The Race For Speaker

By Mark Berkey-Gerard

After months of campaigning and four separate Election Days, even some who live and breathe New York politics have had enough of campaign 2001.

"For us political junkies this has been a long run," said Harlem Councilmember Bill Perkins the day after the general election. "In the end, I didn't even care who won."

But Perkins, who easily won reelection with 86 percent of the vote, is nevertheless running yet again. This time, the race is for the Speaker of theCity Council.

He is one of as many as eight candidates looking to become what is said to be the second most powerful public official in New York City. Next to the mayor, the speaker is largely responsible for what laws get passed, which city programs get cut or expanded, when taxes are raised or lowered.

And the new speaker will lead the city council at a time when the two most important roles of the council -- oversight of the budget and of land use -- are more critical than ever, as the city faces unprecedented budget deficits, a slowing economy, and the challenge of rebuilding lower Manhattan.

The new speaker will be the main person who will work with -- and confront --the new mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has no previous political experience. "Bloomberg is new, his staff may or may not be new," said newly elected Councilmember Gale Brewer. "We have to be vigilant and we need a strong speaker."

But the next speaker must also deal with a job whose power, duties and very definition,thanks largely to term limits, are all in flux -- as is the body the speaker will lead.

"The council as an entity has a big stake in organizing itself into a powerful body," said John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. "If there is open warfare and discord in the council, it will enable the other half of City Hall" -- the mayor -- "to do what it wants."

Despite the importance of the position, unlike every other important race in Campaign 2001,voters have no say in who becomes the Speaker. That will be decided by just 26 people.

WHY IT MATTERS

While no one knows exactly how the new speaker and council will function, it is certain that the challenges that they and the new mayor face are immense.

Mayor-elect Bloomberg estimated that next year's budget deficit would be $2.5 billion. Mayor Rudy Giuliani has already called for 15 percent cuts in most city agencies. Several large unions, including those representing schoolteachers and police officers are still without new contracts. In early October, the comptroller estimated as many 150,000 jobs could be lost or temporarily moved outside Manhattan.

There are those who believe that New Yorkers should be able to turn to the city council, not just the mayor, in these difficult times.

"We only saw one arm of city government in response to the attacks on the World Trade Center," said Perkins. "Imagine if we could have organized the council in the days after the attack to say, 'Contact your local council person to get help and relief.'"

The unanswered question is, why couldn't they have? And will the new city council be able to do something like that in the future?

THE CAMPAIGN FOR SPEAKER

On January 9, 2002, a week after the new members of the City Council officially take office, their first task will be to elect their own leader. To become the next speaker, a council member needs 26 of the 51 votes in the council. The members keep voting until someone gets a majority.

"The situation this year is fluid, if not downright chaotic, and could resemble the 1924 Democratic convention when it took 103 ballots and 17 days to choose a nominee," said Douglas Muzzio of the Baruch School of Public Affairs.

In order to get votes, the candidates make deals, promising their colleagues that they will assign them to certain committees or approve their pet proposals. The political party leaders from each borough, and local unions, also have a stake in the vote, and try to deliver council members in blocs.

Who is the frontrunner? Some say it is Angel Rodriguez, a council member from southwest Brooklyn who has served on the finance committee, as chair of the Black and Latino Caucus, and who dreams that the Brooklyn waterfront will some day be a collection of parks and beaches.

Others say it is the Upper East Side's Gifford Miller. Earlier this year, Miller, who is 32 years old and has been on the council for four years, formed a group to help new council members get elected, in hopes that they would then support him as speaker.

Still others say East Harlem's Phil Reed or Harlem's Bill Perkins would be a good fit, with their charisma and outspoken advocacy for issues like affordable housing, AIDS funding, and improved education.

Also in the mix is the soft-spoken Al Vann of Brooklyn, who after serving 27 years in the New York State Assembly, has come to City Hall with his eyes on being the next speaker.

There are also three new members who are already calling for reforms of how things are done at City Hall, and are viewed as likely candidates for speaker: Bill DeBlasio, who managed Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign; David Weprin, son of Assemblyman Saul Weprin; and Melinda Katz, who served in the state assembly.

"It's pretty much up for grabs," said Barbara Fife of the Baruch School of Public Affairs.

NEW SPEAKER, NEW VISION

The current City Council Speaker Peter Vallone sometimes jokes that he is "the most progressive speaker in the history of the city." He is also, of course, the most regressive. That is because he has been the only speaker since the new city charter beefed up the power of what had been a largely ceremonial city council and created the job of city council speaker in 1989, as a replacement for the job of council majority leader. (When that happened, Vallone had been majority leader for three years).

Vallone is often credited with strengthening the council as a legislative body and as a more effective counter-balance to the mayor. He also used his role to discipline council members who did not go along with his agenda; he was known to strip members of their committee assignments or withhold funds from members who went against his wishes.

Under Vallone, the speaker has controlled nearly everything at the city council. He has hired the central staff, appointed the chairs of committees,and set the schedule and agenda. The speaker, along with the finance committee, worked with the mayor's budget. He also controlled a considerable portion of the council's discretionary funds so that individual members had to appeal to him personally for money.

And unlike most legislative bodies, the speaker has been the only member who can bring a bill up for a vote on the floor.

But even many of those who want to succeed him say the days when the speaker kept such tight reigns on the council are about to end. At least a dozen of the newly elected council members are advocating for reforms that would make the council more closely resemble Congress, where all members can introduce bills, there is real debate, and the individual members and committees are more independent.

"By empowering the members, you also empower the speaker and make it a stronger body," said Gifford Miller, who drafted a document he called his Empowerment Proposal, which advocates permitting the individual members to draft their own bills. "There is a big move toward democratization of the council," said Brooklyn Councilmember Angel Rodriguez. "Under Vallone the members did not have access to the speaker, but that will change dramatically. I hope the speaker will put forth the agenda of the body. With Vallone it was 'this is what I think the agenda should be' and then we followed."

Not everybody agrees that the second speaker will be that different from the first. "I don't think the role of the speakerchanges that much," said Al Vann. "I accept the spirit of change brought by the incoming members, tempered with the reality that the council must have order and structure in order to keep the mayoral system in check."

If the new members do not yet agree on who the next speaker will be, or even what the speaker's role should be, they are likely to agree on one thing: the city council should continue in the direction set by Vallone of a more powerful counter-balance to the mayor. Thanks to term limits and other factors, it is not clear that this will happen.

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