Largely ignored by much of the Bloomberg-honeymoon press was the debut of the second most important administration in city politics—the new regime in the Democratic wing of City Hall, where rookie Council Speaker Gifford Miller ostensibly presides. With more change in a single year than the staid council usually experiences in decades, the bad old days are, remarkably, already looking better and better.
Within days of the 1986 election of Peter Vallone as speaker, the twin towers of inside clout who elected him, Queens and Bronx Democratic bosses Donald Manes and Stanley Friedman, were engulfed by the worst bribery scandal in the modern history of New York. They were too preoccupied and weakened to dictate Vallone’s agenda. However, Miller, the first new Speaker in 16 years, has managed in a scant couple of weeks to demonstrate just how malleable a Manhattan reformer can be, once installed by the current Queens and Bronx bosses, Tom Manton and Roberto Ramirez.
All of Manton’s 13 Democratic councilmembers got committee or subcommittee chairs, with two laying claim to Finance and Land Use, the first time one borough has controlled the two most powerful posts. Only two of the Queens members were relegated to a subcommittee and one—Tony Avella—was named to head Zoning and Franchises, a critical position. Everyone but Hiram Monserrate, the borough’s first Latino councilman who wound up heading the Subcommittee on Substance Abuse, won a meaningful appointment.
But far more disturbing than Miller’s willingness to reward Manton’s members—and in gradations the boss clearly determined—was the new Speaker’s adoption of Ramirez’s hit list. Though Ramirez refused to discuss his conversations with Miller in a Voice interview (other than to say the Speaker “sought my counsel and I gave it”), he apparently wanted three new Bronx councilmembers punished, and they were. Helen Foster, Oliver Koppell, and Larry Seabrook—all of whom Ramirez concedes he “never spoke to” about the council, got no leadership positions. “Everyone endorsed by the county leadership got a chair,” Foster explained. “Everyone who wasn’t, didn’t. Neither of the two blacks from the Bronx is chairing a committee.”
The daughter of longtime incumbent Wendell Foster, 35-year-old Helen Foster points out that Manton “reached out” to the new councilmembers who beat candidates backed by his organization, “but Roberto decided to play it another way,” isolating them. “Miller talks about diversity,” said Foster, “but that can’t be just for people who owe the county leader.” With the borough’s eight-member delegation nearly split in half, Ramirez had to settle for a diminution of Bronx influence within the council, losing control of Land Use, Civil Service & Labor, Parks & Recreation, and Fire & Criminal Justice Services.
Ironically, while Ramirez opposed Miller’s top opponent for Speaker, Brooklyn’s Angel Rodriguez, because he was neutral in the Fernando Ferrer race for mayor last year, Ramirez helped elect Miller, who endorsed Mark Green. Now Miller has installed Madeline Provenzano as the Housing Committee chair, the Bronx’s top committee, though she backed Peter Vallone for mayor in the primary, was neutral in the Ferrer runoff, and endorsed Michael Bloomberg in November. Indeed, three of the five Bronx members named by Ramirez and Miller to leadership posts, including the new Democratic majority leader, Joel Rivera, backed the Republican mayoral candidate, a commentary on the value of “party discipline” in Ramirez’s wild world.
Considering that Ramirez only had five votes to bring to the table in the 51-vote council, the committee posts he won, plus the hiring of his own top aide as Miller’s deputy chief of staff, are widely seen as a tactical success. But regardless of who’s responsible for the division in the Bronx, Miller’s acquiescence to it denied Koppell, a former assemblyman and State Attorney General with two and a half decades of elected experience, any real role in a council of neophytes. Instead, Rivera, a 23-year-old college student, was named to the newly minted position of majority leader, and will join one-term councilman Miller, 32, at the supposed helm of the council.
The Miller spin on his committee appointments was that they were the most diverse ever, a numbers game largely adopted in the news coverage. Miller made much of the fact that 14 of the 27 committee chairs were black, Latino, and Asian, an unsurprising record considering that 25 of the 47 council Democrats eligible to chair committees are minority.
But the chairs of four pivotal committees—Housing, Education, Health, and Parks—went from minority to white, while Rules and Transportation were the most significant committees to go the other way. Twenty-one of the 41 Democrats named to posts of any kind were white, a slight majority in a party conference with a three-member minority edge. Five of the six Dems who got nothing were black and Latino, including Brooklyn’s Al Vann, who said he was “surprised” he didn’t “get a committee,” since he brought 27 years of assembly experience to the council.
Even councilmembers who benefited from Miller’s selections, like new Consumer Affairs chair Phil Reed, were unenthusiastic about the overall record. “I question why three seasoned legislators aren’t chairing a damned thing,” said Manhattan’s Reed, including former assemblyman and state senator Seabrook with Vann and Koppell. “Because they didn’t play ball? In a body with only 13 returning councilmembers, I don’t think it’s the healthiest thing in the world.” Reed, who dropped out of the Speaker’s race to endorse Miller at the end, said he doesn’t have “any strong sense of forward or backward movement” on the question of minority appointments, adding it will all depend on who winds up in Miller’s “inner sanctum.”
Another black Speaker candidate from Manhattan, Bill Perkins, acknowledged that chairing the Governmental Operations Committee was “not my first choice,” meaning that even though he brought six votes to Miller at a decisive moment, he wound up on the short end of the stick. Brooklyn’s Charles Barron, who heads the Higher Education Committee, said Miller “didn’t go far enough” in minority appointments, and the Lower East Side’s Margarita Lopez conceded: “Should more people of color get committee chairs? Yes.” Outsiders like Foster, of course, are more critical: “The committees that really have power don’t have blacks and Latinos as chairs.”
The locked-out borough is Brooklyn, whose 16-member delegation is the council’s largest. Only five members got committee chairs, down from eight under Vallone, while another five got mostly inconsequential subcommittees. The borough even lost the Finance Committee, which Herb Berman skillfully used to Brooklyn’s benefit for many years. Bill DiBlasio, the Park Slope councilman who helped engineer Perkins’s switch to Miller, got General Welfare, and Lou Fidler got Youth Services, the two most important Brooklyn appointments.
Every one of a half dozen councilmembers from the borough contacted by the Voice—except DiBlasio—said Brooklyn had been hurt by Miller’s retributive notion of justice. Brooklyn party leader Clarence Norman, of course, backed Rodriguez, indicating what happens to your borough in Miller’s council if you’ve got the wrong boss.
With merit, minorities, and Brooklyn already casualties of the month-old Miller regime, it’s worth remembering that Vallone and Berman ran for citywide office last year, actively opposed by their respective county leaders. A council leadership born in the Astoria and Canarsie clubhouses of a bygone machine era may prove over time to be more independent than the fresh-faced rule of a modern-day east side reformer.
Research assistance: Peter Bailey, Martine Guerrier, Jeff Herman, Jess Wisloski
“A Question of Candor: New Council Speaker Misled Campaign Finance Officials, Ducked Limits” by Wayne Barrett
“Miller Time: How Internecine Minority Politics Picked the Speaker” by Wayne Barrett