Neighborhoods

To Play the King

by

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.”