After the coarse spectacle that was last week’s mayoral debates, the race for Gracie Mansion is dominating much of the political oxygen in the room, at least for now. Following the November 7 general election, however, all eyes will immediately shift in one direction: the New York City Council, whose members new and old must pick their next Speaker as term-limited Melissa Mark-Viverito departs.
There’s a whole lot of intrigue in the wrangling for the seat, as party bosses play coy and candidates dangle committee chairmanships for their colleagues. Much of that will go on behind the scenes; after all, it’s an intramural election, and the candidates don’t have to make a case to voters.
So the Voice has set out to sit down with the expected candidates to discuss their views on the role of the legislative body they hope to lead, the role of the Speaker within city government, and how they would act on pressing issues of the day.
I’m meeting with Manhattan councilmember Mark Levine at a Pret a Manger near City Hall. I had suggested the legislative office building, but Levine seemed perfectly at ease chowing down on a salad as we chatted over the sounds of Top 40 hits. Like most gifted politicians, he’s mastered the art of exuding casual friendliness while still speaking carefully. He greets me in Spanish, a language the 48-year-old Washington Heights resident speaks fluently.
“I think that the stakes are really high now for progressives in New York City to prove that progressive government works,” says Levine. “To prove that we can both pursue a social justice agenda and ensure that the city and its agencies run at the highest level. There’s no contradiction there.”
Levine is a first-term councilmember and former teacher who, like all but one of the other seven members seeking the speakership, is part of the council’s Progressive Caucus. With a hostile right-wing federal administration and a proudly left-of-center mayor who won’t have to worry about another re-election if he wins on November 7, it’s an opportunity for the next Speaker to move aggressively to expand on a progressive agenda.
“I think that the Trump era is going to shape much of our action at the local level,” Levine says. “We do control the jails of this city, we control the public universities of this city, we control the public schools of this city, we control the housing policy of this city. That gives us incredible power in the policy areas that most touch people’s lives.”
One such public policy is the Right to Know Act, bills introduced by councilmembers Ritchie Torres (another Speaker candidate) and Antonio Reynoso and co-sponsored by Levine. The legislation would require police officers to inform New Yorkers that they can refuse to be searched in the absence of probable cause, and to hand business cards to people they’ve stopped. The package is currently languishing in committee while current Speaker Mark-Viverito negotiates with NYPD brass over instituting the legislation’s provisions as an internal department policy instead. I ask Levine if that’s good enough. From his expression, it’s clear that it’s not.
“For policy changes of this magnitude, I don’t want to have to be subject to the whims of political currents that may give us a mayor in the future…” he begins. Like Donald Trump Jr.? “God forbid, such as Don Jr. So for a policy change of this magnitude, I would want to see it undergirded by legislation.”
What about the city’s lack of affordable housing, arguably the greatest existential threat to the fabric of the city and its most vulnerable inhabitants? Levine, who co-chairs the Affordable Housing Preservation Task Force with Jumaane Williams — another rival for the speakership — doesn’t buy the argument that preservation is a less pressing necessity than construction.
“In the Bloomberg era, they built a heck of a lot of affordable housing, but we hemorrhaged the existing stock of rent-regulated units and Mitchell-Lama buildings to a degree that the city, on net, slid backward,” he explains. He gives credit to Mayor Bill de Blasio for what he sees as a more proactive approach in terms of seeking out landlords that may be willing to provide affordable rents. “Historically, we’ve had a much more hands-off strategy on preservation and often waited for owners to come to us and say, ‘Hi, I’d like to apply for favorable financing in exchange for extending affordability.’ ”
Robust preservation, though, is hardly a straightforward task in a city with the breadth and market diversity of New York. Levine argues that the city should not fall into the trap of only subsidizing housing in neighborhoods that are less expensive. “There’s a temptation to steer away from that, because you can probably preserve two or three units in low-income neighborhoods, particularly outside of Manhattan, for every one you can preserve in Manhattan,” he says, which is a mistake.
As for the de Blasio administration’s efforts so far, Levine is a cautious supporter: “Look, I still subscribe to the basic principle of [mandatory inclusionary housing]” — the mayor’s recently enacted policy requiring residential developers to set aside a portion of their units at undermarket rents — “which is that we’ve got to stop giving away upzonings. We rezoned something like 40 percent of the city in the previous twelve years. I think two percent of the units that emerged from that were affordable.”
I point out that some critics have claimed efforts so far haven’t targeted housing for middle-income families, who won’t necessarily qualify under Area Median Income requirements for most rent-controlled apartments, but are nonetheless being priced out. Levine says that he wants the city to remain a place where “a bus driver or a public school teacher can still afford to live.… When market rate for an apartment in your neighborhood is $4,000 a month, you’re out of luck if you’re making $80,000 a year.” His solution: “Multiple bands, to help people who are at risk of homelessness and at the lowest end of the economic ladder, and people who have a good job, making a good salary, but just can’t afford the same rents.” However, Levine is adamant that any initiatives should predominantly focus on “the poorest of the poor.”
As far as the poorest of the poor go, they’re the ones relying on Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system, and the New York City Housing Authority, manager of public housing. Both agencies are in dire financial straits, with H + H facing a $1.1 billion deficit even without recently announced federal budget cuts. Is the council going to have to engage in some reexamination of the agencies’ budget and operations? “I don’t have the solution to that yet, except to say that we should be at DEFCON 4 on that, and that we have to figure out a way to get out of this crisis that preserves the service level,” Levine says.
Asked about his most significant policy disagreement with the de Blasio administration, Levine thoughtfully chews on some greens for a few seconds before singling out the closure of Rikers Island. “I always get scared of timelines that have deliverables that hit beyond the tenure of the current leadership,” he says, arguing that sites can start being developed in the boroughs and being closed on Rikers before the next four years are up. Pressed on whether he would feel strongly enough as Speaker to hold up funding or otherwise force a revisiting of the timetable, he demurs. “I think it’s way too soon to talk about that, but not too soon to state my belief on that, and how strongly I feel,” he says.
More abstractly, the city seems to be facing a series of looming showdowns with the Trump administration; despite New York being his hometown, the president is enormously unpopular here, and his policy moves so far have been mostly at odds with the city’s interests. What is the council’s role in confronting a newly empowered and bellicose right-wing federal bureaucracy? “I think our mandate was transformed by the Trump election, and the stakes were dramatically increased,” Levine says. That includes protecting immigrants, public health, public education, and the environment.
“People are turning to us to protect them in a way they didn’t need in the Obama era,” says Levine. “I think that is going to dominate the next three, god forbid more than that, years in the City Council.”