To Play the King

For the second time in 16 years, Brooklyn’s chance to anoint the next speaker is slipping through the fault lines.

It was a seasonably cool night in Brooklyn when a smattering of freshman City Council members met to eat and talk at a restaurant on Park Slope’s Fifth Avenue. The conversation was general, the food was Cuban-Dominican, and the tab was picked up by the Working Families Party, which is eager these days to take advantage of a growing restlessness among the newest members of the City Council.

While the list of the dinner guests was private, the Working Families Party released the number of invitees, 10, and the restaurant’s name, El Viejo Ropa, literally, "old clothes." The purpose of the meeting was to talk to "progressive" council members about the coming year’s agenda, said Dan Cantor, executive director of the Working Families Party. "Right now we are developing some ideas for the council generally and what we would like to see in both the way of process reforms and policy," says Cantor.

But another guest at the dinner put a more pointed spin on the meeting at El Viejo Ropa. "This is a stop-Angel campaign," said the guest, a freshman council member.

Angel is Angel Rodriguez, a returning councilman from Sunset Park who believes he has secured the support of 10 of Brooklyn’s 16 council members for his bid for speaker, and, the received wisdom goes, will be benefiting from a Brooklyn-Queens deal to elect a speaker from Brooklyn and a finance chair from Queens.

'Our process should be trying to find the person best who can represent us. If we can’t find the caliber there [in Brooklyn], then we need to look elsewhere.'

But for the second time in 16 years, Brooklyn seems uniquely situated to lose out on the speakership, with more fault lines appearing among the city’s biggest council voting bloc than in the San Fernando Valley.

In a fiery tirade delivered last month at a meeting of the Brooklyn delegation to the City Council, City Council newcomer Al Vann lashed out at as his colleagues over the vetting process, calling the race to pick a speaker from Brooklyn "a charade."

"Our process should be trying to find the person best who can represent us. If we can’t find the caliber there [in Brooklyn], then we need to look elsewhere," says Vann, a former assembly member. While one onlooker later suggested Vann was angry at his own failure to garner votes for his bid for speaker, the former assemblyman denies the claim. "The speaker candidate may have already been chosen, and I was protesting that," Vann insists.

So far, the Brooklyn delegation has met more than a half a dozen times since September, with the head of the county party, Clarence Norman, trying to corral members to back one of their own. At each gathering, Vann’s support has been minimal, while Rodriguez has slowly added supporters to his roster. Right now, the Sunset Park Councilman says he has 10 votes from Brooklyn, and another six from the remaining four boroughs. But the next city council speaker will need 26 votes to win, and key support from the Bronx and Queens is still missing from Rodriguez’s campaign.

"It’s a very fluid situation," says Roberto Ramirez, the head of the Bronx Democratic party, who says that he has been talking with all the interested candidates, including Vann, and the three candidates from Manhattan: A. Gifford Miller, Phil Reed and Bill Perkins. "Whoever is going to be elected is going to be elected with the help of union leaders and other interested people," says Ramirez, who says he hasn’t pledged his support to anyone.

And while Rodriguez maintains he has had a series of "encouraging" discussions with the head of the Queens County Democratic party, Tom Manton, the Sunset Park councilman acknowledges that so far, Manton has refrained from committing himself to putting the weight of the Queens delegation—13 new Democrats—behind Rodriguez’s candidacy.

"I feel really good about my candidacy," said Rodriguez on Thursday, interrupting a discussion with a reporter to take a phone call from Manton.

Later, Rodriguez said Manton wanted to know "where are you, where are you going, how are you going to put it [a coalition] together?" Manton did not return a phone call for comment. Whether he put together the coalition with support from Queens, or 10 individuals, "still remains to be seen," said Rodriguez.

Then there’s Rodriguez’s battle on the home front, where a handful of freshmen members have created a Fresh Democracy Council to create a voting bloc to put forward their own candidate for speaker.

Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who was elected to Priscilla Wooten’s seat in East New York, says the group was determined to shake up the council and divest the speaker of his unilateral right to select committee chairs, move bills to the floor, and allocate funding to council members.

"We are concerned about who the speaker will be and we don’t intend to be punished for speaking our mind," says Barron, who along with Queens newcomer Allan Jennings, is a founding member of the Fresh Democracy Council. Asked how the group feels about Rodriguez, considered a pragmatist more than a progressive, Barron replies carefully. "We don’t know who we are going to support for speaker. We are going to talk to everyone," says Barron.

Defending himself, Rodriguez says the job should be his, based on experience and merit, pointing that he is one of only two returning council members who worked on the budget committee, and that he serves as the first vice chairman of the black-Latino caucus. Everyone has to be comfortable making up their mind who they want to support," says Rodriguez, who maintains he has the support of "several" of the members of the Fresh Democracy Council.

"There is no deal. Everyone’s talking, building coalitions, a number of quality candidates and names have been mentioned," says David Weprin, a Queens city councilman whose name has been frequently mentioned for the No. 2 job of finance chair. "I don’t think there has been a deal. All I can tell you is that Queens will be at the table," says Weprin.

Despite the lack of hard and fast support from Queens and the equivocations from the Bronx, Norman insists that his candidate "is in very good shape."

"I think Angel is certainly well positioned. He has support from inside the delegation, and outside, notwithstanding Queens," says Norman. "I see Angel having the votes and I think within the next few weeks, closure will probably come to the matter."

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