Speaker’s Race: A Small But Crucial ‘Election’

A Personal Perspective

With all the controversies surrounding our national politics, many of us may have forgotten to pay attention to a very important campaign in our city.

In nearly a month, New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito will be termed out of her council seat and, along with it, her powerful position as speaker.

There are approximately eight council members campaigning within the membership to replace Mark-Viverito. Two of the candidates are from our borough of Queens—Councilmen Donavan Richards (District 31) and Jimmy Van Bramer (District 26).

Arguably, the most powerful position after mayor, the council speaker oversees a budget that whole nations would envy in far-flung parts of the world. The speaker makes sure that city services are budgeted—such as funding libraries and fighting hunger.

To become speaker, a candidate doesn’t get voted in during an election, but must receive the support of at least 26 of the 51 council members in the legislative body. The general public does not have a say in this election.

Rather, it’s all about county leaders and union bosses advocating for a preferred candidate. It’s also about which of the candidates can persuade the most incoming members to support their candidacy.

For example, in 2001, when most of the veteran members were being termed out and there were almost 30 new members coming in, Gifford Miller—a young, preppy Manhattanite—created an organization to support candidates who were most likely to succeed outgoing members and, thereby, give himself the opportunity to lobby those hopefuls after they won to support his candidacy.

The dynamic Miller also made early inroads with the county leaders and other powerbrokers and got the numbers. At age 32, he succeeded Queens’ Peter Vallone, Sr. to become speaker for one term before being termed out himself. He was succeeded by Christine Quinn, who had also supported Miller and learned his winning strategy.

Those who support the eventually winning candidate are typically rewarded with coveted committee appointments and support for their district projects. Members have to be strategic as to how they play their cards. Bet on the wrong candidate and you could lose out.

Last time out, Manhattan resident Mark-Viverito got a boost from then-newly-elected Mayor Bill de Blasio—and he has said that he’ll get involved again this time. Sometimes, two borough leaders decide to join forces to support a candidate. Queens and the Bronx make powerful allies.

And they don’t always support candidates from their own borough, but rather a candidate whom they believe will be a great speaker and take care of their boroughs.

At the moment, Manhattan’s Corey Johnson and Mark Levine seem to have the inside track. But it’s not too late for Richards, Van Bramer or someone from Brooklyn or the Bronx to pull ahead of the pack.

Seven of the eight candidates will also play an important role as kingmakers in this race. They know what their chances of winning are and will eventually support the person most likely to win. They will be rewarded not just with plum committees, but also with leadership positions under the speaker.

May the best man win.

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