2001: An Election Odyssey


2001 will be as close to a revolutionary year as any in the modern history of New York politics.

First, there’s a four-way, heavyweight Democratic primary for mayor—with the probability of a Republican billionaire waiting for the winner in November. Second, if the Port Authority tantrum of the last few days is any indication, the final 12 months of Rudy will be explosive, especially if he is positioning himself for a possible 2002 gubernatorial run. George Pataki’s still-uncertain decision about a third term and the early rounds of the Carl McCall vs. Andrew Cuomo primary battle for governor will also dominate the news. Hillary Clinton’s first year in the Senate could be the prelude to a presidential run, and her husband may become a new player in city and state affairs. Punished and ostracized by the Bush administration, New York will serve as the capital of The Other America.

But the biggest changes will occur a layer or two below this upper crust. The three most powerful positions in city government other than mayor are wide open—City Council speaker, comptroller, and City Council finance chairman. So is the soapbox office of public advocate. Four of the five borough presidencies will also be vacant, with only Manhattan’s Virginia Fields eligible to serve again.

Thirty-six of the 51 members of the City Council are term-limited out of their jobs. With the old-line Democratic machines weaker than ever, no external force will dictate the direction of the only charter-created counterbalance to mayoral power. A council dominated by Peter Vallone and ex-majority leader Tom Cuite for the last 31 years—two moderate and special-interest-malleable legislators—is up for grabs.

The council’s old guard—having tried unsuccessfully to block or gut the term-limits referendum repeatedly approved by voters—is now set to undermine it by laying claim to their seats as if they were personal fiefdoms. Several are prepared to run sons, daughters, or spouses in their stead—including Brooklyn’s Una Clarke, Priscilla Wooten, Martin Dilan, and Noach Dear, the Bronx’s Jose Rivera and Wendell Foster, and Queens’s Peter Vallone. The “W” phenomenon has already put Pedro Espada Jr., the son of a Bronx state senator, and Tracy Boyland, the daughter of a Brooklyn assemblyman, in the council.

Dominic “Buddy” Addabbo, the son of deceased former Queens congressman Joe Addabbo, and David Weprin, the son of deceased assembly speaker Saul Weprin and brother of Assemblyman Mark Weprin, are favored to win council seats. Ed Norman, the brother of Brooklyn assemblyman and Democratic county leader Clarence Norman, is reportedly planning on running in a current Latino district. In addition, the son of Congressman Joe Serrano is said to be seeking a council seat, as is the father of Assemblyman Reuben Diaz Jr.

With the old-line Democratic machines weaker than ever, no external force will dictate the direction of the only charter-created counterbalance to mayoral power.

Similarly, aides to a host of retiring incumbents are running for the seats of their old bosses, often, though not always, with their endorsement. This is particularly true in Queens, where all of the 14 incumbents must give up their seats, and aides to nine are slated to run. Many are expected to have the support of the Queens Democratic organization, whose leader, Tom Manton, could become a kingmaker in the selection of the next speaker.

Despite the continuity that could be a by-product of these two “hand-me-down” strategies, five- and six-candidate races are expected in districts all across the city, encouraged by the 4-to-1 match of public funding offered by the city’s Campaign Finance Board. The biggest names mentioned as council candidates are the Bronx’s Oliver Koppell, the former state attorney general; Queens’s Arthur Cheliotes, the president of a communication workers local that represents thousands of city workers; ex-Queens assemblywoman Melinda Katz, a close ally of Hevesi’s; and Brooklyn’s Al Vann, the veteran Bed-Stuy assemblyman.

The consensus is that one of the new councilmembers is more likely to become the next speaker than one of the 15 incumbents eligible to run again—though several carryover incumbents, including Harlem’s Bill Perkins and Brooklyn’s Angel Rodriguez, are already vying for the post. The rationale is that the council would be wary about naming a speaker who could only serve a maximum of four years before being forced out by term limits again.

The political reality is that with no carryovers in Queens—the largest bloc of votes—and with no big-name committee chair returning to the council, the new class is positioned to seize the second most powerful office in city government. That class will almost undoubtedly contain more independent voices, rooted in grassroots activism, than any in the prior history of this long-moribund body.

With the end of the Giuliani era, Republicans are expected to lose several of the six seats they now have on the council. Democrats talk of retaking all three of the Republican seats in Queens, conceding that Brooklyn’s and the two GOP seats in Staten Island are likely to remain that way. Whatever the minuscule size of the Republican conference, it could be decisive in putting together the coalition that elects the Democratic speaker (Vallone won in 1986 by a single vote, that of the only Republican member then, Susan Molinari).

Vallone and David L. Cohen, the executive director of the state Democratic Party, told the Voice that they believed council Democrats should pledge to abide by the choice for speaker made within their own conference, the practice in virtually every other legislature. That would make the selection of a black or Latino speaker more likely, since they are the majority of the current Democratic conference. The first Asians—possibly Margaret Chin in Manhattan and John Liu in Queens—may also be joining the council, increasing the nonwhite majority within the conference. If no minority wins any of the citywide offices—Bronx borough president Freddy Ferrer and Board of Education president Bill Thompson are the only two running—it would make a minority speaker, or at least finance committee chair, more likely.

The battles to succeed longtime borough presidents Claire Shulman (Queens), Howard Golden (Brooklyn), Guy Molinari (Staten Island), and Ferrer also may be wild. Molinari is trying to install his deputy, Jim Molinaro, who’s also head of the borough’s Conservative Party, which would make Molinaro the first Conservative to hold office in the city for decades. But Jay O’Donovan, the Democratic councilmember, is a formidable opponent, and Republican Robert Straniere says he will make up his mind soon about a possible candidacy. Brooklyn offers a combustible primary between Golden’s deputy, Jeanette Gadson, State Senator Marty Markowitz, and Ken Fisher, the son of the legendary Harold Fisher, once a dominant power in the heyday of the Brooklyn machine.

Shulman is so determined to block the election of Carole Gresser, her onetime appointee to the Board of Education, that she is pushing any alternative. Her current favorite is Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer, who may become the organization candidate, with most black Democratic district leaders supporting Helen Marshall, the outgoing city councilmember. Shelly Leffler, council maverick, has a chance to win, though he is unlikely to be endorsed by a single party or public official.

While the other boroughs are crowded with candidates, Bronx Democratic boss Roberto Ramirez claims he has none. Ramirez watchers predict he may put up Councilmember Adolfo Carrión Jr., while his opponents in the county, led by Congressman Eliot Engel, back Willie Colon, the Latin entertainer. Councilmember June Eisland and State Senator Espada are also said to be looking at it.

Research: Jennifer Sain and Laurence Pantin