By Mark Berkey-Gerard and Gail Robinson
In his lecture entitled "How
to Not Make Yourself Irrelevant," Councilmember Thomas
Ognibene looked out at the early-morning audience of New
Yorkers running for office, and asked what seemed like
a straightforward question: "If elected to City Council,
who would you vote for as Speaker?"
A candidate in the front row from Queens responded frankly that he did not
know. A candidate in the back row from the Bronx raised her hand and said
that she would vote for Adolfo Carrion, who is one of the 15 current Council
members who are eligible to run again this year.
Ognibene nodded, a cross between Socrates and Oprah. Both answers, he said,
would get them into trouble. Voters do not elect people to say "I don't
know," he said. And supporting someone that may not ultimately be elected
could be a costly political misstep: The new Speaker would remember, and "put
you in the back of the room."
Then Ognibene, who is the Minority Leader of the City Council (and, like
every other representative from Queens, on his way out), supplied a better
answer: "You say, `Whoever is elected Speaker, I am going to work with them
the city better.' That is how you keep yourself from becoming irrelevant."
It was clear that the audience who gathered to learn things like how a bill
becomes a law and what a zoning resolution looks like were in for some
lessons as well in the art of politics.
A hundred candidates gathered at 8:30 on a Saturday morning, many
bleary-eyed, coffee cups in hand, for a crash course in city government that
ranged from the intricacies of the budget process to how to rent an office.
Local activists, relatives of current politicians, community board leaders,
and people who have never been involved in politics came to size up their
chances of mounting a winning campaign.
"This forum really provides a public service by educating
people who might not otherwise feel comfortable entering
the process," said Anna Lewis, a political newcomer who
is running for Ronnie Eldridge's seat in district
6 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
The training seminar (which held all-morning sessions
on two Saturdays in February, and will continue on two
Sundays in March) is sponsored by Baruch
School of Public Affairs and the New York's Women
Agenda, and has the official endorsement of the City Council
leadership. With term-limits set to empty 35 seats and
erase five centuries of collective experience from the
City Council chambers next January, everyone looks at
the need for training as especially important this year
for the candidates, the Council, and the government as
The Baruch seminar is not the only one this year. Many
city civic organizations, policy analysts, and lobbyists
are concerned about the potential turnover in government,
and are holding their own training schools. The Coro Center
for Excellence in New York City Governance at New York
Graduate School of Public Service has plans for a
similar policy-oriented training seminar. The
Campaign Finance Board holds regular training on the
workings of the city's matching fund program and the requirements
of candidates. The New
York League of Conservation Voters is also planning
on doing an environmental training.
It will be a lot of information for candidates, many of whom could not help
but feel overwhelmed, even after just one training session.
"My mother's advice was just to relax," said Yvette Clarke,
who has an edge on some of the other novices. She is the
daughter of Councilwoman Una Clarke, is looking to succeed
her mother in Brooklyn's district
Queens Councilmember Thomas Ognibene started the first session off at Baruch,
entitled "Your First Days on the Council," with a
surprisingly frank lecture about the trappings of political life.
"When you are elected, that night there will be tremendous euphoria," said
Ognibene. "People will come up and hug you and tell you how hard they worked
all those months for you. And you've never seen them before."
He advised cooperating with other members, suggested carefully selecting
issues to fight for, and pointed out one task that will be constant --
"Your swearing-in is really a fundraiser," continued Ognibene. "You have to
do it right away because you haven't made any enemies yet."
Next, Manhattan Representative Ronnie
Eldridge spoke just as candidly about her efforts
to reform the rules of the Council in order to give more
power to the members and less to the Speaker.
"These rules are crucial," said Eldridge, whose proposed revisions would
make it easier for bills to be introduced on the floor, and for committee
members to be selected differently. As for one of the Council's other crucial
responsibilities, overseeing the actions of city agencies, it helps to have a
"Oversight has been a total bust," Eldridge said, "because the Giuliani
people do not tell you
anything. And when they do, they lie."
It was a day for bluntness. At a panel discussion where three Council members
talked about the challenges of balancing the role of politician at City Hall
with that of true representative for your district, Adolfo Carrion, Jr. said:
"In the end, we are there to eke out power and wealth for our areas."
City Council is sometimes characterized as the "do-nothing"
branch of city government. But the list of the body's
actual responsibilities, as outlined
in the City Charter that was passed a dozen years
ago, comes off as daunting. The Council oversees a $37
billion budget, which, as the students were told, is the
fourth largest in the United States, after only the federal
government's, and the states of California and New York.
The Council is also supposed to provide oversight for
one million public school students, 1.3 billion gallons
of sewage, 127,000 city prison inmates, and a ton of land
use and zoning proposals submitted each year.
"The piloting of the vast and complex ship that we call New York City will
be entrusted to a new group of leaders, some with limited experience in
government," cautioned Stan Altman, Dean of the Baruch School of Public
Affairs. "It is a prospect that
should inspire serious concern among all of us."
That is why, said Paula Gerard, the school's staff director,
"our aim is to be a local version of Harvard's Kennedy
School of training for congressional leaders."
Winning candidates will be invited to a two-day retreat
and be given a new manual that Baruch is helping to put together which will
explain the rules and procedures of the Council.
Meanwhile, the training sessions, which are open to the public, drew a
handful of political consultants, campaign managers, reporters, and local
political junkies. But the audience was mostly made up of New Yorkers who are
serious about being candidates, many already with their own Web sites,
campaign business cards, and a growing pile of cash. Who else would be
interested in attending lectures about land use and the budget?
SURVIVING LAND USE AND THE BUDGET
"Your Role in Land Use and the Budget Process," Baruch's second session,
be less inspirational and more focused on the "nuts and bolts" issues of land
use and the budget, the two most complex but critical roles of the Council.
Amy Klein, chief of staff to the Council's Finance Committee, compared the
process to the television show "Survivor."
"Councilmembers are thrown into a room, sometimes without food, sometimes,
sometimes with their cell phones shut off," said Klein. Then over the next
weeks, the Council must wrestle with the mayor's proposals and come together
with a consensus on how city money should be spent
As important as the Council's role in the budget is its participation in land
use - approving changes in zoning, allowing something to be built in one
place and not in another. When it comes to land use, "the Council's power is
paramount," said Councilmember Gifford Miller. "There is a huge amount of
money at stake in a lot of these decisions."
The training seminar will continue to provide basic training for the
candidates; future panel discussions will focus on the police, parks,
housing, and how to interact with lobbyists,
advocates, and the press. After each official session, various groups will
hold less formal "brown-bag lunch" sessions, which provide the only
opportunity many in the audience would ever get to eat with people like the
heads of the uniform workers unions.
Teachers always say that they get as much from their students as they give,
but in these training sessions the quid pro quo is a little more direct. "We
want to get in on the ground floor of City Council," said Sally Minard,
President of the New York Women's Agenda. A "school" is a convenient and
effective way for lobbyists, activists, policy institutes to
contact, educate, and influence new city politicians. In the end, the
greatest government turnover in New York City history may prove just as great
an opportunity for them as for the candidates.
But the old hands on the Council who were the professors think it is worth
it. Adolfo Carrion told the candidates that they were getting much better
training than the one he received: His own introduction to government when he
was elected way back in November, 1997, included a one-day presentation,
which he characterized as superficial, by the Office of the City Council
Speaker. And, he pointed out, it was only after he was elected. It is never
too early to start learning what the Council members all agreed takes years
to master. And the training is not the only head-start Carrion advised in a
day's worth of blunt advice: "Start the transition after you win the primary."