Last month, a top labor official in the city told The Observer that his union had already begun meeting with potential candidates interested in running for one of the handful of City Council seats that will become available in 2013, when term limits at last kick in. And everybody who is contemplating a run is sure to get one question from officials at the union: if you win, who will you support to become the next speaker of the City Council?
Unlike regular campaigns, which are won among the electorate by a combination of political acumen and real policy ideas, the battles to become the leader of a legislative body like the City Council are pure politics—who can make the deals that build a coalition of one more vote than your rivals’ deals, forcing the rest of the body to fall in line. The speaker of the City Council is the highest ranking figure in city government besides the mayor, but the voters aren’t the people of New York but a candidate’s colleagues—and they don’t typically give their support without a price.
“It’s a total insider’s game among the county leaders and the Democratic party power brokers,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College.
This time around, the battle to be the next speaker has been far more muted than it was four, eight or 12 years ago, when candidates were by this time already wining and dining their fellow lawmakers to gather support. Even so, the early speculation has centered around Inez Dickens and Melissa Mark-Viverito. The two council members represent neighboring districts in Harlem, but in style and temperament they are worlds apart.
“The differences between them are stark,” said one of their fellow lawmakers, who noted that the antipathy between them is apparent. “It’s rabble-rouser, change-the-whole-place left-wing Melissa, and old-school, old world, status quo Inez.”
Ms. Dickens, 62, grew up in the Harlem political establishment of two generations ago, the one centered around Adam Clayton Powell. Her father represented the area in the State Assembly. No less a figure than Charlie Rangel refers to her as “my political wife.”
Ms. Mark-Viverito, 40, was born in Puerto Rico, went to Columbia and was an organizer for the powerful labor union 1199 before running against the powerful political barons of El Barrio in route to a squeaker of a victory.
In 2009, Ms. Dickens skated to re-election with only token opposition and was named to a leadership position in the Council, and consistently doles out more pork in the forms of member items than most of her colleagues. Ms. Mark-Viverito had to beat back several well-organized challengers in 2009, and still scored under 50 percent of the vote. She was arrested during the Occupy Wall Street protests, and encouraged her colleagues to follow suit.
And as Ms. Dickens rose in the leadership of the City Council, Ms. Mark-Viverto charted a new path, forming with a new class of council members, something called “The Progressive Caucus,” designed to push issues important to liberal and labor groups. Chief among their priorities was the implementation of a law that would guarantee a living wage for workers at all development projects subsidized with city money. Ms. Dickens supported the bill too, but then in November, abruptly changed her mind. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Ms. Dickens wrote that she was dropping her sponsorship of the bill. To political observers, the implications were clear and the battle lines were drawn: you want to kill jobs and hurt businesses, elect Melissa Mark-Viverito as your next speaker. The rest of you, stand with me.