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.
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.”
Eight years ago, Bill de Blasio tried something similar, trying to appeal to individual council members, while Ms. Quinn appealed to the party bosses directly—and of course, went on to win. And no one suggests that the WFP could elect a majority of the City Council, so the Progressive Caucus will still have to horse-trade with a county party.
If the Progressive Caucus is able to hold together, there could a competition among them to be the first to bring their home borough on board. Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the county leader of the Bronx, is viewed as an ideological fellow-traveler. Assemblyman Vito Lopez, the county leader of Brooklyn, could look to solidify himself against WFP challenges. Congressman Joe Crowley, the leader of the Queens Democrats, is a further reach (as are the block of Republicans for that matter, who also get a vote in the speaker’s race) but he may not support Ms. Dickens either, and instead put forward his own candidate—Mark Weprin, a well-liked freshman lawmaker who didn’t run for Anthony Weiner’s open congressional seat for the chance of rising in the Council’s leadership. (Instead, the party’s nod went to his brother, David Weprin, who turned out to be something of a disaster of a candidate and went on to lose to a Republican in a big upset.)
In the end, Mr. Weprin could turn out to be the consensus pick if the two council members from Harlem cancel each other out, but a number of lawmakers said that it is hard to imagine the next Council speaker being a white guy from Queens when the Council is now a majority of minority members.
Ms. Dickens declined to be interviewed for this article, but a spokeswoman, Lynette Velasco, made this appeal plain, saying, “As far as the possibility of becoming the first African-American woman speaker, she has thought about it. She is not going to tell people she hasn’t thought about it.”
Asked why Ms. Dickens would make a good speaker, Ms. Velasco responded, “Look at her record. She has been a very phenomenal council person. She has a great deal of private sector experience and she has also dealt with the public and she knows the political landscape of this city.”
And she added that Ms. Dickens “has worked very closely with Speaker Quinn. She feels she has been a great leader.”
Ms. Mark-Viverito isn’t too inclined to speak about the possibility of becoming the next speaker either. The Observer caught up with her at an El Barrio schoolhouse, where she was gathered with other local lawmakers for a presentation on cyber-bullying.
“Obviously, in situations like this you explore different options,” she said. “It’s not something to discard. I am not sure what I am doing, but I am very flattered to hear my name thrown out there.”
She hinted too that her best chance would be to boost the ranks of her ideological comrades.
“We are a progressive caucus. We obviously have an agenda, we obviously have issues and interests as a caucus that we want promoted and our is interest is always going to be how to expand the support we have. We are looking at some of the races to come. We would love to expand the Progressive Caucus. We all know term limits are there. There are a lot of possibilities.”
Back in the classroom, Ms. Mark-Viverito stood and listened patiently as a Ms. New York, in full tiara and sash, explained the dangers of cyber-bullying. After she was finished, local Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez, the son of one of the original barons of El Barrio and someone who actually challenged Ms. Mark-Viverito in a primary only three years ago (in a further sign that she had failed to even galvanize her own district) explained to the youngsters that they needed to pay attention, because they were the next generation.
“We will be done in a little while. Somebody is going to take our place,” he said.
Ms. Mark-Viverito bolted from her chair and interjected.
“No!” she said. “Speak for yourself.”