News & Politics

The Most Important NYC Campaign You Don’t Know About Is Well Under Way

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The New York City Council has always been a little bit like high school. There are poseurs and nerds and cool kids and outcasts. The gossip can be fierce. The politics, when not practiced on behalf of the city, may get personal and petty. In a year from now, the 51 members will elect a new Speaker. The current Speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, is term-limited. Since many council members, rightly or wrongly, assumed Mark-Viverito was lobbying for a job in a seemingly inevitable second Clinton administration, the race to replace her has long been underway. It’s quietly consumed much of her speakership.

Here are the caveats about any speaker’s race: All the action occurs behind closed doors and the public has no say. Council members have a right to elect their leader. A candidate becomes speaker thanks to the right amount of hustle, savvy, and luck. Circumstance and timing very much matter.

Why fight for a post most New Yorkers aren’t all that familiar with? The speaker is arguably the second most powerful elected official in the city, working in concert (or against) the mayor to craft a budget north of $70 billion and enact significant pieces of legislation. Every speaker so far has run for mayor, though none has ever been successful.

Mark-Viverito has no clear successor, but council members and political operatives watching the backroom contest agree there are three front-runners: Councilman Corey Johnson, Councilman Mark Levine, and Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras. A fourth candidate, Councilman Robert Cornegy, is also competing.

Geography, race, gender, and sexual orientation are all factors that could determine the next speaker. In the overwhelmingly liberal body, it’s not particularly advantageous to be a straight white male, though it’s entirely possible the council ends up with its first white male speaker in more than a decade. Johnson and Levine are white men from Manhattan. Ferreras is a Latina from Queens. Cornegy is a black man from Brooklyn.

The white men, though, do offer some diversity: Johnson would be the body’s second openly gay speaker after Christine Quinn. Levine, like Mark-Viverito and Ferreras, is a fluent Spanish speaker. They are also from Manhattan, the borough that has produced the last three speakers.

Before 2013, speakers were typically elected this way: A palatable candidate was picked from Manhattan and the Democratic organizations of the Bronx and Queens, the only two party machines well-functioning enough to command absolute loyalty from a significant number of councilmembers, agreed to back a Manhattanite in exchange for patronage jobs at the council and plum committee assignments for their favored councilmembers.

The different factor in 2013 — and the unknown quantity for this year — is the mayor. Mayor Bill de Blasio, a former city councilman, used the leverage of his resounding victory to push councilmembers toward Mark-Viverito, once a long-shot candidate. Labor unions, progressive groups like the Working Families Party, and a bloc of left-leaning councilmembers also rallied around Mark-Viverito, shattering the traditional model of speakership elections. De Blasio, a Brooklynite, then helped bring the Brooklyn Democratic Party to Mark-Viverito’s camp, defying the Bronx and Queens.

De Blasio, still hampered by a variety of corruption investigations and middling approval ratings, will likely have less clout with councilmembers this time around. Progressives are less united than they used to be and view the mayor with more skepticism. If de Blasio recovers to easily win re-election this year, however, this tableau may change, and the Council could be ready once more to pay deference to a Democratic mayor. (As Republicans, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg had no say in speakership fights.)

Johnson is running as the most anti-de Blasio progressive, pitching members on an emboldened, feistier council that would be willing to push through legislation the mayor dislikes. Mark-Viverito has never forced de Blasio to veto any bills, something that happened routinely under Bloomberg and Quinn. Johnson is also, by all accounts, hustling the hardest, bundling for candidates who may take office next year and pressing his case with as many lawmakers as possible. His aggressive posture has rubbed some the wrong way; a New York Post story about a hospital bed visit to pro-life, anti–gay marriage State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., now a front-runner for an open council seat, raised eyebrows.

Levine, so far, has offered a toned-down version of Johnson’s candidacy, and may position himself as everyone’s second choice if a deal falls apart for Johnson or Ferreras. A soft-spoken, brainy liberal from Upper Manhattan, Levine speaks three languages, including Hebrew, and has challenged the mayor far less. For councilmembers uncomfortable with a white male running the body in a majority-minority city, Levine can point to his own district: largely Latino, with blacks and upwardly mobile whites mixed in.

Ferreras may be the most intriguing contender of the three. She’s widely believed to be de Blasio’s favored candidate, at least at the moment, and would be the choice of the same progressive coalition that rallied around Mark-Viverito. Representing a heavily Hispanic district in central Queens, Ferreras chairs the Committee on Finance, responsible for hashing out the budget, and long considered one of the two or three most consequential posts in the council. Her campaign team is already starting to resemble Mark-Viverito’s: Jon Del Giorno, a prominent lobbyist who quarterbacked her 2013 bid for speaker, and the MirRam Group are both assisting Ferreras.

Holding Ferreras back is the possibility that re-creating Mark-Viverito’s path to victory will be harder this time around. The party bosses of the Bronx and Queens are more powerful, thanks to Carl Heastie’s rise to assembly speaker and Rep. Joe Crowley’s move up the congressional ladder. Crowley is no fan of Ferreras, who defied him in 2013 to support Mark-Viverito, and if she encounters a primary challenge from a local assemblyman, precious energy and resources will be drained for that fight.

No candidate has fully fleshed out a vision for the office. In 2013, Mark-Viverito, like de Blasio, promised a clean break from the Michael Bloomberg era. Quinn worked in concert with Bloomberg to water down progressive bills in the council or quash them altogether; one of Mark-Viverito’s first acts as speaker was to pass into law a bill that required paid sick leave for employees.

This time around, no candidate for speaker promises such a profound departure from the status quo. The three front-runners are members of the Progressive Caucus, a bloc of nineteen members originally formed under Quinn to counter her centrism. They will likely maintain what will amount to Mark-Viverito’s greatest legacy within the legislative body: rules reform that took at least some of the blatant politicking out of governing.

Under Quinn, funding individual councilmembers controlled for projects in their districts was determined solely by how much she liked or hated the lawmaker. Charles Barron, a proud radical, saw his low-income, primarily black district get repeatedly shortchanged for funding because he was a loud Quinn critic. Vincent Gentile, another Brooklyn Democrat Quinn reviled, spent more than a decade in the council before he could finally chair a committee. (Mark-Viverito appointed him chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Investigations in 2014.) So-called member items for council members are now needs-based, derived from a formula that takes into account the poverty of the district. It is very difficult to imagine any successor undoing this approach.

Closing out a tenure that has been marked by efficiency (meetings start promptly) and a notable lack of scandal, Mark-Viverito still has a tight hold on members, something the next speaker may promise to loosen. No bill makes it to the floor for a vote without Mark-Viverito’s say-so, despite her promises for more democracy.

For progressives begging the Council to pass the Right to Know Act, common-sense police reform legislation with more than enough sponsors to make it to de Blasio’s desk, this has been particularly frustrating. In 2018, de Blasio — assuming he’s still at City Hall — may have to finally break out his veto pen.

In the meantime, the behind-the-scenes jousting for Speaker will continue. Look for the mayoral race this fall to set the tone — and the fighting to intensify after Election Day.