There’s a mystery in the mayor’s race, and his name is Gifford Miller. He’s the speaker of the New York City Council, the second-most-powerful elected figure in city government. He’s raised, and still has on hand, more money than his Democratic rivals. He was smart enough to get elected to the City Council at 26 and become speaker at 32. And yet he trails badly in the polls, frozen at around 12 percent, trading with Anthony Weiner for last place.
“What is the answer?” puzzles Doug Muzzio, public affairs professor at Baruch and longtime observer of city races. “You know, I’ll be damned, because everything points to greater impact.”
Maybe it’s that he looks so young. That Miller is a youthful-looking 35 is something he has no control over—unless he goes in for gray highlights—but it allows his rivals to try to not treat him seriously. When Miller pushed the Council to extend a tax surcharge to hire more teachers earlier this year, Bloomberg communications director Bill Cunningham dismissed the move as “a cute ploy by a cute candidate for mayor.”
Perhaps the problem is where Miller’s from. A lifelong Upper East Sider, Miller does not have the built-in personal appeal to an electoral base that Fernando Ferrer (Latinos), Virginia Fields (blacks), or even Weiner (Jews and other outer-borough “white ethnics”) might claim. And being from the Upper East Side makes it somewhat harder for Miller to castigate Bloomberg as out of touch, a favorite Democratic line: While he’s no billionaire, Miller’s financial disclosure forms indicate he has assets worth between $380,000 and $1.4 million.
Or perhaps it’s simpler than that. Maybe what’s kept Gifford Miller from breaking through so far is that one of his apparent assets—the speaker’s chair and what he’s done with it—is actually a liability.
Miller’s tenure as speaker has earned him fans. “What he says, he does, and that’s very important to me,” says Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. “Straight shooter. No baloney, not a question about it, so I can depend upon his promises.” And Miller can point to a list of accomplishments including an Earned Income Tax Credit for the city, a living-wage bill, fighting the mayor on some budget cuts, securing funds to construct schools. Councilmembers say he’s a nice guy, a gregarious fellow. “He’s proven to me that he can bring together a council delegation that represents every flavor of New York and is able to bring together more often than not a cohesive council,” Markowitz notes.
In trying to get that cohesion, however, Miller may have diluted the Council’s ability to act boldly, because of the diversity of people he had to cram on board. What’s more, critics say, his Council agenda was tailored for his mayoral run. “Ambition, ambition, ambition—and he’ll step over anyone and just disrespect anyone just to achieve his ultimate objective,” says Councilwoman Letitia James, who is furious over Miller’s support for plans to place a new Nets arena in her area of Brooklyn.
That’s not the only development project where Miller has come up against local activists. His support for the Greenpoint-Williamsburg rezoning sent protesters dressed as flowers and skyscrapers to his campaign office. And his late opposition to the West Side stadium—he announced it only in November—made it look like a conveniently calculated move. Miller tells the Voice, “I like to find out the facts before I make a decision on an issue,” and notes that the Council took steps to expose shady elements of the deal and block them.
Miller has been accused of such calculation before: For the 2001 campaign, he set up a PAC to help elect candidates to the council who would then be in a position to vote for him as speaker. He won that vote, partly because term limits chased three dozen council members out, making Miller the senior member.
But while term limits helped him take charge, they also made the council much harder to run. For one thing, where the old council held a lot of deadwood, the new one featured several ambitious and talented people who competed with Miller for attention and for the agenda. The fact that the term limits clock was ticking meant these new members had to position themselves for a new job in eight years, and so were less willing than their predecessors to be patient and play ball. What’s more, with Miller also term-limited, the promises he might have made to get cooperation—committee posts, action on favored bills—had a sell-by date.
That date is nigh, and Miller’s waning power was on display during a recent fight over the Bloomberg trash plan. Miller won a narrow vote to block elements of the mayor’s plan, but the speaker was unable to override Bloomberg’s veto.
Many of the councilmembers who opposed Miller were from low-income neighborhoods that for years have dealt with loud, smelly trucks carting garbage—a practice that the mayor’s plan would eventually abate. “He’s really stunk up his relationship with black and Latino voters and with poor people and people who live in the South Bronx and in Brooklyn,” says Andrew White, director of the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. And should Miller go up against fellow white Manhattanite Bloomberg, White adds, “Bloomberg’s going to be in a vastly better position to pull in the rest of the city.”
The papers played the trash vote as a major defeat for Miller. “What the mayor very cleverly did was to try to make this entire issue about 91st Street, and he succeeded in doing that,” Miller says, when the real issue is what Bloomberg’s plan failed to do on recycling, on reducing waste, and on commercial garbage. The speaker thinks the media missed the intricacies of the issue. “Very little of what we do in City Hall penetrates enormously broadly.”
And that might be Miller’s secret weapon. Because whatever criticism he’s received over his speakership, few New Yorkers know about it—or know him. Miller has plenty of money to spend, and a long roster of club and union support, to help spread the image he wants to sell.
In a series of policy speeches over the past two months, Miller has outlined plans on how to improve schools, subways, and the city’s security. He has proposed extending the personal income surcharge on high earners to pay for school construction, and wants to revamp the teachers’ promotion system to weight for performance instead of basing it only on seniority. He has said the MTA must repair and upgrade existing infrastructure first and then make choices on how to expand: yes to the Second Avenue line, no to the East Side Access Link that would connect the LIRR to Grand Central. And he wants the city to build its own stockpile of antidote to anthrax.
“I find it appalling that we’re in a city in which half the kids are being failed in schools every single day,” Miller says. “The other thing is, I think people want to make it more complicated than it needs to be. We know how to fix our schools. It’s just a question of will. We put kids and teachers in situations that no successful school district in the country does and we act like we’re surprised and we’re confused about how we could fix it.”
Since graduating college 13 years ago, Miller’s never held a paid job that wasn’t political. But he’s not bad at it: He’s already won six elections. Public service is in his blood, he says: His dad served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, his mother is a well-known garden designer. And city politics was always what attracted him because, he says, “your successes and your failures are more immediate, more tangible.” Indeed, his next one’s coming.