Why the Bronx and Queens once again are selecting NYC’s next council speaker

Why the Bronx and Queens once again are selecting NYC’s next council speaker

Why the Bronx and Queens select New York City's council speaker
January 2, 2018

Corey Johnson will likely be elected as the next New York City Council speaker on Jan. 3, with his victory cemented by support from the Bronx and Queens council delegations. The race functionally ended when Johnson, a frontrunner in the race, received a phone call on Dec. 20 from Rep. Joe Crowley, the influential Queens County Democratic Party chairman, expressing his support.

It is not expected to be a smooth coronation for Johnson, as Council members Jumaane Williams and Inez Barron remain in the race. Their candidacies protest another white man being placed in a leadership position in a majority-minority city. But while there may be tension in City Hall during the vote, Johnson’s ascendance is almost certain.

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The decision by Crowley and Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, the Bronx Democratic Party chairman, to support Johnson represents a larger partnership between lawmakers in Queens and in the Bronx. This long-standing alliance allows the two boroughs to influence political outcomes and provide a counterweight to Brooklyn, the city’s largest borough.

“It’s a priority for the Bronx to maintain a strong working relationship with Queens, and it’s a priority for Queens to maintain a strong working relationship with the Bronx,” Councilman Ritchie Torres, a former speaker candidate, told City & State in a November interview. “I think we’re more powerful together than we are in isolation.”

This “strong working relationship” goes back at least 30 years, when Peter Vallone Sr. was elected majority leader of the council in 1986, according to Evan Stavisky, a political consultant and partner at Parkside Group. The Bronx and Queens delegations supported Vallone, and were able to ensure his election as a unified bloc of voters. The council had only 35 members and significantly less power in 1986, but this success set a precedent for future victories in and outside of the council.

“The Queens and Bronx delegations have generally voted as a bloc, and generally stuck together, and seen success as a result,” Stavisky said about why the partnership has persisted. “There's an old saying, don't mess with success. And this has obviously been a successful arrangement for both counties.”

The Bronx has eight council members, and Queens has 14, giving them a combined 22 votes. This leaves only four votes needed to reach a 26-member majority in the council. With only three members, Staten Island provides a small, but occasionally critical, unit of votes. Manhattan has 10 members, but its party organization is not as powerful as that of Brooklyn, the Bronx or Queens, explained Bruce Berg, a political science professor at Fordham University.

“There is no Manhattan Democratic Party,” Berg said, meaning that the Manhattan Democratic Party, which is chaired by Keith Wright, is not nearly as influential as its outer-borough counterparts. “It’s a district-to-district, block-by-block thing.” This allows Manhattan’s council members to be a malleable group of voters, who may choose to align themselves with the other delegations.

Previous council speakers Gifford Miller and Christine Quinn represented Manhattan, Mark-Viverito’s district spans across Manhattan and the Bronx, and Johnson is also a Manhattanite. The power brokers in Queens and the Bronx often choose to support speaker candidates from Manhattan because of the math involved with obtaining a majority. If the 22-member combined delegation wants to get to 26 votes, and Manhattan votes are generally up for grabs, it helps to have a speaker from that borough.

Brooklyn has 16 council members, and has been traditionally been unable to exert the level of influence of Queens and the Bronx because of internal divisions. Stavisky said that the  Brooklyn delegation contains several factions, including southern Brooklyn, central Brooklyn and progressive brownstone Brooklyn.

“That’s just been a political fact since the ‘80s,” he said, alluding to Vallone’s initial election as majority leader. “Trying to get them to go in the same direction is difficult because they spend most of their time fighting each other in primaries.”

Ken Fisher, a partner at Cozen O’Connor and a former councilman from Brooklyn, said that the Brooklyn delegation is still “reeling” from shakeups in leadership. Former county Democratic Party leader Clarence Norman resigned after being convicted on corruption charges in 2005. He was succeeded by Assemblyman Vito Lopez, who then stepped down amid a sexual harassment scandal in 2012. Lopez was replaced by Frank Seddio, who was a key player in the 2014 speaker’s election.

Yet in 2014, Brooklyn officials were able to outmaneuver Crowley and then-Bronx Democratic Party Chair Carl Heastie in the speaker race. Stavisky called these political machinations the “exception that proves the rule” of Queens-Bronx political influence.

Newly elected New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Seddio threw their support behind Mark-Viverito four years ago, while Crowley backed Councilman Dan Garodnick. De Blasio was able to help typically fractured delegation rally around Mark-Viverito, while members of the Bronx and Queens were not as united as usual.

“The only time they were able to overcome those differences was when you had a popular mayor from Brooklyn out of the brownstone faction able to put influence on the party regulars, and even then, they still needed a couple votes out of Queens and the Bronx,” Stavisky said, referring to members such as Ritchie Torres of the Bronx and Julissa Ferreras-Copeland of Queens, who broke with their delegations to support Mark-Viverito. Torres and Ferreras-Copeland were members of the Progressive Caucus on the council, which had considerable influence in the 2014 race.

“It looked like the Progressive Caucus was the center of gravity and people were attracted to that,” Fisher said, adding that the caucus and Mark-Viverito had the support from several unions. After de Blasio’s election, there was a political movement bolstered by the new mayor and the Progressive Caucus. Whereas Garodnick’s candidacy represented the status quo, Mark-Viverito’s and, earlier, de Blasio’s candidacies symbolized the backlash against 12 years of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

RELATED: Departing NYC Council members reflect on their legacies

Seddio threw his support behind Mark-Viverito after being asked by de Blasio, despite initially promising to stand with the Bronx and Queens parties. Mark-Viverito was ultimately elected speaker, although it was uncertain what the result would be until the day of the election.

Four years later, the vote was determined weeks in advance, and the alliance between Queens and the Bronx appears to have reasserted its power. Crowley negotiated with Crespo and members of the city’s congressional delegation to deliver the votes for Johnson. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, an ally of Crowley, reportedly helped to deliver the votes from Brooklyn. De Blasio and Seddio were outmaneuvered.

De Blasio was at an event in Iowa when negotiations were finalized, but his status as a soon-to-be lame duck mayor had already dampened the influence he exerted over the race. Every candidate to be speaker this time around, excluding Robert Cornegy Jr., was a member of the Progressive Caucus, dividing focus and diminishing its ability to influence the race. Seddio was also a minor figure, in large part because he had alienated the Queens and Bronx county leaders in 2014. Fisher said that the two delegations were so united in 2018 in part because of the desire to prevent the Brooklyn Democratic leader from picking the next speaker.

Stavisky, who was previously the principal strategist for Crowley’s reelection campaign, argued that Crowley did not play the role of kingmaker in this race, but chose to support Johnson based on feedback from members of the Queens delegation. Johnson had secured the support of several of his colleagues – including influential Queens Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz – which the Queens congressman took into account before deciding which candidate to support.

“The county chair's job is to facilitate – it's not to dictate, it's to facilitate,” Stavisky said.

The alliance between the Queens and Bronx party chairs persists because it is larger than the institution of the council. It plays important role in statewide politics as well, and helped to propel Heastie to become Assembly speaker in 2015, as Queens was the first delegation to support his candidacy outside of the Bronx.

With Heastie in the Assembly speaker’s chair, political power in the city is now largely concentrated in the two boroughs, said Fisher, ensuring that the alliance will endure. Crowley is chairman of the Democratic Caucus in the House of Representatives, and is widely considered to be a leading contender for speaker of the House if the Democrats gain a majority. Heastie’s election ended Brooklyn’s hold on the Assembly speakership, diverting more power to the Bronx. Bronx state Sen. Jeff Klein is the leader of the Independent Democratic Conference, wielding significant influence in the state Legislature.

Johnson’s likely election to the speakership will further anchor the partnership between Queens and the Bronx, allowing for it to influence city and state politics for the foreseeable future.

“It endures because it works,” Fisher said. “It worked for Vallone, it worked for Miller, it worked for Quinn, and in the absence of the Progressive Caucus as a significant factor this year, it's worked for Corey Johnson as well.”

Grace Segers
is City & State’s digital reporter. She writes daily content on New York City and New York state politics.