Picking a New York City Council speaker used to be fairly straightforward. County leaders of the five boroughs cut deals. Jobs were promised. Votes were wrangled. Arms twisted.
But a couple of new elements in the race to replace term-limited Speaker Christine Quinn in 2014, involving ideology and race, are taking things into uncharted territory.
The three main candidates are thought to be Manhattan Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who is African- American and a favorite of the Harlem establishment; Manhattan Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Hispanic co-chair of the Progressive Caucus; and Queens Councilman Mark Weprin, who is white and favored by the famously cohesive (and influential) Queens Democratic Party.
The Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus has grown to 27 members, making the Council majority-minority for the first time. And there’s pressure for everyone involved to pick the Council’s first minority speaker—especially if the mayor ends up being someone who is white like Quinn, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer or Public Advocate Bill de Blasio.
If Quinn, the current front-runner, is elected, allies of Dickens believe she would have the speakership all but locked up.
“If the mayor’s white, the speaker can’t be, and vice versa,” said one uptown Manhattan ally of Dickens. “Assuming the mayor is white, the speaker is most likely going to be Dickens.”
But the situation is made more complex because of a split in the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus between the establishment (which makes up the majority of the caucus, and supports Dickens) and members of the Progressive Caucus (which supports Mark- Viverito). Already tensions flared within the caucus earlier this year, when Mark- Viverito pulled out of a race for a leadership spot in the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus because she lacked support for reelection.
Even though Dickens holds the majority of support in the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, that bloc would still have to cut a deal with the leadership of at least one of the borough delegations.
Meanwhile, the Council’s 12-member Progressive Caucus is looking to expand its ranks dramatically in the next election. With nearly half the Council set to be open seats, the Working Families Party is hoping to make a play in some 20 Democratic primaries, already identifying candidates to support. In low turnout Democratic primaries, the WFP proved extremely formidable in 2009 against the Queens Democratic Party, though the WFP’s ground operation may be weakened by the demise of its for-profit campaign arm, Data and Field Services.
One top progressive labor official involved with WFP strategy said the Progressive Caucus was considering teaming up with a county leader—like Brooklyn chair Vito Lopez or Bronx leader Carl Heastie—to be able to win a majority of votes on the Council for the speakership.
“The thought is that a progressive candidate could win if you came up with a county,” the labor official said.
But this is theoretical at best, and progressive members would have to ultimately choose whether to align with the WFP or their own county parties.
Queens County sources believe only five members of the Progressive Caucus who will be around to vote in 2014— Mark-Viverito, Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, Manhattan Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams and Staten Island Councilwoman Debi Rose—are more loyal to the caucus than to their home county. Notably, none of those members hail from Queens.
Queens County already has its own candidate in Weprin, an affable and popular figure among his colleagues. The borough has a mostly loyal and unified Democratic delegation, and even the Republicans in the borough are often inclined to vote with Democrats in a bloc. Queens seemed to double down on Weprin as speaker recently when it passed on selecting him as its candidate for the newly created Sixth Congressional District—a move that insiders say upset Weprin, who had long harbored congressional ambitions. Weprin also passed on running against the county organization’s pick, Assemblywoman Grace Meng.
But even a unified Queens would need a dozen more votes to pick a speaker. In 2005, lacking enough votes, Queens supported Manhattan’s Quinn for speaker, in exchange for chairmanships of top committees like Land Use and Finance.
Since the last speaker’s race, Heastie has been able to unify the Bronx, making that borough more of a key player. Brooklyn, while large, is split between allies of Lopez (a majority of its votes) and his political opponents. And Manhattan—the home of both Mark- Viverito and Dickens—is governed more by local neighborhood politics than by a central leadership.
With no single bloc strong enough to elect a speaker, the final deal may well come down to horse trading among counties and patronage.
“Anything could happen. Christine Quinn could get in there and ultimately appoint a couple of Vito’s people as commissioners,” said one source close to the Queens Democrats. “It has to be built with a coalition. Nobody can do it on their own.”
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