Weiner (Jews and other outer-borough "white ethnics") might claim. And being from the Upper East Side makes it somewhat harder for Miller to castigate Bloomberg as out of touch, a favorite Democratic line: While he's no billionaire, Miller's financial disclosure forms indicate he has assets worth between $380,000 and $1.4 million.

Or perhaps it's simpler than that. Maybe what's kept Gifford Miller from breaking through so far is that one of his apparent assets—the speaker's chair and what he's done with it—is actually a liability.

Miller's tenure as speaker has earned him fans. "What he says, he does, and that's very important to me," says Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "Straight shooter. No baloney, not a question about it, so I can depend upon his promises." And Miller can point to a list of accomplishments including an Earned Income Tax Credit for the city, a living-wage bill, fighting the mayor on some budget cuts, securing funds to construct schools. Councilmembers say he's a nice guy, a gregarious fellow. "He's proven to me that he can bring together a council delegation that represents every flavor of New York and is able to bring together more often than not a cohesive council," Markowitz notes.

In trying to get that cohesion, however, Miller may have diluted the Council's ability to act boldly, because of the diversity of people he had to cram on board. What's more, critics say, his Council agenda was tailored for his mayoral run. "Ambition, ambition, ambition—and he'll step over anyone and just disrespect anyone just to achieve his ultimate objective," says Councilwoman Letitia James, who is furious over Miller's support for plans to place a new Nets arena in her area of Brooklyn.

That's not the only development project where Miller has come up against local activists. His support for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning sent protesters dressed as flowers and skyscrapers to his campaign office. And his late opposition to the West Side stadium—he announced it only in November—made it look like a conveniently calculated move. Miller tells the Voice, "I like to find out the facts before I make a decision on an issue," and notes that the Council took steps to expose shady elements of the deal and block them.

Miller has been accused of such calculation before: For the 2001 campaign, he set up a PAC to help elect candidates to the council who would then be in a position to vote for him as speaker. He won that vote, partly because term limits chased three dozen council members out, making Miller the senior member.

But while term limits helped him take charge, they also made the council much harder to run. For one thing, where the old council held a lot of deadwood, the new one featured several ambitious and talented people who competed with Miller for attention and for the agenda. The fact that the term limits clock was ticking meant these new members had to position themselves for a new job in eight years, and so were less willing than their predecessors to be patient and play ball. What's more, with Miller also term-limited, the promises he might have made to get cooperation—committee posts, action on favored bills—had a sell-by date.

That date is nigh, and Miller's waning power was on display during a recent fight over the Bloomberg trash plan. Miller won a narrow vote to block elements of the mayor's plan, but the speaker was unable to override Bloomberg's veto.

Many of the councilmembers who opposed Miller were from low-income neighborhoods that for years have dealt with loud, smelly trucks carting garbage—a practice that the mayor's plan would eventually abate. "He's really stunk up his relationship with black and Latino voters and with poor people and people who live in the South Bronx and in Brooklyn," says Andrew White, director of the New School's Center for New York City Affairs. And should Miller go up against fellow white Manhattanite Bloomberg, White adds, "Bloomberg's going to be in a vastly better position to pull in the rest of the city."

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