Miller Time


After all the racial bombast of the 2001 mayoral campaign, Roberto Ramirez, Dennis Rivera, Charlie Rangel, and the rest of the “our-time” crowd inexplicably decided to rally around baby-faced 32-year-old east side councilman Gifford Miller in the race for council speaker. In a confounding demonstration of internecine pettiness, the city’s minority leadership used their three-vote majority within the council’s 47-member Democratic conference to elect a white speaker who lives 10 blocks from Mike Bloomberg, ending decades of outer-borough hegemony in one wing of City Hall.

Ramirez, the Bronx Democratic boss who repeatedly claimed last year that building a Latino base in New York politics was the single most important mission of his life, played a decisive and ironic role in blocking Brooklyn councilman Angel Rodriguez, long assumed to be the frontrunner. Had Ramirez, who controls at least five of the Bronx’s eight-member delegation, aligned himself with Rodriguez, whose council record was largely indistinguishable from Miller’s, the Sunset Park councilman might well have been the favorite to win the city’s second most powerful post. In addition to the support of Brooklyn party boss Clarence Norman, Rodriguez had meticulously assembled an independent coalition of votes from his own and other counties prior to the maneuvering this past weekend that put Miller in the driver’s seat.

Instead of backing Rodriguez, to stop him Ramirez teamed up with labor leaders like Rivera and Brian McLaughlin, as well as Queens Democratic boss Tom Manton, whose 14-member delegation is larger than any other. Ramirez told the Voice that he is not a “one-dimensional” man and that he backed Miller because his “responsibility to the Bronx is broader and includes everybody, not just the Hispanic members.” While insisting that his support for Miller was not simply because Rodriguez was neutral in the mayoral runoff between Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, Ramirez said he believed “all of us needed to stand up in that historical race.”

It did not seem to matter to Ramirez, however, that Miller actually endorsed Green, or that Rodriguez reportedly offered to endorse Ferrer during a face-to-face meeting if Ferrer would back him. Rodriguez said in a Voice interview that he and the ex-Bronx borough president reached an understanding that it was in their respective interests not to swap endorsements, and that in that spirit, he made no endorsements in any citywide races. Ramirez said he “presumed that those conversations did take place” and that Rodriguez’s account “may be an actual description of what happened,” but that nonetheless the agreement “did not accrue to Rodriguez’s best interests.” Ramirez declared that despite the Rodriguez/Ferrer conversation he “would not say I had no problem” with Rodriguez’s neutrality.

The Ramirez torpedoing of Rodriguez is reminiscent of the Harlem black leadership’s back-stabbing of Brooklyn blacks in the mid ’80s, when then-assemblyman Al Vann tried to build a citywide coalition to pick a mayoral candidate. The Bronx leadership sees itself as the focal point of Latino politics, just as Harlem has long claimed primacy in black politics, and Rodriguez’s win would have elevated the power of Brooklyn’s Latino community, which has elected three councilmembers compared to the Bronx’s four. In addition, Rodriguez might well have eclipsed Ferrer and Ramirez by becoming the top Latino leader in the city.

Another pivotal player in the swing to Miller was West Harlem assemblyman and Manhattan Democratic leader Denny Farrell, who was also intimately involved in 1985 when he helped kill the Brooklyn-led black coalition. Farrell’s longtime close ally, Councilman Bill Perkins, pulled out of the speaker’s race and endorsed Miller on Saturday, bringing as many as half a dozen votes to Miller. The three minority county leaders, Farrell, Norman, and Ramirez, allowed Manton to dictate the outcome rather than allying to back Rodriguez, Perkins, or any other minority alternative. Even Vann, who left the assembly after 25 years to join the council this year, put himself forward as a speaker candidate.

Farrell said that he, Democratic National Committee vice chair Bill Lynch, and Congressman Rangel “came to the conclusion that Miller was where Perkins should go,” and urged him to do so. Ironically, Farrell also said that—”believing in democracy”—he thought the four Republican councilmembers should participate in the selection of the Democratic speaker. Not only is that contrary to Farrell’s longtime experience in Albany—as well as the usual procedure in the Congress and most other legislatures—it tipped the ethnic scales in the council to majority white. The four Republicans tied their votes to Manton, agreeing to back whoever the Queens leader endorsed, and thereby making themselves key players in the protracted jockeying.

Asked about Miller’s record on minority issues like police brutality, his spokesman Fred Baldassaro instead cited Miller’s support for family planning services, food pantries, the living-wage bill, greater voter registration access, and Health and Hospital Corporation security guards. This meager gruel hardly compares with the record of the much abused Mark Green, relegated to history’s dustbin by many of the very folks who have now combined to make Miller the city’s most powerful Democrat.

Research assistance: Peter Bailey, Sam Dolnick, Rivka Gurwitz, Jeffrey Herman