Gotham Gazette http://www.gothamgazette.com/component/tags/tag/392 Fri, 19 Oct 2018 04:53:19 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb webmaster@gothamgazette.com (Webmaster) Potentially Crowded Public Advocate Special Election Could Feature Two Former Council Speakers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7910:potentially-crowded-public-advocate-special-election-could-feature-two-former-council-speakers http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7910:potentially-crowded-public-advocate-special-election-could-feature-two-former-council-speakers Quinn Mark-Viverito

Christine Quinn, center, & Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo: City Council on flickr)


The September primary election is just over one week away and if New York City Public Advocate Letitia James wins the Democratic nomination for attorney general over her three primary opponents, she will be a significant favorite to win the position in November owing in large part to the state’s Democrat-heavy electorate. No Republican has won statewide since Governor George Pataki captured a third term in 2002; it’s been far longer for a Republican attorney general.

James winning the nomination will likely kick-off, in earnest, a mad scramble by several sitting and former elected officials who may seek to replace her through the at-that-point nearly certain special election for her citywide seat. Among the stronger potential contenders discussed in Democratic circles are two former speakers of the New York City Council -- Melissa Mark-Viverito, who led the body until last year, and Christine Quinn, her predecessor.

[Read: James Victory in Attorney General Race Would Trigger Citywide Special Election]

While they come from different wings of the New York Democratic Party, both Mark-Viverito and Quinn are firebrand politicians in their own right, and both made history in their respective ascensions to the speakership.

Quinn, a Democrat who represented parts of the lower west side of Manhattan, became the first openly gay and first female speaker in 2006, presiding over the 51-member legislative body for two four-year terms. For the last three years, since being term-limited out of office and losing in the 2013 mayoral primary, she has served as president and CEO of Women in Need (WIN), a nonprofit that provides services to homeless women and children. Some Democrats and others have criticized Quinn for her close working relationship with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, including the effort to extend term limits, which allowed Bloomberg, Quinn, and others to seek a third term in 2009 despite public disapproval. She is currently a close ally of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who appointed her vice chair of the New York State Democratic Committee.

Mark-Viverito, a Puerto Rican native who represented a district that includes East Harlem and part of the south Bronx, became the Council’s first Latina speaker in 2014, pushing a broad agenda of criminal justice reform, immigrant protection, police accountability and affordable housing. In January, she became a senior adviser at the Latino Victory Fund PAC, a group that supports Latino candidates for elected office. As speaker, Mark-Viverito was at times criticized for her close relationship with Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow progressive Democrat, and she has been an outspoken critic of the governor, endorsing his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon. Mark-Viverito is one of a relatively small group of prominent Democrats that is backing Nixon for governor and James for attorney general.

After a New York Law School panel earlier this month, Quinn did not deny having an eye on the office of public advocate. “We have to get Tish James elected and that’s what I’m focused on and also let’s not forget the Lieutenant Governor, Kathy Hochul, we have to get reelected,” she told Gotham Gazette, when asked if she had considered running for public advocate in the event of James’ ascension to attorney general. “Right now, I am focused, most importantly, on running WIN and helping the homeless families that we serve...and then in my spare time, so to speak, among other things, I’m helping candidates and friends run for office. So that’s what this summer and fall is about.”

Pressed further, she simply repeated the statement. “That’s what this summer and fall is about.”

Mark-Viverito is slightly less circumspect about her own political future. “I’ve been consistent in saying that I’m really proud of the record that I have accomplished and the issues that I’ve championed and what we’ve been able to get done in the city of New York,” she told Gotham Gazette in a recent phone interview. “I’m not gonna close the door on looking at possibilities in the future if other positions or other opportunities became available...So if there is an opportunity that presents itself, I will definitely be taking a look at that. And I feel strongly that Tish will win so we’ll have that conversation later.”

She emphasized that she brings a strong perspective to policy-making as a Latina representing a low-income community. “I think that’s something that we consistently need to have in positions of authority in the city,” Mark-Viverito said. “And I believe my record speaks for itself and I look forward to being able to continue to serve this wonderful city.”

The special election, if there is one, would take place in March, assuming James is sworn in January 1 and vacates her current seat. Special elections for public advocate are nonpartisan, and each candidate would have to run on their own unique political party ballot line. The winner would then have to run for the seat again in a primary and general election later in 2019, if that person wants to keep the position.

There are several others who have either been floated as candidates or have signalled an interest in becoming the city’s ombudsperson, a post also considered a strong launching pad for a mayoral bid as de Blasio illustrated. They include sitting City Council Members Rafael Espinal, Ydanis Rodriguez, Ritchie Torres, and Joe Borelli, the only Republican among them. All of them but Borelli will be term-limited out of office in 2021. State Assemblymember Michael Blake is another potential candidate, as are Republican attorney J.C. Polanco and Columbia professor David Eisenbach, who both challenged James when she was up for reelection last year -- Eisenbach in the primary and Polanco in the general. Eisenbach has already officially filed papers with the New York City Campaign Finance Board.

“I think the position obviously has a lot of potential,” said a Democratic consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “It has different potential than being the City Council speaker where you’re not just responsible for yourself, you’re responsible for 50 other members, hundreds of staff, dozens of appointments here or there. It’s a different set of responsibilities and in the hands of someone who understands the levers of government, who understands the bully pulpit and is sort of willing to take bold steps, it can be a very strong position.”

The public advocate can act as more than just a “counterweight to the mayor,” the consultant said. “That person also can establish themselves as someone who is also driving the agenda for New York, and that’s something we haven’t really seen since Mark Green,” the person added, referring to the city’s first-ever public advocate, who served from 1994 to 2001.

Espinal, a Brooklyn representative, said in an email, “I’m seriously considering it, and whether to launch a campaign will come down to the positive energy and support from New Yorkers.”

A spokesperson for Rodriguez, whose district covers neighborhoods in upper Manhattan and a small section of the Bronx, said, “[Council Member Rodriguez] is committed to supporting Public Advocate James in her run for attorney general as she is the most qualified in the race. Should there be a special election for public advocate, he would consider running for that seat.”

Torres, in a statement through a spokesperson, said, “I am still thinking about it and where I would be most effective. I’m debating which position would allow me to be a better advocate for the city.” The Bronx Council member is also said to be looking at a run for Congress or Bronx borough president.

Borelli also said he was considering a run for public advocate, though he conceded that it would be tough to retain. “It’s possible to win a special, but it will be difficult for a Republican to win the following November,” he said in a text message.

When asked about Quinn and Mark-Viverito both running, he said, “Each would be formidable.”

Shortly before a primary debate among the four Democratic attorney general candidates on Tuesday, Assembly Member Blake told Gotham Gazette he was watching closely in case James’ seat becomes vacant. “She’s gotta win first, but it would be irresponsible not to be looking at it,” he said about considering a run. “First and foremost, this is brand new terrain for all of us. The possibility for a citywide special election is unique to say the least...Out of respect for everybody in the field, this is a moot point unless [James] is the attorney general, and we’re gonna be respectful of that.”

He added, “As I tell my team often, proper preparation prevents poor performance. So you’re just ready, and if that opportunity presents itself, we have some serious decisions to make.”

Blake, who is a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee, was the campaign manager for 2013 public advocate candidate Reshma Saujani, giving him some recent experience with a citywide race. He was then elected to the Assembly in 2014.

No current elected official would have to give up their seat to run in the special election, but, if victorious, would then have to vacate their position to become public advocate.

As Borelli alluded to, one effect of numerous Democrats entering the fray is that they could split the vote in what will likely be a low-turnout special election, offering up an opportunity for a Republican to claim victory.

Polanco, the attorney and former public advocate candidate, recognizes that opening. Having run for the seat just last year, he has certain advantages. “Whoever is gonna come from our side, there has to be just one candidate,” Polanco said in a phone interview. “We’re small enough as it is. Even in a non-partisan race, you’re gonna need organizational support. So the organizations have to line up behind one candidate from the beginning in order for us to have a shot.”

Polanco noted that the nonpartisan aspect of the election is “always good for democracy, always good for participation,” since voters won’t necessarily make choices along party lines. But he also echoed the risk for any sitting Republican elected official who might run, as Borelli noted. “Do you give up your Council seat for that? I don’t know whether that’s a good gamble or not, especially if you have three years left on your Council seat,” Polanco said.

Polanco also weighed in on the potential contest between two former Council speakers, saying Quinn would be the “ultimate” candidate. “She’s the most qualified of the candidates on that side running,” he said. “But I think the Democratic Party of today is more along the lines of Melissa Mark-Viverito. The Ocasio-Cortezes of the world, the democratic socialists, are getting momentum. She represents that faction. We can’t kid ourselves.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

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Potentially Crowded Public Advocate Special Election Could Feature Two Former Council Speakers Mon, 03 Sep 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Some New York Democrats are Backing Nixon for Governor and James for Attorney General http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7883:some-new-york-democrats-are-backing-nixon-for-governor-and-james-for-attorney-general http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7883:some-new-york-democrats-are-backing-nixon-for-governor-and-james-for-attorney-general MMV Nixon

Mark-Viverito & Nixon (photo: @CynthiaNixon)


Two of the most compelling storylines of the contentious primaries playing out this election season in New York are which Democrats decide to back Cynthia Nixon in her challenge to two-term incumbent Governor Andrew Cuomo and to what extent an alliance with Cuomo is to the benefit of Letitia James as she seeks to win an open, four-way primary for Attorney General.

Loyalty and litmus tests are being taken daily by elected officials, political club members, labor leaders, and others as the September 13 primary vote approaches. As the party wages something of a civil war both here and nationally, Democrats are choosing sides. Sometimes those choices get complicated.

While Nixon offers many frustrated progressives an alternative to the more centrist Cuomo, the choice for attorney general has different dynamics. Crossing, or pleasing, the notoriously sensitive Cuomo is a factor in both races, as well as the contentious lieutenant governor primary, given his support for both James for attorney general and his running mate Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul for reelection. But James has a reputation as a progressive, with her bona fides questioned far less often than Cuomo's. Although she is outflanked on the left by Fordham Law professor Zephyr Teachout in the attorney general primary and some Democrats are raising questions about James’ acceptance of Cuomo’s support, James is holding her own in terms of winning endorsements from progressive groups and leaders. In fact, though Teachout has won the endorsements of many more left-leaning entities, there is a small but growing list of liberal individuals and groups that are endorsing Nixon for governor and James for attorney general.

Several Democratic clubs and current or former elected officials, and one political action committee, have backed both Nixon and James. Generally speaking, those on the list who Gotham Gazette spoke with cite Nixon’s history of activism for progressive issues, compared with Cuomo’s relative centrism over his two terms, and James’ long-time commitment to those same progressive values. Several have deep ties to James from her roots in Brooklyn, where she lives and was a City Council member, before being elected citywide.

Nixon and James’ overlapping endorsements come from the Brooklyn Young Democrats, Downtown Independent Democrats, Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, New Visions Democratic Club, Grand Street Democrats and the Village Independent Democrats. Elected officials supporting the two include City Council Members Brad Lander and Jimmy Van Bramer, Assembly Members Harvey Epstein, Andrew Hevesi, and Daniel O’Donnell, and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark Viverito. Tenants PAC, which is funded by tenants, labor unions, and other affordable housing advocates, has also endorsed both candidates. The Working Families Party is, to a degree, on the list.

Mark-Viverito was an early backer of James, endorsing her former City Council colleague the day she announced her campaign for attorney general, just ten days after then-office holder Eric Schneiderman resigned following allegations of physical and emotional abuse by several intimate partners. James faces three other Democrats in the primary - Teachout, who unsuccessfully challenged Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic gubernatorial primary; Congressional Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney; and Leecia Eve, a former Verizon executive and former aide to Cuomo, Hillary Clinton, and Joe Biden.

The former City Council speaker’s support for James was no surprise, the two having been allies for years when they served together on the Council before James rose to public advocate and Mark-Viverito to speaker. The two are both progressive women of color who held top elected offices in a city where few have done so. Mark-Viverito was the first Latina speaker of the Council and James is the first African-American woman to be elected citywide. James will similarly make history if she wins the race for attorney general, making her the first African-American woman to hold a statewide post.

“I’ve known Tish a very long time...I value her heart and I value what she stands for,” Mark-Viverito said in a phone interview. “For me it was not a leap to be able to stand alongside her and to be able to support her for the position.”

Mark-Viverito said she had long conversations with Nixon’s camp before announcing her support for the insurgent first-time candidate and her progressive platform. “For me it was again someone that stands and consistently has stood on issues I care about and I believe that that level of thought, without hesitation, her progressive heart and the vision that she has for the state is one that is truly inclusive...So it definitely felt that it was the right place to be in regards to endorsing her.”

Mark-Viverito also brushed aside concerns raised about James’ alignment with Cuomo and the Democratic establishment. “I take each endorsement separately,” she said, praising the “passion” that James brought to the issues before her office as a Council member and public advocate. “To me, Cynthia Nixon’s gonna win the governor’s race, so that to me is irrelevant,” she said of the James-Cuomo connection, with a slight chuckle. “But I don’t agree with that. I know Tish, I know what she stands for, I know the issues she’s fought on...I see her independence.”

In a sense, Mark-Viverito said she wants to see drastic change in direction in the governor’s office but a level of continuity and stability in the office of attorney general. Cuomo, she said, has failed to pursue strong progressive legislation the likes of which defined the City Council’s own agenda under her leadership on issues such as criminal justice reform and immigrant protections. But the attorney general’s office, even under Schneiderman, she acknowledged, has been working on a slew of successful legal challenges in concert with other state attorneys general against a federal administration under President Donald Trump that “seeks to dehumanize us and strip us of rights that we’ve fought so hard to achieve.”

“Despite the horrific reality that we came to terms with with regards to Schneiderman, he was doing a good job. Separate that from the horrible news and what we know about him now,” she said. “I definitely think that we need to continue that, take up the baton. [Attorney General] Barbara Underwood is doing good work as well in terms of continuing on that line...I definitely believe that needs to continue and I believe Tish can do that.”

“I believe they each have their role to play and I see those roles as very distinct,” she added.

Mark-Viverito herself has been rumored as a potential successor to the public advocate’s office, should James win, and she said she hasn’t “closed the door” on that possibility.

“New Yorkers know Tish James as a fearless leader who has spent two decades fighting to protect and uplift our families. The support from these grassroots groups and elected officials speaks to Tish’s longstanding work for progressive causes and her experience and qualifications to defend our rights as our next Attorney General,” said Delaney Kempner, a James campaign spokesperson, in a statement.

For some who also threw their weight behind James, her increasing association with the governor and her apparent rejection of her roots in the progressive Working Families Party have hurt how they view their preferred candidate. The WFP endorsed Nixon, putting it in the governor’s crosshairs, and James, in seeking the governor’s support, decided against asking the prominent third party for its endorsement. The WFP eventually decided to hold off, reserving support for either James or Teachout, if one of the two candidates prevails in the September 13 primary.

Michael McKee, treasurer of Tenants PAC, said the optics were far from ideal but stood firmly behind Nixon and James. “It’s much less complicated in the case of Cynthia Nixon,” he said in a phone interview, “because [Cuomo] has been a disaster on everything to do with tenants. It’s not just that he has failed to push for stronger rent laws, he has refused to push for them.”

In 2011 and 2015, both years when rent regulations were expiring and would have to be renewed by the state Legislature, on concert with the governor, McKee said Cuomo “didn’t even mention ‘rent’ in his State of the State speech. Not one word. He didn’t even mention that the laws have to be renewed.”

The governor has only pushed minor amendments to rent laws, he said, leaving major loopholes intact that allow landlords to harass and force tenants out of rent-regulated apartments. He called Nixon’s housing platform “very bold, very expansive and very imaginative,” and said she had a “tremendous grasp” of rent issues when she interviewed with the group for its endorsement. “There’s no one in the tenant movement in New York City or in the suburbs who at this point would believe [Cuomo] when he says he’s pro-tenant,” he said.  Tenants PAC donated $5,000 to Nixon, a “very big check,” McKee said, for a group with limited resources.

“It’s a little more complicated for the attorney general’s office,” he conceded. “I love Tish, I think she’s one of the best of all elected officials but we were extremely unhappy with what she did in terms of tying herself to the governor and screwing the WFP.”

James has said she expects reconciliation with the WFP, perhaps after the primary, and attended its recent twentieth anniversary gala. James was first elected to the City Council solely on the WFP ballot line.

McKee’s group has endorsed James in her past races for elected office and has found her to be a true ally for tenants. As public advocate, James has continued to publish the annual “Worst Landlords” watchlist, and taken legal action and introduced bills in the City Council to protect tenants against harassment. McKee said attorney general is “an ideal job” for James and that she would in no way be beholden to the governor, despite the perception that has emerged in recent weeks.

McKee did say that he thought James could have told Cuomo she was taking the WFP nomination and still gone to the Democratic state convention and gotten the requisite support to automatically make the primary ballot. “Now, she’s sort of painted herself into a corner where she’s in effect the establishment candidate in a year where that’s not the optics of the Democratic Party,” McKee said.

Democratic organizers felt much the same, that Nixon is the change candidate they need in executive office while James is an accomplished elected official with a strong record who would do well as the state’s top legal officer. Jeanne Wilcke, treasurer of Downtown Independent Democrats, painted it as a tough decision to endorse James over Teachout, who they had endorsed in the 2014 governor’s race. Both candidates were familiar to the club but James had continued her association with them as Teachout seemed to fade after 2014. “A number of people voted for Teachout but James edged it out,” she said.

In broad terms, Wilcke said her club is fighting for the broader direction of the Democratic Party. “Our own party has to look its ownself and really grasp what they have to do and follow the grassroots sentiment,” she said. “They can’t be behind the times.” It’s an argument carried by Nixon as she paints Cuomo as a “fake Democrat” and pushes for a truly progressive Democratic polity in the state. “The Crowley race gave us a lot of heart,” Wilcke said, referring to ten-term Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley’s congressional primary loss to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young, insurgent democratic socialist. “If it can happen once, it can happen again.”

She did admit that James relationship with the governor is “a little too close for comfort” and that she should keep an arms length from the establishment. But nonetheless, James’ record impressed DID’s members. “They’ve seen her on the ground for years. She stood up for people. That resonated,” Wilcke said.

“Given Cuomo's record, it's not a surprise at all that Democratic clubs are rejecting him,” said Lauren Hitt, a Nixon campaign spokesperson, in an email. “He empowered the IDC, refused to return Trump's $64k in donations, cut taxes for the wealthy, and governed like a Republican in so many other respects.”

Cuomo’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Nixon and Teachout have endorsed each other in their respective races (Teachout was Nixon’s campaign treasurer until Schneiderman’s resignation prompted her to run for attorney general).

There were a few other endorsements that have shown a similar pattern of embrace of establishment-aligned candidates on the one hand and their rejection on the other. NYC Kids PAC, for instance, endorsed James for attorney general and also New York City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who is running against Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul. Both Williams and James have also been endorsed by City Council Member Carlina Rivera.

This year was the first time that the Grand Street Democrats made endorsements in the races for governor and attorney general, said Caroline Laskow, a Democratic district leader from the club. “We evaluated all the candidates on their merits,” Laskow said of Nixon and James in a phone interview. “We feel that they’re both going to be excellent advocates for all of New York, for different reasons. But I don’t think one cancels out the other.”

***
by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Note - This article has been updated to clarify comments from Jeanne Wilcke of DID. It has also been updated to note that Wilcke is treasurer, not president of DID. 

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Some New York Democrats are Backing Nixon for Governor and James for Attorney General Wed, 22 Aug 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7805:assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7805:assembly-race-poses-another-test-for-queens-machine catalina cruz parade Queens

Catalina Cruz (photo: @CatalinaCruzNY)


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary victory over Rep. Joe Crowley last month in New York’s 14th congressional district sent shockwaves throughout the country and signalled a monumental shift in Queens politics, where the Crowley-led county party has held significant sway in local elections for many years. The effects of Ocasio-Cortez’s win and Crowley’s loss, both nationally and locally, are still developing, but reverberations are certainly being felt in the already-competitive Democratic primary for New York Assembly District 39, where a county-backed incumbent is facing an independent challenger.

The district -- part of the 150-seat lower house of the state Legislature, all of which are on the ballot this fall, first in September 13 primaries -- covers the immigrant-heavy neighborhoods of Corona, Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights, and large parts of those fall within Crowley’s congressional district. It is currently represented by Assembly Member Ari Espinal, who was elected in a low-turnout special election barely three months ago, with fewer than 800 votes. Espinal was previously an aide to Francisco Moya, who held the Assembly seat before being elected to the New York City Council last year.

Espinal’s challenger in the primary is Catalina Cruz, an attorney with government experience who most recently served as chief of staff to former City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland.

Espinal, whose cousin is Brooklyn City Council Member Rafael Epsinal, ran unopposed for the Assembly seat, having been endorsed by the Queens Democratic Party, which is chaired by Crowley and has played an influential role in not just Queens, but city and state elections for decades, as well as the selection of the powerful City Council speaker and a variety of other appointed positions. For a special election to the state Legislature, there are no party primaries, instead the party county committee selects its candidate for what is a singular public vote. In a heavily Democratic district like most in New York City, the party’s nominee is virtually  assured victory in a special election, and therefore gains at least some of the benefits of incumbency ahead of any subsequent intra-party challenges.

But the power of the Queens County Democrats’ endorsement is under question following Crowley’s landslide defeat to Ocasio-Cortez as he finishes his tenth term in the House. Queens Democratic insiders say Cruz is in important ways a stronger candidate than Espinal and that the Queens county machine -- a descriptor some take issue with -- is playing a minimal role in the race and has a far less threatening presence in the immediate aftermath of last month’s election. Some also point to the fact that the Queens county party has been defeated in a number of elections over the years by strong insurgent candidates, such as the victories of current City Council Members Daniel Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer, as well as Ferreras-Copeland’s first win. Moya, meanwhile, helped orchestrate Espinal’s ascension and is actively campaigning on her behalf in an area where he has won several recent elections.

For her part, Espinal is confident about the race. “I welcome any challenge,” she said in a phone interview. “I’m from Corona, Queens. I was raised in this neighborhood. I welcome any challenge and it’s exciting. I feel like it’s the Democratic process, too. Why wouldn’t you want a challenge? You would want your voters to get engaged. This is how they get engaged more when they have to pick, to choose and say, ‘Who’s going to represent me the way I want to be represented?’”

Having been in office just under three months, Espinal has been prime sponsor on one bill that was passed by both legislative chambers, to extend a labor law relating to unemployment insurance proceedings, and another, called Carlos’ Law, which enacts punishments for developers that put workers at risk of injury or death, which passed only the Assembly. Espinal has also allocated hundreds of thousands of dollars to her community, she said. She signed on to the Dream Act, which aims to provide state financial aid to undocumented immigrants seeking higher education. She’s received support for her reelection bid from Moya, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, Queens Borough President Melinda Katz, Bronx Rep. Jose Serrano, and the Working Families Party.

Espinal is relying on her experience as a longtime community organizer and former Democratic district leader, promising voters that she will bring resources back to her community. She has pledged to fight for immigrant protections, affordable housing, school funding, small businesses, and workers rights, and other locally-important issues. And she pushed back against the notion that she is the establishment candidate in the race. “Quite so often you have politicians who are not from the area and just want to run for office because they just want the power. I’m not looking for the power,” she said. “What I’m looking for is to actually engage my community and tell them, ‘I’m here. I’m here for you because I’ve lived here and I know the issues...because I’m your neighbor.’”

Cruz, Espinal’s opponent, strikes a similar chord with her campaign pitch. “My entire life is a spectrum of the people of Jackson Heights, Corona and Elmhurst,” she said in a phone interview. But one thing that sets her far apart from Espinal is that Cruz herself is a “Dreamer,” a child of undocumented immigrants who came to New York at the age of nine and who only recently gained permanent resident status in 2009. “I went from being an undocumented child who picked cans in the street with her mom to survive, to being a Dreamer who was going to undergrad and paying for school for herself to a working poor lawyer...to being a middle-class New Yorker, which is basically the spectrum of the people who are here in our community,” she said.

After graduating law school and working as a housing attorney, Cruz joined the Attorney General’s office, then headed by Andrew Cuomo, before he was elected governor. Cruz served afterwards in the Department of Labor as counsel in the division of immigrant affairs. She worked with former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito -- who has endorsed her -- to write the legislation that kicked ICE agents off Rikers Island. She also returned to working for Cuomo, heading up his Exploited Workers Task Force, after which she joined Council Member Ferreras-Copeland’s staff. Her former boss has endorsed her, as have Council Members Dromm and Van Bramer, Helen Rosenthal, and Margaret Chin.

“We’re a people-driven campaign,” Cruz said of her approach to the race. “We start with people and we end with people. We start with the idea that all of our policies should be informed by people.” Though her policy platform largely resembles Espinal’s, Cruz says she sets herself apart by virtue of her independence, experience, her focus on the residents of the district who cannot vote, and her pledge to refuse corporate and luxury developer money (the latter a promise like one made by Ocasio-Cortez, who attacked Crowley for the large corporate donations he received).

“We are running a campaign that’s very much driven by people that live in the district and we’re independent from any ties to a political organization,” Cruz said.

Those ties or the lack thereof may not be determinative in the Assembly race that does again put the power of the Queens County Democrats in the spotlight, observers who spoke with Gotham Gazette said. One former Assembly candidate from Queens said the path to victory lies in a robust ground game and organization. “You knock on enough doors, you meet enough people, and you raise enough money, and the barriers to entry are very low,” the former candidate said. “How many people are gonna vote in an Assembly race? A few thousand? How much money do you need to raise for an assembly race? $100,000? How many doors are you gonna knock on?...You put your walking shoes on and you can do it. So I think party power is very limited and Ari and Catalina will win or lose on the strengths of their own organic, local operation.”

Democratic insiders pointed out that the Queens Democratic Party’s endorsement comes with political validation but not necessarily the resources to bolster a campaign, such as funding or boots on the ground. It’s why they disputed the characterization of the county party as a machine that can determine the course of campaigns. The party does, however, pressure potential contenders against considering a challenge to an incumbent and often brings with its endorsement a slew of loyal elected officials who coalesce around the county’s candidate and use their own resources and networks to boost them. The party also has connections at the Board of Elections and often attempts to knock challengers off the ballot and at times activates a network of district leaders and county committee members to help with ballot petition signature-gathering, door-knocking, and flyering.

“It seems like [Cruz] has real momentum and...everyone’s going to attest the strength of her campaign to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez but I think the reality of it is the dynamics of that race were shaped well before the congressional race,” said a Queens Democratic operative who asked to remain anonymous to discuss things freely.

“I think people have an impression of the Queens county organization as a faulty machine,” the operative said, insisting that a loss by a county-backed candidate did not mean the so-called machine is faltering. “I think the reality is that’s not what the organization is...In my experience, they support somebody and their support will provide the significant assistance of validation from other elected officials. That’s very helpful...but it was never designed to overcome bad campaigns or great opposing candidates.”

If the incumbent candidate backed by the Queens Democrats loses to an independent challenger, the optics are far from ideal coming so close on the heels of Crowley’s loss. But the county has invested little in the race, said another Democratic insider from Queens who knows both Espinal and Cruz and who decried the term “machine” as a “loaded expression” for a county party that simply tries to elect its own members to office.

But the Queens county organization is undoubtedly powerful. The “machine” moniker stems from the fact that the party holds sway over more than just candidate endorsements -- its backing often also means a candidate will not receive a primary challenger. The county organization selects judicial nominees, and allies of Crowley have made hefty profits from being appointed as guardians in Surrogate’s Court. The party’s executive secretary is Michael Reich, whose partner Gerard Sweeney in the law firm Sweeney, Reich and Bolz, has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of Surrogate’s Court business. The county also selects one of the ten commissioners on the New York City Board of Elections, who decide which candidates qualify to appear on the ballot.

The City Council speaker’s race has more often than not also been decided by the influence of the Queens and Bronx county parties; Council central staffers are frequently picked from the county’s ranks; and Council committee chairs are influenced by county allegiances. And though Crowley may no longer represent the House next year, City & State reported that he’s expected to be reelected county chair by district leaders for another two-year term in September. The county organization did not return a request for comment for this article about its support for Espinal.

“I don’t think it would be a fair characterization to say this is a test of the county organization because I’m not sure they have all hands on deck for this one,” the insider said. The insider insisted that neither candidate needs the county party’s help to win the race, which would be won on the merits of their candidacies, and that Crowley’s fall is more likely to have an effect on the state Senate District 13 race, where Jessica Ramos is challenging Senator Jose Peralta, formerly of the rogue Independent Democratic Conference, which empowered Republicans. “I don’t think the Catalina-Ari race is affected by the Crowley result as much,” the insider said. “I just don’t get the sense that that changed everything...They weren’t dependent on Crowley for the win. Peralta was kinda depending on the county guys propping him up, keeping him strong and I feel like that has turned and now Ramos, if I had to bet, will win that race.”

Cruz herself drew a parallel with Ocasio-Cortez’s win, noting that voters turned out in higher numbers for the progressive challenger than Crowley in his own backyard, which encompasses large parts of the Assembly district, to vote out the incumbent. “[Ocasio-Cortez] believed in the everyday person and the everyday person believed in her so much that they went out and overwhelmingly voted for her,” she said. “And that’s where we find ourselves, in the exact same situation.”

But even she denied that she was poking the bear through her candidacy. “I wouldn’t call it testing their power because I never said I’m running against the machine,” Cruz said. “I’ve always said I’m running for the people. We have an organization that was just shown what people powered campaigns can do and we’re about to show them a second time.”

If anything, the race may show that the Queens party’s once-coveted support has turned sour, seen by some as a signal of establishment politics that has been too out of touch with regular voters. “I think it definitely suffered,” said the Democratic insider of the county party’s endorsement. “It’s very raw and very recent, the whole Joe thing...I don’t know if this is a permanent problem or just a temporary one. But the timing right now is bad for those people.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Assembly Race Poses Another Test for Queens Machine Mon, 16 Jul 2018 04:00:00 +0000
How the 21 in ‘21 Movement to Elect Women Will Be Successful http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7576:how-the-21-in-21-movement-to-elect-women-will-be-successful http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7576:how-the-21-in-21-movement-to-elect-women-will-be-successful Mark-Viverito Crowley women City Council

Mark-Viverito, left, and Crowley, the authors (photo: @NYCCouncil)


Susan B. Anthony said in 1897, “There will never be complete equality until women themselves help make laws and elect lawmakers.”

Thanks in part to Anthony’s life work and that of her fellow suffragettes, American women now have the power both to vote and serve as lawmakers. Yet, more than 120 years later, Anthony’s dream of complete equality has not been realized, because of the profound disparity in representation between men and women in elected office.

During our years as members of the New York City Council, we saw the number of women in the Council decline from a high of 18 in 2009 to its current number of 11.

Why should New Yorkers care about the underrepresentation of women in the city’s legislature? Our experience in the Council serving on the governing team that oversees the spending of your tax dollars is perhaps the biggest reason.

The city budget is over $85 billion and the Council has oversight over nearly 130 different government offices and agencies and nearly 300,000 full-time city employees. How this money is spent and these critical resources are managed reflects the makeup of the city’s elected officials. When over 78% of the Council’s members are men, male points of view dominate the discourse in the halls of government, even though a majority of New Yorkers—52%—are women.

Fortunately, there is a new awareness across the nation that women will not be equal until they have equal say in the most important decisions that affect their lives. One reason for this awakening is the election of a president who revels in his misogyny, has bragged about sexually assaulting women, and continues to show contempt for women in office, filling his cabinet with the highest percentage of men of any president since George W. Bush in his first term.

To do our part locally in the fight for complete equality, we co-founded the 21 in ’21 Initiative, a nonpartisan effort that aims to achieve gender parity in the New York City Council, starting by increasing the number of women in the Council to at least 21 through the next city election cycle, with votes cast in 2021.

While this goal is ambitious, it is attainable mainly because of two factors: term limits and the city’s campaign finance system, which includes a significant public matching fund program.

In 2021, 36 of the Council’s 51 seats will be vacant because of term limits. Without an incumbent office holder, these seats are much more winnable, particularly for a candidate who has spent years preparing to run. That’s why nearly four years out from Election Day, we’re already building the infrastructure and recruiting the candidates we’ll need to accomplish our mission of electing a minimum of 21 women to the Council in 2021.

It will be a challenge, but it is possible, and the work is well underway.

The best part of New York City’s electoral system is that you don’t have to be rich or have wealthy friends to become a successful candidate. That’s because the city’s Campaign Finance Board matches every dollar donated to your campaign up to $175 at a six-to-one ratio, turning, for instance, a $10 donation into $70. This system empowers women from every neighborhood and every background to step up and vie to represent their communities in the Council.

The main reason that more women aren’t elected officials is that far fewer women become candidates. Studies show that when women do run, they win at a comparable rate to men, despite additional barriers. While there are several factors that deter women from running, a large one is that women aren’t generally brought up in a way that inclines them to self-select as candidates the way men do.

We grew up in women-led households, in which our mothers made the decisions for our family. They were leaders that instilled in their daughters the belief that serving in public office was the noblest of professions. We were lucky to have mentors like our mothers.

It is this model of strong mentorship that is at the core of the 21 in ’21 Initiative. We have already built a top-notch network of mentors to strengthen and support female candidates.

21 in ’21 is here for the women ready to become the future leaders of our city, but all New Yorkers must contribute in order for Susan B. Anthony’s dream to become a reality. From the voting booth to our block associations, and our political clubs to our community boards and of course to the New York City Council and beyond, we must all demand equal representation now.

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Melissa Mark-Viverito and Elizabeth Crowley are former City Council members and co-founders of 21 in ‘21. Mark-Viverito was the Council Speaker from 2014 through 2017. On Twitter @MMViverito and @ElizCrowleyNYC.

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How the 21 in ‘21 Movement to Elect Women Will Be Successful Wed, 28 Mar 2018 04:00:00 +0000
Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7496:manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7496:manhattan-democrats-drop-lawsuit-over-nominee-to-board-of-elections Corey Johnson Mark-Viverito City Council

Speaker Johnson and former Speaker Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


The Manhattan Democratic County Committee is dropping a lawsuit against the New York City Council over a nomination for a commissioner to the Board of Elections.

In December, the Manhattan Democratic Party, led by Chair Keith Wright, filed a legal challenge against then-Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s attempt to confirm her preferred candidate to a Manhattan BOE commissioner seat over the county party’s choice. A lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats told Gotham Gazette on Friday that Wright and new Council Speaker Corey Johnson had come to an agreement and that Wright had instructed the lawyer to drop the suit.

The BOE has ten commissioners, one Democrat and one Republic from each of the five boroughs, who serve two-year terms and are selected through the political party machinery. Current Manhattan Democratic commissioner Alan Schulkin’s term ended in December 2016 but he has continued to serve on the board since the City Council has yet to choose his replacement.

In late 2016, the Manhattan Democrats nominated Jeanine Johnson, an aide to Wright, to fill Schulkin's seat. But the Council did not act on the nomination, after which state law allowed the Council's Democratic conference to choose their own nominee. In November 2017, the Manhattan Democrats chose another nominee, lawyer Sylvia DiPietro. But Mark-Viverito chose instead to advance her own candidate, environmental lawyer Andrew Praschak, over the wishes of the county, leading to the lawsuit. Mark-Viverito and Wright are known to not get along, and the Manhattan Democratic Party is known as particularly lacking in cohesion compared to other boroughs.

The City Council has traditionally toed the county line on nominations to the BOE and the entire body usually votes along with the county's choice. Praschak's nomination was far more complicated. Council Members from Manhattan at first refused to vote on Praschak, insisting on interviewing him and other candidates. After interviews with both DiPietro and Praschak, the latter emerged as the preferred nominee. But a second attempt to vote on Praschak’s nomination also failed when most Democratic Council Members from other boroughs did not show up, meaning the conference could not get a necessary quorum. To some, this indicated that other county leaders were pulling weight to help Wright.

The Manhattan Democrats’ lawsuit was filed December 4, soon after the failed vote attempts to install Praschak. On December 19, the Manhattan Democrats won a preliminary injunction in their suit against the Council, which was lifted after the Council appealed. But the lawsuit was successful in forestalling a vote till the Council’s term ended and Mark-Viverito’s tenure with it. A resolution fell to the new class of the Council under new Speaker Corey Johnson, who, unlike Mark-Viverito, ascended to the speakership with support of the major county party leaders in the Bronx and Queens.

Arthur Schwartz, the lawyer for the Manhattan Democrats in the lawsuit, told Gotham Gazette that Chair Wright and Speaker Johnson had decided to move forward without a lawsuit hanging over the process. “[Keith Wright] said they’re sorting it out but he wanted me to discontinue the lawsuit,” Schwartz said in a phone interview on Friday afternoon.

Schwartz said he would be sending a “stipulation of discontinuance” later that afternoon to the Corporation Counsel’s office, which is representing the City Council in the lawsuit.

Reached by phone, Wright said, “I’m not ready to comment on anything at this time.”

Robin Levine, a spokesperson for Speaker Johnson, said in an email that she “can't comment on pending litigation.” Mark-Viverito did not respond to a request for comment.

It’s unclear if the nomination of DiPietro will go forward as Wright and Johnson continue to negotiate. “That’s up to them,” Schwartz said. “It’s something Keith’s gotta work out with the Speaker.”

“It’s a friendly relationship,” he said of the two, contrasting it with Mark-Viverito’s dynamic with Wright. “I wouldn’t say that was friendly at all.”

Manhattan Council Member Ben Kallos, who supported Praschak’s nomination after hearing DiPietro voice “misplaced” concerns about voter fraud, said he is hoping to see a reformer on the board. The current commissioner, Schulkin, has also faced criticism in the past for expressing similar unfounded sentiments about voter fraud in the city and the need for voter identification.

Kallos, former chair and current member of the Council’s governmental operations committee, which has some oversight of the Board of Elections, is concerned with election administration in the city, which falls under the 10 BOE commissioners as well as the executive director, Michael Ryan, and staff. The notoriously dysfunctional BOE is governed by state law, and there have been perpetual calls for modernization and professionalization of the board, including removing party politics from the commissioner appointment process. Johnson is opposed to such a reform, but has said he wants to see election administration improved.

“I look forward to working with the new Manhattan delegation chairs and the speaker on getting somebody committed to reform on the BOE,” Kallos said in a phone interview. “Whether its Sylvia DiPietro or another nominee, I hope they’re more concerned with not having lines on Election Day and with a smooth voting process rather than non-existent voter fraud.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Manhattan Democrats Drop Lawsuit Over Nominee to Board of Elections Mon, 26 Feb 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7414:initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7414:initial-johnson-move-signifies-changing-of-the-guard-at-the-city-council Speaker Corey Johnson press conference

Council Speaker Corey Johnson, at podium (photos: William Alatriste)


Just after he was elected Speaker of the City Council on January 3, Corey Johnson had some initial business to take care of: naming a temporary rules committee, including a chairperson. And in this first official decision in his new role, Johnson made a relatively small but important move that is emblematic of the broad shift in the City Council and larger city political dynamics at play in Johnson’s election.

Toward the end of an emotional and intense initial meeting of the new City Council class, at which Johnson, a Democrat, won 48 of 49 votes to lead the 51-seat legislative body for the next four years, the new speaker nominated an interim rules committee, including himself, as is customary, to be led by Queens Council Member Rory Lancman.

Johnson had just been elected speaker with the support of the Bronx County Democratic Party and the Queens County Democratic Party, which is led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley, whom he thanked profusely from the floor of the Council chambers as Crowley looked down from the balcony. The situation was unlike that of Johnson’s predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who became speaker in 2014 after winning the support of a unified Council Progressive Caucus, powerful labor unions, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and members of the Brooklyn Democratic County Party. Four years ago, Mark-Viverito named Brooklyn Council Member and Progressive Caucus co-founder Brad Lander as rules chair.

The shift from Mark-Viverito to Johnson can also be seen in the change from Lander to Lancman, a former member of the state Assembly and stalwart player in the Queens County Party. While all four Democrats share political dispositions and most policy positions, the changing of the guard is evident, and other top committee posts appear likely to go to representatives of the county parties and individual members who backed Johnson’s ascension. It appears this will include the Bronx’s Rafael Salamanca as chair of the land use committee and a Queens Council member, possibly Danny Dromm, as chair of the finance committee, according to sources familiar with the process. Last time around Brooklyn's David Greenfield was named land use chair and Progressive Caucus member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens became chair of finance.

Johnson, himself a member of the Progressive Caucus, has been meeting with his 50 Council member constituents and hearing from other stakeholders like the county party leaders, and is expected to outline committee chair and member nominations within the next ten days.

The rules committee will then take up those nominations, approving the chairs and committee members of all of the Council’s 40-plus committees and subcommittees, including the permanent rules committee, before the full Council gives it approval. It is unclear if Lancman will remain rules chair, or whether he requested the position even on a temporary basis. A request to speak with the Council member was declined by a spokesperson.

City Council Rory LancmanAfter approving committee assignments, the rules committee will then be responsible for considering and passing any changes to the Council’s internal rules -- there is a long proposed rules reform agenda that 33 members, including Johnson and Lancman (pictured), signed on to last month -- and vetting and approving nominees to about a dozen city boards and commissions, like the Board of Corrections and the City Planning Commission.

"The Speaker has already met with almost all of his colleagues and is in active conversations with Council Members, stakeholders, city leaders and advocates to ensure the committee chairs best reflect the priorities of this Council and the diversity of our City," said City Council spokesperson Robin Levine, in an emailed statement. Levine did not directly respond to the question of how Lancman was selected as the initial rules chair. During the prior term Lancman, an attorney and regular critic of Mayor de Blasio, chaired the newly created Committee on Courts and Legal Services.

Four years ago, Lander and Mark-Viverito ushered through landmark rules reforms that significantly altered how the Council functions, including how discretionary funding is allocated to individual members, bringing equity and transparency to a system that had been used by prior speakers to reward and punish.

As he ran for speaker and since being elected, Johnson has championed additional reforms, including to the Council’s bill-drafting protocols. He wants to see changes so that members can no longer put indefinite holds on certain legislation and so that there is more information and awareness around who is working on what bills.

The rules reform package that has the backing of 33 members includes changes to the bill-drafting process but also a beefing up of the Council’s Oversight and Investigation Committee, “with dedicated investigative staff and a willingness to use the Council’s subpoena power when necessary.” It also includes increasing the Council’s budget and staff and staff salaries; and beefing up the land use division specifically, something Johnson has talked about a good deal during his bid for speaker and since being elected.

At one speaker candidate forum Johnson said that he thinks there is room for possibly eliminating some Council committees while also possibly creating new ones -- he said, for example, that the Fire and Criminal Justice Committee should be broken into two. He did not give any examples of committees that should be eliminated. The Council did delete one committee last term, the Committee on Community Development, when its chair resigned from the Council, but most Council members, including Lander, said at the time that there were no plans to look at eliminating any others.

Along with Lancman as chair and Johnson, the other members of the initial rules committee are Council Members Adrienne Adams, Margaret Chin, Robert Cornegy, Jr., Rafael Espinal, Karen Koslowitz, Steven Matteo, Ritchie Torres, and Mark Treyger.

The package of reforms says toward the end that "A hearing should be held in the Rules Committee on these reforms – as well as any others proposed by good government groups or members of the public – in the first quarter of 2018. The reforms should then be converted into a Rules Resolution, and adopted by the Council by March 2018, but no later than June 2018."

[Related: City Council Speaker Candidates Address Power, Reform and Transparency]

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Initial Johnson Move Signifies Changing of the Guard at City Council Tue, 09 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Corey Johnson Elected Speaker of the City Council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7401:corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7401:corey-johnson-elected-speaker-of-the-city-council corey johnson moments after being elected speaker of the city council cfredit william alatriste

Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


City Council Member Corey Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat, was elected speaker of the New York City Council with near unanimous support on Wednesday, becoming the first leader of the 51-member legislative body who is an openly gay man and openly HIV-positive.

Johnson took the helm at the first charter meeting of the new Council class, after a vote that saw little drama and 48 votes in his favor. Council members, including those who had attempted to run for speaker themselves, took their turns singing Johnson’s praises as prominent elected officials and political influencers from across the five boroughs looked on from the balcony of the Council chambers. Johnson’s mother was there, too, having driven from Massachusetts to see him rise to the Council’s top leadership position.

In an emotional acceptance speech, Johnson spoke about the importance of his mother in his life and some of the tough times they had faced. He spoke fondly of his predecessors and the city’s progress in the last four years under Mayor de Blasio and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. But he warned of challenges of “historic proportions” that lay ahead: an affordability crisis that is pushing out residents of the city, an “overflowing” shelter system with thousands of homeless families, struggling mom and pop businesses, a mass transit crisis owing from years of government neglect, continued racial disparities across the city, and potential funding cuts from the state and federal governments. “These problems are incredibly complex and entrenched,” he said. “But the future of our city depends on our ability to confront them. And confront them we will.”

In alluding to the many thorny issues that plagued the first term of the de Blasio administration, he promised to tackle them with increased independence from the mayor. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our city has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said, with an emphasis on the word independent. He pledged unending support to his 50 constituents and promised to lead by consensus.

Johnson emerged at the top of a crowded field of candidates who had sought the speakership but all of whom dropped out of the race and conceded to Johnson in the days leading up to the vote, after it emerged that he had the support of the Queens and Bronx Democratic county organizations, led by Congressional Rep. Joe Crowley and Assembly Member Marcos Crespo, respectively. But, in a city where people of color make a majority and that is already led by a white male mayor, there was some criticism around Johnson’s selection to what is considered the second-most powerful position in city government.

Numerous Council members representing the Black, Asian and Latino Caucus had insisted that the next speaker should be a person of color. That included Council Member Inez Barron, who attempted a last-minute protest candidacy and voted for herself on Wednesday. “It’s time for a paradigm shift and that’s what I’m here to call for,” Barron had said at a news conference on the steps of City Hall shortly before the vote. “We’ve gotta put an end to the system that has deals that arrange for the speaker to be selected on behalf of what it is that county bosses and district leaders and other powerful players and other rich developers want to see happen here.” Her husband, Assembly Member (and former Council Member) Charles Barron, said, “The process is fraudulent, the process is racist, and the process is corrupt and its been that way for a long time.”

Another speaker candidate, Council Member Jumaane Williams, who only conceded the race Wednesday morning, opted for skipping the vote entirely and instead attended Governor Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany, which was scheduled for around the same time (Williams is toying with a bid for governor or lieutenant governor, saying that Cuomo is not a true progressive). Williams had held out longer than most of the other speaker candidates, saying that the next speaker should be a person of color.

In a Wednesday statement, Williams criticized the lack of diversity in leadership positions in city government even as he looked forward to working with Johnson. “Equity must be an issue of highest priority to the next Speaker of the City Council,” he said. “Having spoken at length with Council Member Johnson, he is acutely aware of those concerns, and has agreed, in a tangible and accountable way, to work alongside me on issues of equity, both in government and citywide, for people of diverse backgrounds across race, gender, sexual orientation, and more.”

Williams and Council Member Debi Rose were the only two absences on Wednesday, meaning Johnson received 48 of the 49 votes cast. In his first remarks from the speaker’s podium on the Council chambers floor, Johnson also nominated members and a chair of the rules committee, which will help establish the new Council’s rules and the chairs and members of the other 40-plus issue committees. Johnson named Council Member Rory Lancman to chair the committee, and the speaker himself will be a member of it, as is customary. Johnson is one of 33 members who had signed on to a draft package of rules reforms that are expected to move ahead in some form.

The newly elected speaker has not expressed any particular legislative priorities yet, though he has had a focus on public health as a Council member who chaired the health committee. He’s focused more of his public comments on bolstering the Council and how he would lead the body. He again said on Wednesday that he wants to add to the Council’s land use staff, recreate an investigations division, and offer Council members the opportunity to pursue their interests and priorities.

Speaking with members of the media during a brief press conference after the formal proceedings, Johnson said he will seek a diverse staff, and said that Council Chief of Staff Ramon Martinez has been asked to stay on. He also said that he will look to female members and members of color to speak and lead on issues that he may not have direct experience with. Johnson said he will be talking with each member to see which committees they are interested in chairing or joining and would do his best to make as much of it work as possible. He is sure to also be guided by Crowley and Crespo, as well as other political heavyweights that helped him win the post, like the leaders of the hotel workers union and the firefighters union.

And though many expect him to adopt a more top-down style of leadership than Mark-Viverito, he has insisted that he will sit down with individual members to gauge the needs of their district while formulating a larger agenda for the Council. On the Council floor, he named each member individually, telling them, “I want you to know that in good times and in bad, through thick and thin, I will always have your back. Those of you who supported me, those who didn’t support me, those who ran for speaker and those who have been here in this body and those who are new, I will have your back.”

[Related: Corey Johnson’s Record and Promises]

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Corey Johnson Elected Speaker of the City Council Wed, 03 Jan 2018 05:00:00 +0000
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7394:melissa-mark-viverito-a-mayor-made-speaker-who-sought-a-member-driven-legacy http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7394:melissa-mark-viverito-a-mayor-made-speaker-who-sought-a-member-driven-legacy Mayor de Blasio Speaker Mark-Viverito

(photo: William Alatriste/City Council)


Melissa Mark-Viverito, the first Latina to preside over the 51-member New York City Council, leaves office having shepherded a progressive shift in the city’s direction, in conjunction with fellow Democrat Mayor Bill de Blasio, a philosophically aligned partner in government who was the deciding factor in her winning the powerful speaker position four years ago.

As arguably the second most powerful elected official in the city, Mark-Viverito oversaw an agenda of progressivism that significantly moved the needle for causes of social justice, especially related to immigrants, workers, and the criminal justice system, many of which were close to her heart and supported by a Council dominated by progressive members. But when the needle didn’t move fast enough, there were those that said Mark-Viverito too often carried the mayor’s water. It’s a charge she disputes, as do numerous Council members that served under her as they look back at her four years at the helm.

Members broadly agree that she followed through on a promise to give rank-and-file Council members the freedom to pursue their priorities while standing firm against the mayoral administration when it mattered, and that some capitulation to the administration’s priorities was part of the high-wire balancing act that defines the speakership. While they worked together far more often than they were in opposition, it was not always clear to what extent Mark-Viverito and her members, on one hand, and de Blasio, on the other, disagreed, given that the Council speaker often kept negotiations close to the vest and declined to comment in detail as the legislative process unfolded.

Mark-Viverito and her members also rarely aired internal conflict publicly, while members appeared to know that their speaker would support them, even as she very much pursued her own policy priorities and kept a tight grip on what legislation made its way to the Council floor for a vote.

The outgoing speaker made careful decisions about when and how to criticize the mayor, preferring to hold oversight hearings than to make splashy headlines with a sharp quote. She regularly declined to comment about de Blasio’s ethics and transparency problems, instead pursuing legislation to address certain issues or allowing others more willing to be oppositional to fill the space. She mostly stayed out of de Blasio’s feud with Governor Andrew Cuomo, another fellow Democrat, though she herself has been part of some tense intra-party political battles with officials like former Assemblymember and current Manhattan Democratic Party leader Keith Wright.

Mark-Viverito assumed the speakership in January 2014 with support from an ascendant mayor, strong labor unions, and a newly empowered Progressive Caucus, bucking the traditional county party-dominated process for selecting a new speaker. The new dynamic led some to be wary of whether Mark-Viverito would be a speaker for the members of the Council or for the mayor, whose politics so closely resembled her own. After taking office, she quickly advanced internal changes at the Council that were meant to empower members, particularly the chairs of the 40-odd committees, while also maintaining sufficient control within the speaker’s office.

“The considerable thing about my leadership is that I made it a member-focused legislative body,” Mark-Viverito said, in a recent appearance on the Max & Murphy podcast hosted by Gotham Gazette and City Limits. “It wasn’t about me centralizing the power, just pushing what my agenda was…[it was about] having the members really have much more of a functional role and ownership for this institution. It belongs to all of us, it doesn’t just belong to the speaker.”

Mark-Viverito beefed up the Council staff to support members’ legislative priorities, she said, which led to greater output. Over the four years, the Council passed 714 bills under her leadership, more than any Council class before it. “I was being respectful to member priorities and the vision that they had and working with them on that...and I think that’s the way a legislative body should function,” she said.

[Listen: Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito]

The first two years of Mark-Viverito’s speakership proceeded amicably with the mayor for the most part. The Council played its part in supporting the mayor’s agenda that included universal pre-kindergarten and expanding the paid sick leave law. City spending ramped up with little opposition from the Council, which also advocated for increased spending on its own policy priorities.

“I think that from the start the speaker was a forward thinking, independent leader,” said outgoing Council Member Elizabeth Crowley, a Queens Democrat. “She brought real fairness and transparency to the Council and made the Council a better place to work, from someone who had been in the Council for five years prior to her leadership.”

An early area of disagreement was Mark-Viverito’s call for an increase in the NYPD’s headcount, which struck many as peculiar given her criticisms of police practices and the larger criminal justice system. She unsuccessfully pressed the issue in 2014, and then renewed her efforts in 2015, eventually convincing a hesitant de Blasio to back the expensive idea. The department ended up adding 1,300 new officers, a compromise among the Council, the mayor, and the NYPD.

Also in 2015, in the city’s fight against the ride-hailing service Uber, Mark-Viverito publicly chastised the mayor for presuming that the Council would do his bidding. The mayor, after giving up his effort to cap the number of new cars run by Uber and its competitors, threatened that a cap was still a tool available to him, even though it would have to be approved by the Council first. “I’m not going to allow anyone to attempt to save face at the expense of this Council,” she said at a news conference at City Hall, raising many eyebrows. “This Council decides what bills we need to discuss, what debates we will have, what will be taken off the table, what will be put on the table. No one else leads that discussion, no one else influences that discussion.”

Higher profile battles would occur later still, as de Blasio’s first term wore on towards a potential second and as the speaker’s final term wound to a close. (Mark-Viverito was early to endorse de Blasio for reelection, but, over the following months, she seemed to show more willingness to resist his politics and policies.)    

“I think first and foremost, she’s been her speaker,” said Council Member Brad Lander, in a phone interview, on whether Mark-Viverito had been the members’ speaker or the mayor’s. “She’s got a strong vision for the city and for the Council and that’s what I think has guided her. I think it’s been a really productive and fair and highly consequential and progressive speakership.”

De Blasio Mark-Viverito City Hall handshake Ed Reed Mayor's OfficeLander, who was a leading proponent for Mark-Viverito to become the speaker and was named chair of the Council’s rules committee by her, praised the internal reforms that Mark-Viverito implemented early on, which he helped write. The reforms made the Council “a more equal and inclusive body in which every member can zealously represent their community and their values, even when those are different, without fear or favor,” Lander said. Perhaps most notably, Mark-Viverito and her colleagues changed the system by which members are provided discretionary funds to disperse to nonprofits, rationalizing a process that had often been used by previous speakers to reward and punish members.

On particular issues, Lander said, Mark-Viverito facilitated legislation championed by members, such as the right to counsel for tenants in housing court, fair work-week legislation, and certain freelancer protections. The most impactful, in Lander’s view, was her successful advocacy for the closure of the Rikers Island jail complex. Mark-Viverito convened an independent commission to recommend a raft of criminal justice reforms and particularly to look at Rikers. De Blasio, who did not support the closure at first, seemed to begrudgingly accept the inevitable and announced his support just before the commission issued its report. “I believe Rikers is on a path to closure,” Lander said, “and I don’t think that would be true if [Mark-Viverito] had not been elected speaker four years ago.”

Lander noted that while the speaker often agreed and collaborated with the mayor, she was not hesitant to oppose him or break with him when her members dictated she should. For instance, when she pulled a bill she supported from consideration by the full Council that would have curbed the city’s horse carriage industry. It was a prominent campaign issue in the 2013 mayoral race and de Blasio had advocated for and promised a complete ban. But, amid discontent from members on potential compromise legislation in early 2016, the speaker stood with her colleagues.

“I think she’s been independent,” said Council Member Rory Lancman, a vocal critic of the de Blasio administration, in a November interview at City Hall. “Each speaker, just like each member, has their own political relationship with the other side of the building here. And no speaker’s going to be completely independent from the mayor or the governor or any other political actor that has influence.”

As the process to select the next speaker of the City Council has played out in the final months and weeks of 2017, de Blasio has repeatedly said how well he thinks his involvement in Mark-Viverito’s victory turned out. De Blasio captured his overall feelings in June, when announcing a final budget deal with Mark-Viverito, saying of the speaker:

“[S]he has been an extraordinary partner over the last four years. We knew each other well before we each assumed these roles. We knew that we had a lot of respect and trust for each other. We knew that we shared values. We didn’t know what it would be like to play these roles. We didn’t know what the times ahead would be or what the issues we’d face would be. But there was a core belief that if you share values, a lot of good things can happen. And many, many conversations over many years – mostly in agreement, sometimes not, but we always found a way to get to a good outcome, and with great support from all our colleagues. So from me, I can tell you I’ll be sorry when these four years are over because it has been such a great and positive partnership. As a progressive, I want to thank Melissa Mark-Viverito for helping to move this city in a new progressive direction. And the things she has championed are going to have a huge impact on this city for many years to come.”

A former Council member, who asked to remain anonymous to speak freely, served under both Mark-Viverito and former speaker Christine Quinn and said the process of Mark-Viverito’s election as speaker hampered her ability to distance herself from de Blasio. “Melissa started at a very great disadvantage, the fact that the mayor picked her to be the speaker and only because of him,” the former member said. “He made her. That hurt the whole body and it hurt her ability to really appear to be independent...because people perceived that the City Council is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the mayor. Right off the bat, that’s a bad start.”

This former member did credit Mark-Viverito for giving more leeway than Quinn to Council members to push legislation and pursue their individual agendas, while also breaking with the mayor on controversial items. But even then, the member said, there was a degree of deference. “I think Melissa did check with the mayor on everything, and even when they broke, I think they probably checked with the mayor before they broke. So I think it was a real problem,” the former member said.

On no other issue has that dynamic played out more strongly than criminal justice reform and the Council’s attempts to legislate, and regulate, the city’s police force. Two police reform bills to regulate officers’ interactions with people, collectively named The Right to Know Act, progressed slowly through the legislative process over the years despite having overwhelming support from Council members and progressive advocates. Tensions reached a head in mid-2016 when Mark-Viverito reached a compromise on administrative implementation by the NYPD of partial measures, in lieu of a full Council vote to codify the provisions into law. Advocates saw it as a backroom deal while Council members fumed over the concession to the administration and the police department.

Amended versions of the bills would ultimately pass in a divisive vote at the final full meeting of the Council on December 19, 2017, with numerous Council members and hundreds of community groups coming out in opposition to one bill sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres that had been, in their view, diluted to appease the NYPD and the mayor, who said he’d sign the bill given it had struck the right balance despite his skepticism about too much legislating of NYPD protocols.

Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform, an advocacy coalition, said in a statement that it was “disappointing,” particularly given Mark-Viverito’s progressive credentials on police reform and accountability. “While [Mark-Viverito] was a champion on Closing Rikers, she did not show the same willingness to fight for front-end police reforms that hold the NYPD accountable and systemically change racial disparities in policing and what feeds the criminal justice system,” Bandele said. “She spent three to four years blocking the Right to Know Act, and then helped the de Blasio administration undermine the half of the legislative package of which Council Member Torres was lead sponsor.” Bandele also criticized the speaker’s push to increase the headcount of the NYPD, which Mark-Viverito had argued would help with reforms and implementation of community policing.

Council Member Torres also criticized the administrative compromise in 2016 and he told Gotham Gazette in November that Mark-Viverito had not been sufficiently independent of the mayor in that case. In a separate interview after a November 1 Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum, Torres indicated, amid praise, some dissatisfaction with the speaker’s record. “I support Melissa, I love Melissa as a person and as a speaker. I thought she has struck the right balance between decentralizing greater power to the members while at the same time maintaining the power of the speaker’s office,” he said. “There are a few moments when I felt we were excessively deferential to the mayor and I said so at the time of those controversies.”

Torres had said at the Crain’s forum -- part of his bid to become Mark-Viverito’s successor as speaker -- that the Council was prone to sideshow distractions. “Oscar Lopez, Christopher Columbus, what’s the latest sensation of the week,” he elaborated in the interview afterward. “The Health and Hospitals Corporation could disappear within the next five years. NYCHA has $17 billion worth of capital needs. Those are the things that matter, those are the things that we should be discussing.”

Torres later changed his tune somewhat, perhaps showcasing some of the mixed feelings Council members have about Mark-Viverito’s tenure and her relationships with de Blasio and her members. “She has been responsive to the needs of the members, there’s no question about it. As a member, I could not be more satisfied with the leadership that she’s given me,” Torres recently told Gotham Gazette at City Hall.

As to his earlier comments on her independence, Torres said, “I think it’s a matter of degree. We could always be more effective, we could always be more independent. But has she fundamentally been representative of the needs of the members of the institution? The answer is yes. Not perfect, but fundamentally.” When the Right to Know Act headed to a vote and many of Torres’ colleagues criticized his bill, Mark-Viverito was one of his fiercest defenders, though a number of Council members felt that Torres and Mark-Viverito had capitulated too much to the de Blasio administration. Torres’ bill did pass.

On the Max & Murphy podcast, Mark-Viverito addressed working with de Blasio, and the Council negotiating hundreds of bills with the administration, along with land use deals, budgets, and more. “I can safely say that we’ve had a good partnership and I think that there are a lot of things that I was able to move them on and they had conversations with us and maybe there’s things that they [moved] us on,” she said December 20. “But definitely it was a very productive relationship in that way. And I think that in areas where they may have had concerns about pieces of legislation, really engaging with them and talking to them and exerting ourselves, we were able to get some reconsideration on those items. And that’s in consultation with colleagues...I’m not regretful of anything.”

Mark-Viverito is leaving office proud of the way she led the Council, and not ruling out her own run for mayor down the line. It’s no surprise that even though she is term-limited she did not challenge a sitting mayor of her own party who she is largely aligned with and who helped her reach the height of her power. She’s leaving office having not only ushered in significant changes to city law, but having altered the way the Council functions and how members expect to be treated by their leader.

“Anyone that has to deal with a thousand bills over the course of a tenure is going to have to work to be tremendously balanced when you’re leading a legislative body against, at times, or in conjunction with the mayor’s administration,” said Staten Island Council Member Joe Borelli, one of only three Republicans on the City Council who, more often than not, vote against the types of progressive legislation championed by Mark-Viverito.

“I don’t think you can box her in as being either/or [the members’ speaker or the mayor’s speaker]. I’m sure her critics will say that she’s both at times when it suits their narrative,” Borelli continued. “She’s someone who wore her progressive banner very proudly and that’s certainly going to be her legacy and I think people over the next few years will view her as someone who carried the football for progressive causes a bit further, and people like me and those I represent will see her tenure in the speakership as slightly different.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Ben Max contributed to this article.

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Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Mayor-Made Speaker, Sought a Member-Driven Legacy Fri, 29 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7383:max-murphy-podcast-city-council-speaker-melissa-mark-viverito http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7383:max-murphy-podcast-city-council-speaker-melissa-mark-viverito mxm logo

Ben Max, left, of Gotham Gazette, and Jarrett Murphy, right, of City Limits


December 20, 2017 - Max & Murphy: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (photo by William Alatriste/City Council)

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Melissa Mark-Viverito, the City Council Speaker for about 10 more days, joined the podcast to discuss her tenure, how she has approached leading the city's legislative body, and what she hopes the next speaker will do. She answered questions from Max, Murphy, and Gotham Gazette's Samar Khurshid about her approach to balancing work with advocates, negotiating with the mayoral administration, leading 50 other Council members, and moving a progressive agenda. Mark-Viverito explains what she sees as her legacy and jokes that she is relieved she didn't really have the option to run for mayor this year, given her closeness with Mayor de Blasio and how past speakers have faired in their mayoral pursuits.

Listen to the full conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @jarrettmurphy and @samarkhurshid and guest @MMViverito. You can listen to the episode through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts.

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by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
     

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Max & Murphy Podcast: City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito Wed, 20 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000
Congratulations and Consternation as City Council Ends Term http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7379:congratulations-and-consternation-as-city-council-ends-term http://www.gothamgazette.com/?id=7379:congratulations-and-consternation-as-city-council-ends-term mmv flag alatriste

Council Speaker Melisasa Mark-Viverito (photo: William Alatriste, June 2015)


The New York City Council concluded its four-year term on Tuesday with a marathon legislative blitz, passing 38 new bills at its last full-body meeting. The Council has seen more new legislation passed in the last four years than any other Council class seated before it, with a total of 714 bills approved (in comparison, the final full-body meeting under the previous speaker, Christine Quinn, the Council passed 29 bills in December, 2013).

Under the leadership of outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Council has taken an active, interventionist approach and has approved sweeping legislation to benefit the city’s most vulnerable and poorest populations. Broad packages of criminal justice reforms, immigrant protections, tenant and consumer rights laws have been enacted alongside more pedantic concerns, dominated by a progressive caucus that has driven large parts of the Council’s policy priorities.

The Council has made civil penalties for low-level offenses in order to prevent criminal records in as many instances as possible, and provided free legal services for low-income tenants in housing court. It created a municipal identification program with an eye toward benefitting undocumented immigrants. It passed new land use regulations to mandate the creation of affordable housing when the city grants more density to a developer, among many more policies that have reshaped the city’s landscape.

Tuesday’s agenda carried much of the same. The 38 bills included two significant, and controversial, police reform bills, collectively called the Right to Know Act. One of the two bills saw an unusually high number of “no” votes for a body that has not brought legislation to the floor that has been voted down (nor has the Council had a bill it passed vetoed by Mayor Bill de Blasio).

The Council on Tuesday also made technical changes to the city’s Human Rights Law, mandated that the Department of Education publish an annual report on students in temporary housing, and required the Department of Small Business Services to create a resource guide for subcontractors. Bills dealing with traffic violations, renewable energy use, noise complaints, and a census of vacant city properties were also approved, among others.

“We turned a speaker-driven institution into one where members have had a real say in things,” said Mark-Viverito from the Council floor, triumphantly touting her record as speaker and recounting her career. “Even when we didn’t always agree, we always listened.”

What was at times a celebratory occasion, however, had a number of tense and bittersweet moments. Whoops and applause did ring out to the full chamber, as Mark-Viverito spoke for the last time from the floor, thanking her colleagues who applauded her in return. But the members also faced the necessity of bidding her farewell, along with 10 other outgoing members who are either term-limited or stepping down. “I don’t have regrets,” Mark-Viverito told her Council cohort, emphasizing the productive legislative session that she led. “And we should all be proud of that because we’re making the city a better city for all New Yorkers, for every single New Yorker who oftentimes feels invisible or feels disrespected or disenfranchised.”

The perfunctory congratulations and backpatting would only last so long. In a legislative body known for few disagreements in the last four years, one particular bill on the agenda, Intro. 182 sponsored by Council Member Ritchie Torres as part of the Right to Know Act, led to one of the most concerted debates and eventually the most divided vote the body has seen in this four-year session.

The bill, which passed 27-20 with three abstentions, requires NYPD officers in certain types of street encounters to proactively identify themselves and to provide a business card listing their rank and command. Last-minute changes to the bill prompted consternation from police reform advocates, who felt it had been watered down at the behest of the NYPD and urged members to oppose it, while vehemently criticizing Torres. The final version did not include the most common street stops or any car stops.

Many of Torres’ colleagues praised his efforts to negotiate the bill and came to his defense, while others subsequently criticized the final product that was voted on. Numerous Council members, including Brad Lander, Jumaane Williams, Donovan Richards, and Robert Cornegy, as well as many other Council members of color who had been sponsors of the bill, pulled their support. (The companion legislation, Intro. 541 sponsored by Council Member Antonio Reynoso, which requires police officers to obtain consent to conduct a search where there is no probably cause, passed 37-13.)

At one point, Williams spoke beyond his allotted time against Torres’ bill and his microphone was cut off as Speaker Mark-Viverito urged the body to move on. Council Member Rosie Mendez, who was next to speak, offered to yield her two minutes to Williams but Public Advocate Letitia James, overseeing the proceedings, denied the request saying the Council rules did not allow it. A frustrated Williams continued to talk before relenting. “It’s a sham and it’s a shame,” he said.

When it was finally his opportunity to speak, Torres, who faced much of the advocates’ wrath, staunchly defended the final legislation he put forward. “It is historic, it is unprecedented, it is real reform in the truest sense of the word,” he said, seeking to dispel what he said was disinformation from advocates about the effects of the bill, insisting that it lays a strong foundation for progress and preempting what he believes will be a more conservative Council come January. “I stand by what I have chosen to do, even if it means standing alone,” he said, “even if it means straining and severing political relationships, even if it means I am no longer beloved in progressive circles, even if it means I have no future in progressive politics.”

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by Samar Khurshid, City government reporter, Gotham Gazette
     

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Congratulations and Consternation as City Council Ends Term Tue, 19 Dec 2017 05:00:00 +0000