What Really Matters: Who's Running for Speaker?

As the Council gets into the second half of its current term, debate is heating up among the Members.  So what is the big issue now?  Is it decriminalization of petty crime?  Is it economic inequality?  The schools?  Affordable housing?  Banning carbon emissions?

If you imagine that any of these matters is foremost on councilmembers’ minds, you haven’t been paying attention to the low level of backbiting and petty squabbling that defines our (almost) one-party unicameral legislative body.  The primary focus and main gossip of the city council now is: Who will be elected Speaker in January 2018?

When Mayor-elect de Blasio shoehorned Melissa Mark-Viverito into the Speakership, he did so fully cognizant that she would serve as a lame duck.  Term-limited, MMV was handicapped from the start from wielding total fear-inducing authority over the Council in the style of Archduke Chris Quinn.  In promoting his loyal comrade and ally Mark-Viverito, de Blasio ensured that he would have a consistent rubber-stamp at his disposal, and that he would still be able to put the squeeze on individual councilmembers who knew that he would almost certainly be around longer than she would.

So while MMV still has the power of the Speaker’s pot of discretionary money to spread around, her authority over the Council remains largely as the Mayor’s cat’s paw.  No one has yet adduced any significant moment of difference or conflict between Mark-Viverito and de Blasio, and I do not accept that the 1300 extra cops was anything but a bit of theater.  She wants to write an amicus brief in support of building a mall in Queens, after he's moved on from that fight?  Please. 

Everyone, then, is looking to the future.  Who are the players in the next race for the Speakership?

Here is a list of candidates, in geographical order: Vanessa Gibson, Ydanis Rodriguez, Mark Levine, Corey Johnson, Jimmy van Bramer, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Donovan Richards, Jumaane Williams and Robert Cornegy.  If you think I have erred, please say so.

By all accounts, the Mayor (along with MMV) favors Julissa Ferreras, who is an old-time loyalist and partner from the 2009 WFP/DFS days.  She was made the chair of Finance because it was known that she would fit pliably into the Mark-Viverito/de Blasio sphere as a good soldier and ally.  Brad Lander is keeping himself busy these days trying to shore up support for JFC, and is tinkering with the engine of the Progressive Caucus, getting it tuned up for another run.  The PC was originated as a vehicle to bring MMV into power, so why not go for a repeat?

The hitch this time is that the bloom is off the de Blasio rose, at least somewhat and so far.  In 2013/14 the Mayor was fresh off his big win, and he was able to reach out to individual Brooklyn members to persuade them to get on board with his plan for a unified City Hall.  Between the Progressive Bloc and a few Kings County defectors, de Blasio was able to shift the balance enough for boss Frank Seddio to see where things were heading and to leave Queens Dem chief Joe Crowley in the lurch.

It helped that MMV was from Manhattan.  The Brooklyn machine doesn’t want a Bronx or Queens Speaker, and vice-versa.  Manhattan has served as the compromise borough for the Speakership for twenty years, and this arrangement has provided checks and balances on the power of the county machinery.

The issue with Julissa Ferreras-Copeland is less that she is from Queens, however, than that she is at odds with the Queens County machine.  She and her onetime mentor Hiram Monserrate ran as insurgents, and she has never really played along with Crowley or the party organization.  Rumors abound that she is seeking a primary challenger to her onetime Council opponent and Queens County Dem regular Assemblyman Francisco Moya, which if true will not salve many open wounds in Corona.

Maybe de Blasio will do the same thing he did last time, and use his Brooklyn influence to install his chosen Speaker.  Brad Lander is trying to get the members of the Progressive Caucus to vow to align themselves as a Spartan bloc, so with those votes and Brooklyn, the rest of Queens and the Bronx could be again discounted entirely.

Except one thing is very, very different in New York politics now: Carl Heastie is in charge of the State Assembly.  When Sheldon Silver was Assembly Speaker, he made a point of not involving himself in the internal politics of the Council.  But with Heastie as Speaker and de facto Bronx County boss, de Blasio will be less able to ignore the close team of Heastie/Crowley and get his own way in the Council.  With Cuomo and de Blasio still in a blood feud, the mayor desperately needs a friend in Albany if he wants to get anything done in Term Two.  And that could include letting the Queens and Bronx machines pick the Council Speaker.

Next time: the other candidates.