Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste)
New York City is well on its way to correcting the policies of 20 years of Republican rule, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito said during an interview last week. Discussing her time as Speaker, upcoming priorities, working with Mayor Bill de Blasio, and more, Mark-Viverito spoke with Gotham Gazette at length in the Speaker’s office at City Hall.
On a relatively quiet August Thursday, Mark-Viverito addressed a wide range of topics, from her approach to leading the Council through the legislative process to taking criticism from both the left and the right, an effort she’s spearheading to create a plan for closing Rikers Island jails, the importance of updating the city’s Fair Share law, and beyond.
Mark-Viverito said City Council members must be open to working with their communities to compassionately address the homelessness crisis in the city while the de Blasio administration’s policies chip away at the need, but that communities already home to a significant number of shelter beds, like her East Harlem district, should not be further overburdened.
While she acknowledged a lot more to do on homelessness and other challenges facing the city, Mark-Viverito said that the joint effort by her Council and the de Blasio administration to make a more equal city is “heading in the right direction.”
“We have to put things in perspective, right, we’re dealing with a city as large as New York - so, bureaucracy exists - and we’re dealing with, prior to this mayor coming in, of 20 years of Republican rule, in essence. Bloomberg wanted to play footsie and be in two parties and was a Democrat, became a Republican, independent, whatever it was - but in essence, it was Republican policies, and you don’t switch and turn that ship around overnight, and even two-and-a-half years in, it’s still a short window within a larger period of time, so I think that you are seeing some changes, and you’re trying to rectify and create greater balance where there was great imbalance; and certain communities felt it more than others,” Mark-Viverito said.
The speaker is a little more than two-and-a-half years into her four-year term - her third in the Council and only term as speaker. She said her focus is mainly on the work at hand, that she is not thinking too much yet about what she will do when she is term-limited out of office at the end of 2017. With speculation that she may be offered a position in a Hillary Clinton administration, she did indicate that she feels “very strongly” that she wants to finish her term, but that she is also open to a wide variety of possible next steps. She wanted to make clear that she is not traveling the country promoting Clinton’s presidential candidacy in order to land a job.
“I will challenge...the idea that the only reason I’m doing this is because I’m trying to leverage a position, which some people may have that point of thinking,” Mark-Viverito said. “That was never it. Again, if people know me and know who I am, I really support Hillary because I believe in her and I believe in what she will do for this country and what she can do for our city and what she can do for communities like the one I represent. And the issue of Puerto Rico is very, very much a priority for me personally, so I’m interested in having a President that is going to be a partner with the island and that is going to really make that a priority to figure out how do we help get Puerto Rico out of its situation.”
Most of the interview focused on what’s been happening in New York City, though, and the work that lies ahead. It was clear that Mark-Viverito is most proud of the municipal identification card program that she and the Council helped create, other immigrant-focused initiatives, and criminal justice reforms. It's clear that Mark-Viverito is thinking about what she will have helped put in place during her tenure - and that she wants credit for the work that she and the Council have done.
The speaker also maintained that she is not always in lockstep with de Blasio and that the Council is not slipping in its oversight role. She promised an upcoming hearing on the city’s controversial removal of deed restrictions on a Lower East Side nursing home, which the Council announced on Wednesday as set for September 29.
She said that there are private conversations happening all the time and that just because she is not a public bomb-thrower, it does not mean that she and her team are not assertively negotiating with the administration all the time. She declined to divulge the instances where she felt implored to contact de Blasio herself, even when offered a menu that included Uber, horse carriages, and Mandatory Inclusionary Housing.
Saying that she is set on having an outline of ‘incremental’ steps ready for a “long-term” plan to close Rikers Island jails by her next State of the City address, in February, Mark-Viverito brought up her “legacy.” “I’m going to be gone at the end of 2017,” she said, “and there’s stuff that I want to leave in place, that I want to continue to have its impact, and that will have helped make this city more fair and just.”
She also acknowledged, with a hearty laugh, that her timeline for getting things done as Speaker will collide with the mayor’s 2017 re-election campaign.
By and large, there is a lot of synergy, of course. Mark-Viverito expressed pride about accomplishments during her tenure and gave an unequivocal “yes” when asked if de Blasio deserves to be re-elected.
“I believe the philosophy and the point of view - the perspective - that this administration holds, that which I subscribe to - we may have different approaches on how to get there, right, but in essence, if you’re talk about creating more equality and opportunity for communities that have been on the receiving end of these systemic injustices, then it’s going to take time,” she said. “But, with all these things being implemented, at some point it all starts gelling and you’ll start seeing the rewards of that down the line. I think that we’re on the right path. We can always analyze it and do hearings and look at the statistics and look at the numbers, but in some of these cases, we’ve already started to see some of the benefits in that.”
Interestingly, throughout the course of the interview, Mark-Viverito said that neither de Blasio nor the Council is getting enough credit for the change they are making. She said she and the mayor have largely been on the same page for years.
“Bill and I were colleagues here in the Council, so our relationship goes back a long time, so the respect goes back very far as well,” Mark-Viverito said of the mayor. “So the partnership is strong because of that...I believe that what he’s proposing to do and what he’s been doing - which I think in some cases he doesn’t get enough credit for, maybe they haven’t done the best job of communicating it, right, whatever it is - but I really think that when you talk about, obviously going back to the pre-K, which is critical; when you talk about the muni-ID, which he joined us on; you talk about paid sick leave and creating those opportunities for people in the workplace; you talk about the changes he’s trying to make our educational system more fair and equitable.”
Listen to the audio of the full interview below or download on iTunes. Below the audio embed are more written highlights from the interview. See the full transcript of the Q&A here.
August 25, 2016 at City Hall -- New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito talks with Gotham Gazette’s Ben Max -- Excerpts:
On a recent Twitter dust-up with the Department of Transportation:
Melissa Mark-Viverito (MMV): [W]hat we’ve been entrusted to do is to be able to facilitate and cut through the red tape of the bureaucracy, and that is our responsibility. It’s not like we’re asking for more and better attention than others, but that comes with the responsibility of being an elected official that passes the budget for the City of New York and that our responsibility is to interact on a daily basis with city agencies to facilitate projects on behalf of our consistents and our districts. So, if I’m directly, as the elected official, interacting with a city agency to say this is something that is a problem in my district - I’m not asking for a personal favor -...I’m saying, this is something that should be addressed, then I don’t expect a bureaucratic response, that’s the reality…
[I]t got a little bit heavier than it needed to, I think, but I’m glad that it got addressed, and I’m glad that the Department of Transportation paid attention to it and that it got resolved...I think anybody who knows me and knows the way that I’ve carried myself, and that I carry myself, the last thing from my mind was entitlement.
On her comments that a bill with a vast majority of Council sponsors doesn’t automatically get passed:
MMV: Many times a bill as originally heard has to go through amendments. Things may be taken out, things may be added in. That’s part of negotiation or of compromise. So it’s not just there’s a lot of analysis and thought that goes into a bill, this is now something that’s going to hang over our heads as a city. So it’s not just a matter of saying ‘the magic number is 36, get it passed,’ there’s still a lot of legwork that has to go with it...I mean we have to be very deliberative, we’re a legislative body, and we have to be really thoughtful about the things that we do and we have to take every opinion into account...And a lot of times, even I as a Council member, I would adjust based on information that I was getting that I hadn’t necessarily heard of. So it’s part of a process that sometimes with issues that may be a little bit more contentions or complicated, takes longer to get through and to sort through....I take my responsibility very seriously, and I think all of us as legislators do, so that’s part of the process into any sort of legislation.
On taking criticism:
MMV: Part of the job is also getting and taking the criticism. Understanding that not everybody has all the information and may be making a decision or judgement lacking the full context. And that’s part of it - you develop a thick skin, you’re able to move on, you do your work, you’ve got to govern, you can’t get too mired in that, and just figure out a way that we advance and make progress, which is at the end of the day what I feel I’m here to do. We want to move forward. Maybe for some people the pace may be slower than they would like, but my perspective, or my philosophy, is that if we’ve moved the gauge forward - 5, 10, 20, 50 percent - I feel we’ve made progress and I think that’s something I would be proud of.
On whether she’s become more moderate as Speaker than she was as a rank-and-file Council member:
MMV: I don’t think so. I believe I have to be more thoughtful and I have to be more balanced in being able to hear other perspectives and maybe take things a little bit more slowly or measured...But I believe that what we’ve done, the work we’ve done is extremely progressive as a Council. We’ve taken on some issues that we’ve gotten a lot of national attention on...when it comes to immigration reform, criminal justice reform. I don’t think we get enough credit for the actual changes that we’ve been able to implement and how we’ve been able to move the agenda forward. So I think that I’m really proud of that, and understanding that as the leader of this legislative body, there’s more that I have to factor than just my personal point of view, or my own district’s point of view - I’ve got a city to also look at, other districts that may be a little bit more conservative than mine, other factors that play into it; that also we have to lead and govern making sure all those voices in some ways are being heard.
On who isn’t giving the Council “enough credit”?
MMV: Well, I don’t think enough - that people when they talk about the criminal justice reform work that’s happened, they don’t really look at the breadth of what we’ve done - the bail reform work that we’ve done, the Criminal Justice Reform Act, and the way we look at summonses, and other things that we’ve taken into account or done that really is making a difference and will make a difference in people’s lives. And I’m really excited about that. I’m going to leave here with a record, I think, of real progress.
On criticism about the Right to Know Act compromise from family members of people who have been killed by NYPD officers:
MMV: Listen, these families have gone through a horrific reality. Something that nobody wishes on anybody. Obviously there’s pain that never goes away, and those voices, they have the right to express themselves, and in some cases justice needs to be served. So, you take that, you listen to it, you interact, more than happy to engage with the family members. But it’s part of the deliberative process, it’s part of getting that feedback on anything we do, we’re always going to get people that may not agree exactly with it, but I’ve been very clear and anybody that knows me, I’m probably one of the least political people that you’ll meet, in the sense that I really do something, especially something as sensitive as this, something that I’ve worked so hard on and something that I’ve been involved in as a Council member, something that impacts my district directly, and that we hear a lot of it as well - it’s something that I believe in my heart is that the way we’ve approached it is the right way for now.
And I’ve been very clear, that from a place where the NYPD indicated that these were ‘anti-cop’ bills to the point now that they are incorporating and putting forth elements of these bills, to the point where we’re going to be seeing it implemented on the ground - I want to see that play out, and legislation is not off the table, right, let’s see how it works out and let’s how it moves forward, and if we don’t feel progress enough has been made, then we can look at other alternatives. So, I’m very clear, I’m transparent about where I am, but I really believe that we have moved the ball forward in this case, and that we will see the results of that soon enough. They have time, they have to implement it, we can watch it, we can monitor it, we can have a hearing about it, see how it’s going, and then figure out the next steps after that.
On criticism from the right that city government is going too far:
MMV: In what ways, right? We’re two-and-a-half years in, things have been implemented and the city is not going to hell in a handbasket, right? Obviously, we’re not perfect, but, I think that with anything, what I tell people about legislation is: the same way you can implement it, the same way you can roll it back. You can put something in effect and being responsible, you monitor it, and if things are not going the way you want, you can always make adjustments to improve on legislation, or to figure out ways you maybe curtail it...[I]t’s validating and embracing people and communities that have been marginalized for so long; it’s trying to correct systemic injustices that have existed for too long...I’m very happy about what we’ve accomplished and what we’re accomplishing, what we have yet to do, and I think we’re proving the naysayers wrong.
On whether the Council is slipping in its oversight role because there is so much synergy with the de Blasio administration:
MMV: No, not at all. I think there’s been issues, clearly, where we’ve been at really strong odds. In the budget negotiations there have been things that were not originally a priority of the mayor that we have gotten him to reevaluate. Just because something is not a public fight doesn’t mean that we’re not doing our job, right. There’s hearings, and there’ve been some hearings that have been contentious on certain issues. There’s also a lot of negotiations and conversations that happen outside of even the hearing structure. There’s conversations we’re having every day with the administration on different issues that come up. We put in our point of view to get them to adjust - conversations that we have with the NYPD - so there’s a lot of work outside of just the oversight hearings themselves that has led to changes, and has led to looking at things in a different way. We have had very aggressive hearings on different issues - the housing hearings; we also talk about NYCHA oversight, there’s been a lot of aggressive work we’ve done on that front - and on other issues...Rivington, we’re going to have the deed restriction hearing coming up soon.
On fighting homelessness and the responsibility of Council members and communities:
MMV: Look, I believe the Fair Share reality needs to be really looked at. I think there needs to be more equity in the way that services are distributed. There are literally some districts that have no shelters in them. You look at one like mine, that we have probably over 2,000, 3,000 beds. So the issue of equity comes into the siting of services as well. And that’s a real challenge. When we’ve talked about the conversation about closing Rikers, of bringing services more locally to neighborhoods, because the people at Rikers are from our neighborhoods. There’s a resistance to that as well. But, that’s the challenge that we have to put forward, to every community - that we all have a responsibility, right, to each other, and to making this city thrive and more equitable....
On the issue of the siting of homeless shelters, we’ve actually had Democratic conferences with the commissioner of DHS at the time and we’ve talked about these things. We’ve brought the conversation locally to members and said, ‘you know we have a real crisis here and we have to really address this,’ and there may be some districts that push back against, but that we really should be welcoming of it. And some members that are having pushback in their neighborhoods but are willing to push forward - I think Danny Dromm is an example of one; I think Daneek Miller was saying he was navigating those waters and he was getting some pushback, but he understood the importance of it. Sometimes I’ve had that in my district, too - initially there may be some resistance, but if it’s the right thing to do you have to come and engage your constituents and explain why you believe this is the right thing to do even though they may be opposed to it. And I have found that when you really engage in that conversation and take the time to really explain the process of your thinking and why, even if people don’t agree with you they’ll respect that, and you can work with your constituents and navigate through that. But it’s been a challenge, and on the issue of homelessness we’ve had this conversation at the local level with members, and pushing them and saying, ‘look we’ve got to do something about this.’ Because there’s some conversation happening now where some members are really pushing back.
On what’s next:
MMV: [I]n terms of the experience I’ve gained as a Council member, now as Speaker, I definitely want to continue to be influential in city politics. Meaning policy changes, conversations to that end. And figure out what that is - what is the right mix, what would the right role be, maybe it’s creating a role for myself, I have to think about it. Going into the philanthropic sector; whatever it is - you don’t know what life has in store. So, I’m not there yet, but obviously the people that are really important to me, and that are my mentors, that have kept me grounded, and give me guidance - I start throwing ideas about, look I’ve gotta start thinking about this. What would be the ideal role for me or situation for me. So I’m thinking about it - not spending too much time yet, but I’m starting to think about it.
On if that means no return to Puerto Rico:
MMV: Well. You know, I don’t close doors. Again, three months from now you don’t know what opportunities may emerge...I do feel very strongly that I want to finish my term. I know people keep throwing out there different ideas for what may be in store for me.
There’s a lot more to the interview. Read the full transcript here; listen to the audio via the Soundcloud embed above or download on iTunes.