For labor and progressive groups, putting one of their own in the speaker’s chair has become a top priority heading into the next election cycle, especially since the current speaker, Christine Quinn, has emerged as the early front-runner in the mayoral race with a promise to continue the moderate, pro-business policies of Michael Bloomberg.
“You are already starting to see some people in labor concede that Quinn is going to be the mayor,” said one union official. “And they are going to want to see a City Council that is not going to roll over for her.”
Hence, the early scouting for support from the city’s labor unions. But labor doesn’t decide who the next speaker of the City Council is; the leaders of each borough’s Democratic party do. Speaker races have been traditionally the last bastion of old-school machine politics, with county leaders promising to deliver their council members as a bloc of votes in exchange for plum committee assignments and pork.
“The deal is usually something like, you get the speakership, and we get finance and land use [committee chairmanships],” said Mr. Muzzio. “It’s the stuff of politics on the ground. It’s patronage. It’s jobs. The county leaders aren’t motivated by policy. They are motivated by power. They are totally transactional and they want to win.”
Ms. Dickens is known around the City Council as a lawmaker always looking to cut a deal and always keeps an eye on the politics; Ms. Mark-Viverito by contrast, is not afraid to throw bombs when necessary. Some of her colleagues call her “Fidel” behind her back.
And it is because Ms. Dickens seems like someone with whom the county bosses can play ball that leads most political observers to think she is the front-runner to be the Council’s next leader.
“Inez has respect for the way things have been done in the past. Melissa has no respect for the way things have been done in the past,” said one veteran of several speaker races. “County leaders come from the school of thought that says they get to make the decision. Who do you think they are likely to go with? Melissa is a such a true believer, I am sure they feel like even if they came to her and wanted to propose something, [she] would dismiss it out of hand.”
Plus, if Ms. Quinn does indeed win the mayoralty, it is widely thought that she would prefer to have Ms. Dickens replace her in the speaker’s chair, both to shore up support among the African-American community and in the hopes of having a less confrontational City Council.
“Queens will support her because she has worked well with them and they don’t want the speakership,” said one person backing Ms. Dickens. “Look at what their City Council people have and you will find that they have all of the good pieces, and that’s the price you pay for supporting the speaker. If she can get Queens and hold Manhattan, she is most of the way there.”
But holding Manhattan is no guarantee. Although the leader of the New York County Democratic Committee, Assemblyman Keith Wright, is, like Ms. Dickens, part of the Harlem establishment, Manhattan has traditionally been less inclined to votes as a block. Ms. Mark-Viverito will likely peel off a few of those votes, but her strategy to become the next speaker of the City Council and move the body in a more left-leaning direction depends, in part, on upending the whole county boss system.
Most of the members of the Progressive Caucus that she leads (along with Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander) owe their spot on the City Council less to the county machines and more to the Working Families party, the third-party coalition of labor and progressive groups that has proved remarkably adept at winning local races in recent years. Indeed, many of the members actually ran opposed to the county parties. With 2013 approaching, the WFP and their labor allies are planning an all-out assault to get more of their own candidates onto the City Council. These new members would then, presumably, bloc with the progressive caucus, instead of their old home county.
It is a fraught prospect.
“A lot of it depends on how many members are really in the Progressive Caucus,” said one lawmaker. “They say they have 12, but do they really have 12? How many of them don’t have a first loyalty their county organization.”