Council Chaos


“I wonder if a beam was sent down to send me into another dimension,” said Councilmember Margarita López of the Lower East Side last Thursday, still reeling from Republican Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral victory two days earlier. The shock of the seemingly supernatural would eventually fade, but one thing remained certain, according to López’s West Side colleague Christine Quinn: “The results of Tuesday make the [overwhelmingly Democratic] City Council a much more important body.” Fellow members, Democratic Party leaders, and union heads—the motley crew that traditionally determines the council’s leadership—agreed. Although that’s where agreement ended.

No matter who the mayor, the newly elected council would still be arriving in a state of chaos and conflict. Term limits and resignations forced an unprecedented turnover of 37 of the 51 members. While several newcomers bring relevant backgrounds—some from holding other elective or government jobs—the senior-most of next year’s crew will arrive with a maximum of six years’ direct experience navigating the city’s Byzantine budget process and no experience chairing important committees, like contracts and land use. And those just elected have only a two-year term ahead of them, rather than the usual four, due to redistricting.

Talk of changing the term-limits law has already begun. Among the proponents is Gifford Miller of the Upper East Side, a candidate for council speaker and one of the statute’s impending casualties. Bronx Democratic Party chair Roberto Ramirez also decried term limits last week, concerned that some candidates seemed less loyal to the party this year without indefinite future elections to worry about.

Adding to the confusion, the incoming freshman class has launched a movement to decentralize the council’s traditional power structure, for instance by vesting more of the speaker’s influence in committee chairs. The so-called Fresh Democracy Council as of last week numbered 17, from former Black Panther Charles Barron of East New York to Bill de Blasio, Friend of Bill and Hillary and a former aide to speaker Peter Vallone.

Despite the new council’s internal disorder, said Councilmember Quinn, at least with Green, “you had a lot to base your projected reality on.” A lifelong liberal and an experienced public official, Green would have reflected the council’s ideology (only four of the 51 will be Republicans) and bested most of it in institutional knowledge. But with a billionaire government novice now headed for City Hall—and a public advocate and a comptroller hardly known for their independence or vigilance elected to oversee him—”the council, particularly the returning members, are going to have to be the voice of elected experience and progressive values,” said Quinn.

Community programs, affordable housing, small-business development, accessible public services—such typical priorities of local legislators are not necessarily high on the agenda of a Giuliani-endorsee looking to rebuild post-September 11, with a projected $5 billion budget deficit. One longtime antipoverty advocate said last week that his gleeful anticipation of welfare commissioner Jason Turner’s departure had turned to nervous apprehension with Bloomberg’s win. During the Giuliani years, the council’s general welfare committee chair, Stephen DiBrienza, was often the most vocal government defender of the hundreds of thousands getting sliced from the welfare rolls.

It remained unclear last week whether the “aggressive progressivism” sought by Brooklyn Heights member-elect David Yassky and others would emerge from the heated battle over the city’s top Democratic spot. Technically, the 51 councilmembers vote at the start of the term to elect their speaker; in reality, the winner is preordained according to such factors as party loyalty and geographical or racial representation. If Green had won, the players who backed him would likely have had commissionerships and other plums to tussle over. “Now,” observed one speaker hopeful’s aide, “all they have to play with is the speakership.”

Other complications from this election include the possible weakening of the boroughs’ usually omnipotent machines, as evidenced by the loss of party picks in some races. And of course, the splinters in the Democratic Party that seemed to contribute to Green’s demise have the most jaded observers worried and confused.

Some who have nevertheless tossed in their hats, with varying resolve and winnability: Angel Rodriguez, Al Vann, and de Blasio of Brooklyn; and Phil Reed, Bill Perkins, and Miller of Manhattan.

But the greatest challenge in determining whom to pit against the next mayor lies in determining how much to pit. The mayor-elect made immediate overtures not only to Latino Democrats dissatisfied with Green, but also to labor leaders who aided Green’s campaign. Lee Saunders, head of the powerful municipal workers’ union, praised Bloomberg for calling him last Wednesday and meeting with him the day after. “I felt very good,” Saunders said. Maybe not all billionaires are bad, he and other politicos suggested last week. Certainly, they’re not all stupid.

Related Story:

Brooklyn’s Chance to Anoint the Next Council Speaker Is Slipping Through the Fault Lines” by Ruth Ford