6 New York City Council members want to be speaker

New York City Council Public Housing Chair Alicka Ampry-Samuel questioning New York City Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye in 2018.
New York City Council Public Housing Chair Alicka Ampry-Samuel questioning New York City Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye in 2018.
New York City Council/William Alatriste
New York City Council Public Housing Chair Alicka Ampry-Samuel questioning New York City Housing Authority Chair Shola Olatoye in 2018.

6 New York City Council members want to be speaker

Could the field grow before 2021?
February 23, 2020

A borough president and a New York City councilwoman stood together on Broadway for a press conference one recent misty morning. It was routine, typical, the kind of thing that can happen multiple times a day in the city.

But pull back the top layer and you might find some intrigue. Because Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is a leading 2021 mayoral candidate, and City Councilwoman Alicka Ampry-Samuel is among the candidates planning to run for City Council speaker in 2021. And that fact can imbue even a ho-hum appearance with meaning – at least for the small crop of council members, operatives and stakeholders keeping an eye on who could succeed Corey Johnson in the city’s second-most powerful position on Jan. 1, 2022. 

Might Adams and Ampry-Samuel form an alliance? Will the next crop of council members elect the first black speaker? Could an outer-borough politician win? Will the Council pick a new member over an incumbent?

The last time around, Johnson started early and negotiated his way to the top of a crowd of eight candidates, more or less. This time around, at least half a dozen Democrats varying in race, gender and geography are positioning themselves for the job. There’s Ampry-Samuel, a black woman whose district is centered around Brownsville, Brooklyn; Adrienne Adams, a black woman representing Jamaica and parts of Southeast Queens; Justin Brannan, a white man from Bay Ridge and southwestern Brooklyn; Keith Powers, a white man representing much of Midtown and the Upper East Side; Carlina Rivera, a Latina whose district is centered around Manhattan’s East Village; and Rafael Salamanca Jr., representing much of the South Bronx.

All six are known to be interested in the job. And at this point, why not? Every politician knows that it benefits their public profile to be in the mix for higher office. Just ask Johnson, whose every tweet gets eye emojis from journalists covering the mayoral race. With 22 months to go until the council picks a new speaker, being in the mix earns extra attention from colleagues who might be more interested in taking a phone call or co-sponsoring a bill. It’s not a lot of power, but in a legislative body of 51 members, every advantage helps. 

Like any election in New York City, identity politics play a role. If Stringer, a white male Manhattanite, is mayor, then Powers, a white male Manhattanite, is screwed.

Plugged-in politicos watch the race like they’re trading stocks. City Councilwoman Farah Louis’ 2019 special election win was big for Brannan, who endorsed her early. Former Queens boss Joseph Crowley’s loss of power damaged the chances of his ally, City Councilman Francisco Moya. But Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. dropping out of the mayoral race was great for Salamanca, since there was little chance that a Puerto Rican from the Bronx would be chosen as speaker if one was already mayor. Diaz’s exit was also a boost for Rivera, who is also Puerto Rican, and now is perhaps the best hope for citywide Latino leadership, especially if Salamanca settles for keeping his chairmanship of the powerful Land Use Committee instead of gunning for speaker.

Indeed, like any election in New York City, identity politics play a role, especially this far into the future. Common wisdom tells us that the speaker should be a demographic counterweight to the mayor. For example, if Stringer, a white male Manhattanite, is mayor, then Powers, a white male Manhattanite, is screwed. But that kind of speculation has proven to be imperfect in the past. Look no further than the current cadre of white male leaders.

Of course, demographics are just one small piece of the puzzle. The speaker is officially picked by the members of the council, but in practice it has been a group decision, born out of shifting alliances among caucuses, unions, interest groups and county parties – and the county Democratic organizations expect to retain a leading role.

“Of course! Big time,” newly elected Brooklyn Democratic boss Rodneyse Bichotte told City & State with a laugh. Three of the five county leaders, including Queens’ Gregory Meeks, were elected in the past year. “And I have a relationship with everybody,” Bichotte said.

“I just think we should open up the thought of what an eight-year speaker would look like.” – Scott Stringer, city comptroller

“I think he’s just doing that to fuck with us.” – a speaker candidate

But one factor threatens to upend the traditional order. A whopping 34 council members are expected to reach the term limits of their office at the end of 2021, meaning only a third of the council is eligible to return for another term. Typically, only returning members are considered as speaker candidates, but with the relatively small field, some insiders think that newly elected members should be in the mix. After all, a speaker picked in his or her first term would be eligible to serve eight years, providing potential parity with the mayor. The idea has been around since the first modern race for speaker in 2002, but it has never come into practice. A leading proponent to change that? Stringer.

“I just think we should open up the thought of what an eight-year speaker would look like,” Stringer told City & State last summer. “And if that is part of the discussion, it expands the pool of prospective speaker candidates.”

That scenario might benefit Stringer if he were to become mayor and build a good relationship with the next speaker. But he claimed an eight-year speakership would actually strengthen the council, since the speaker wouldn’t be “lame-ducked” in their first term.

Naturally, the returning candidates don’t take kindly to Stringer’s idea. “I think he’s just doing that just to fuck with us,” one speaker candidate told City & State. But among the candidates who might be elected in 2021, one name continually comes up: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, who would be a hybrid of sorts, since she previously served in the council from 2002 through 2013. Brewer told City & State she is planning to run for the council, but hadn’t thought about the speakership yet.

The 17 or so incumbents who could return for another term aren’t likely to give up the benefits of seniority so easily, even to the beloved Brewer. But if others start agreeing with Stringer, the runup to the 2022 speaker election could be a free-for-all.

“What happens if you have an eight-year speakership? You add another 20, 30 (potential candidates), right?” Stringer said. “And why should we limit ourselves?”

Jeff Coltin
is a senior reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
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