Tensions Rising: Speaker's Race Mentioned in Chambers

There was an oddly tense moment at yesterday's executive budget hearing. David Greenfield had just finished a thunderous stemwinder on F express service to the MTA reps, and then Finance chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland turned the questioning over to Corey Johnson.

Johnson opened with a crack about Greenfield’s passion for speechifying about F train service and the plastic bag fee. The remark sounded harmless enough, given that CMs frequently tease each other in their clubby way. But Greenfield seemed annoyed: “Why don’t you talk about the Speaker’s race instead?” he retorted to Johnson (words to that effect; the video isn’t up yet.)

Usually CMs are pretty good about keeping up a solid front. Based on their public statements, for example, you would never know that the race to succeed Melissa Mark-Viverito is the primary obsessive question dominating their private conversations. So it is odd to hear someone as canny and careful as David Greenfield break the façade and reference the Speaker’s race on the public record, 19 months ahead of time, with the two leading candidates for the job (Johnson and Ferreras-Copeland) sitting right there.

So what’s happening? Basically one has to appreciate David Greenfield’s role in the Brooklyn delegation and his close relationship to Kings County boss Frank Seddio. Recall what happened in 2014: Seddio, encouraged by the new mayor, broke with Joe Crowley and Carl Heastie of Queens and the Bronx, and threw his votes with the Progressive Bloc. The Bloc, which was in theory supposed to have an internal vote to pick a candidate, was informed by Brad Lander that they had to coalesce behind MMV immediately or lose their chance to pick the speaker. The Bloc’s 16 or 17 votes plus Seddio’s 7 or 8 pushed MMV close enough to 26 to draw the unaligned CMs over, and that was it.

Greenfield got Land Use out of the deal; Gentile was given a committee at long last; and the new speaker made up some posts for the rest of the delegation. But really, what did Seddio’s organization get out of the deal? Not much. “Frank is not happy,” said one non-Brooklyn CM. “He was supposed to get City Hall jobs for some of his people, but the mayor gave all the Brooklyn jobs to Park Slope allies.”

So what does that mean for Greenfield? Let’s look at the candidacy of Julissa Ferreras-Copeland. She is the mayor’s choice for speaker. Melissa Mark-Viverito also wants JFC for the role. By all accounts Brad Lander is trying to get the Progressive Caucus to agree to remain united—which is weird because at least 4 members of the Caucus are at least nominally running for speaker—and he also wants JFC. JFC’s path to victory is a repeat of 2014. She is not close to the Queens Dems—her entire career from Hiram Monserrate until now has been based on being an insurgent WFP candidate. She will need de Blasio and the Progressives to convince Seddio to throw in with them, and then to pick up some stray undecided votes.

So what’s wrong with this picture? First of all, the members of the Progressive Caucus are resistant to Brad Lander’s demands for them to swear a death pact of loyalty that will essentially make him a kingmaker. (One non-Progressive CM even told me that Lander is hoping to become Speaker himself. “Look what happened to Brad when he helped Melissa,” the CM said. “She got annoyed when people started calling him the ‘shadow speaker,’ and pushed him to the side. So why would he do the same thing again, this time with Melissa’s close ally Julissa?” I find the logic here unassailable—if we were not talking about someone with the overweening pride of Brad Lander. I think Lander imagines that he has a better relationship with JFC than he did with MMV, and that he will take on a more significant leadership role in the next Council if she is speaker.) So it is not clear that the Progressives will be a bloc next time—indeed there are already indications that the Caucus, which was really formed to make MMV speaker and support de Blasio’s mayoral candidacy, has lost its motive force and is substantially weaker now.

But they aren’t the only ones who are weaker now. Mayor de Blasio has a great deal of trouble, and no longer is overflowing with excess political capital. Andrew Cuomo has waged a scorched earth policy against de Blasio and successfully wrong-footed him at every turn. De Blasio blew his endorsement of Hillary Clinton by trying to induce her to woo him. He could conceivably be indicted by mighty Preet. Powerful unions have deserted the WFP. So the chance that de Blasio will be able to call up a county boss and put the squeeze on to get his favorite councilmember the speakership grows increasingly less likely.

At the same time, Corey Johnson has become the Sammy Glick of the council—pushy, arrogant, thirsty and slick. “He is very aggressively courting voters,” grumbled one CM several months ago. “It is because of him that the race for speaker has become so heated this early.” Another CM told me that “Corey is rapidly becoming the most unpopular member of the council,” while nevertheless acknowledging that Johnson is certainly a serious candidate.

So on one side we see David Greenfield, whose faction controls between 7 and 9 votes, but whose authority to elect the speaker is diminished from last time. At stake for Greenfield is his powerful chairmanship, as well as goodies for the Brooklyn delegation. But his power—like that of Brad Lander—depends on quiet waters in the council. Similarly, Julissa Ferreras-Copeland has been playing a kind of Rose Garden strategy, and hasn’t been actively campaigning amongst her colleagues: her plan is to have de Blasio make her the speaker. Johnson has set the cat among the pigeons: by campaigning early and often he has forced the issue into the open well before it would have otherwise arisen.

So that explains why David Greenfield snapped at him today. He would prefer all this to be dealt with over a year from now.

But I don’t want you to think that this explanation above summarizes the entire race! There are at least two or three other candidates who have a plausible shot at becoming speaker. It is true that Julissa and Corey are the current frontrunners…but a lot can happen in a year and a half.


--What happens if Hillary wins and appoints MMV to run that office of immigrant affairs she mentioned? Then the existing Council will have to vote for an interim speaker!

--Who will fill the seats of the eight term-limited CMs? (Vacca, Palma, Mendez, Garodnick, Dickens [who may leave early anyway if Keith Wright wins], MMV, Mealy, Gentile) And how will that affect the Speaker’s race? (Also Ruben Wills, who hasn’t shown up for work in months.)

--Who’s in third place? We still have to talk about Mark Levine, Ydanis Rodriguez, Jimmy van Bramer, Vanessa Gibson, Robert Cornegy, Jumaane Williams…and maybe Donovan Richards?