Julissa, Corey, Mark Levine: The Three Real Candidates

Let’s get down to brass tacks about the Speaker’s race.

Some of the people who are announced candidates aren’t really running, or have zero chance of winning.  They are in there in order to establish leverage for something later, or as stalking horses for another candidate.

For example, Vanessa Gibson is supposedly running, but she can’t win, and must know it.  “She has zero chance,” says a member of the Bronx delegation.  Why not?  She is an experienced legislator, not too, too liberal, and a woman of color…sounds perfect.  But the Speaker of the Assembly is already from the Bronx.  There is no way that the Bronx is going to be allowed so much political dominance: neither the Mayor, nor the Queens or Brooklyn delegations would ever countenance it. 

Also, for an outer-borough member, in certain ways it is better not to try to become Speaker.  “It gives you less to bargain with for your delegation,” says the Bronx member quoted above.  If Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx gets the Speakership, then they lose out on other goodies, such as patronage positions, top committee chairs, precedence in capital allocations, etc. 

From a simplistic perspective, the Speaker race can be made to sound like a popularity contest. But if that were the case, neither the notoriously prickly Christine Quinn nor the aloof Melissa Mark-Viverito would have become Speaker.  The Speakership is a power play, and it is mostly decided not by individual councilmembers, but by the county bosses and the Mayor.  

Unless someone can sit down and explain to you their path to the Speakership and how it threads the needle of county leadership, then he or she isn’t a serious candidate for the position.  It is that simple.  Part of the path obviously means demonstrating trustworthiness to one’s colleagues…but that is only part of it.

Jumaane Williams is not really in consideration.  As an outer-borough member of the Progressive Bloc he has a hard road, because the core of that contingent is already coalesced around Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.   As a member from Brooklyn he operates at a notable disadvantage (explained in greater depth below.) Also, Jumaane is pro-life and (apparently still) anti-gay marriage.  So that’s a tough call.

Ydanis Rodriguez is not a real candidate.  His stated path consists of “reaching out to other members.”  He is close to the mayor, which could be a plus or a minus, depending on how things go with Preet Bharara.  But Rodriguez is hampered by ethical questions such as the job his wife held under his friend Commissioner Feniosky Pena-Mora, as well as questions of temperament.

Jimmy van Bramer is not really running either.  His explanation of his path is nebulous. The likelihood is that he is positioning himself to retain his Majority Leader position or to get a good chairmanship next time.

Robert Cornegy told me he isn't running.  He gets mentioned as a candidate, but says he is interested in pursuing influence outside of the Speaker's office.

Donovan Richards was said to be in the running, but says he is not.

Right now there are three real candidates for the Speakership: Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Corey Johnson, and Mark Levine.  If you talk to any councilmember who isn’t just mouthing words, they will agree that these are the serious candidates.

You will recall that in 2013 MMV was one of several credible candidates, including Dan Garodnick and Mark Weprin.  She won the Speakership because Bill de Blasio, newly elected, weighed in for her and put pressure on the Progressive Bloc to unify behind her.  He then assembled the additional seven or eight necessary votes by squeezing Kings County boss Frank Seddio to come along, with the promise of jobs for his regulars and key committee chairs.  

Julissa’s path to power is to stage a repeat of 2013: to get the Progressives aligned behind her, and have the mayor nudge Brooklyn and some independents to put her over the line.  But this vision, which worked for MMV, is seriously flawed.

First of all, the Progressive Caucus is diminished, both in size and power.  Several members of the PC who are listed on its website are either no longer members, or are only there nominally.  The PC was founded in 2010 in order to influence the Speakership: once that happened, the caucus lost its motive force.  Who needs the revolutionary vanguard once the revolution has won?    

Except for MMV, all of the PC members can run for another term, so they will not lose any members through attrition.  Ben Kallos has spoken of expanding the Caucus next term, but the odds of that happening seem unlikely.  A total of 8 CMs will vacate their seats, and there is a good chance that 5 of those seats will go to current state legislators, all of whom already have longstanding alliances outside the PC.  At the outside the PC could maybe pick up one extra member, and that is by no means assured.

The PC cannot count on member discipline this time around, either.  The fact that they were promised an internal Speaker primary in 2013 but then ordered to get in line for MMV has made the members mistrustful of the Caucus leadership.  Brad Lander is generally seen to be carrying water for Julissa’s campaign, and his appeals for “Progressive unity” are thinly veiled calls to get behind her candidacy now.  Such clumsy power plays within the PC have annoyed members who haven’t yet signed on to march, to Brad’s drumbeat, over the cliff of fealty to the cause. 

Furthermore, as I have mentioned before, Julissa is not on particularly close terms with the party organizations in either Queens or the Bronx.  She has always positioned herself as an insurgent.  It didn’t help that she alienated a number of Central Queens colleagues when she got the mayor to help her establish a Flushing Meadows-Corona Park conservancy that is more or less under her control.  She even had her Make the Road ally Javier Valdes placed on the conservancy board…though he appears to live in Brooklyn.  Rory Lancman has sued the mayor over the conservancy deal, and by all accounts the other CMs whose districts border the park are also annoyed.

Basically, Julissa has about 9 or 10 votes that are solidly for her…core Prog diehards.  To win the race she would need the mayor to repeat his 2013 squeeze, but de Blasio is in a much-reduced state now.  In Philadelphia at the DNC all the buzz was reportedly about how weak and ineffectual de Blasio is, and his dismal speaking slot didn’t help matters.  It was hard not to think, as the Mayor left the stage, and the “In Memorium” video began, that the funereal strains marked the bell tolling for him.  Even people who don't like de Blasio cringed at his diminishment. Sic transit gloria mundi.

One CM put the whole Speaker race like this: “If it’s a Mayor play, it’s Julissa; if it’s a County play, it’s Corey.” Joe Crowley and Marcus Crespo, not to mention Carl Heastie, are angry about how things went down last time.  “They felt humiliated,” says a knowledgeable insider, “and do not want to let the mayor pick the Speaker again.” Corey Johnson has been aggressively courting members of the Queens and Bronx delegations, and making nice to the County bosses.  

“Corey can out-hustle anyone,” says the CM quoted above.  As an example of how Corey operates, take a look at Carlina Rivera’s latest CFB filings. Johnson is listed as an intermediary for her campaign, having raised $14,950 for her from his donors.  Corey is the only elected official listed as an intermediary in the entire system: a significant signal to the rest of his colleagues that not only can he raise money for himself, but that he is willing to spread the wealth.

Mark Levine is a bit of a dark horse at this point…but he cannot be eliminated as a candidate.  As a Manhattan CM he occupies that neutral space between Brooklyn on one hand and the Bronx/Queens on the other which seems so crucial to the balance of power in New York.  Levine’s play is to keep himself as a viable alternative should either Corey or Julissa implode, or if a standoff ensues where neither of them is considered acceptable to one party, he could emerge as a compromise.

So that’s where we are at.  But things could change.  So stay posted.