A Healing Moment Or Political Theater?

A Healing Moment Or Political Theater?

March 3, 2014

The scene on the floor of the New York City Council at the first stated meeting of 2014 was an exercise in political theatrics. After weeks of vote wrangling, dealmaking and one-sided muckraking surrounding the Council Speaker’s race, supporters of the two ultimate candidates, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Daniel Garodnick, converged on the Council floor, exchanging pleasantries and warm embraces. It was an anticlimactic denouement to a drawn-out, occasionally nasty battle. 

There was some initial suspense before the meeting as Mark-Viverito’s supporters patiently waited for the Garodnick contingent to arrive. Visions of a dramatic floor vote danced through the heads of some attendees, and sources in Garodnick’s camp were confident as recently as a few days earlier that they could steal away some Council members from Mark-Viverito’s side. Yet the moment Garodnick and company entered the chambers to a raucous ovation, all of the acrimony from the past few weeks dissipated. Mark-Viverito beamed and embraced her partners in progressivism, Jimmy Van Bramer and Julissa Ferreras, and kissed her mother. Garodnick stood off to the side of the floor, gracious in defeat, accepting handshakes and hugs from members on both sides of the fight. It was the “Kumbaya moment” that had proved elusive ever since the Democratic county leaders from the Bronx and Queens aligned behind Garodnick, while the Progressive Caucus and the Brooklyn delegation united behind Mark-Viverito. 

When the floor activity subsided, there was a roll call vote, and despite some earlier bluster about sticking with Garodnick from some members, in the end Mark-Viverito was unanimously elected as the City Council’s first Latina Speaker. Adding to the spectacle of the moment, a number of members, including several Garodnick supporters, explained their vote before casting it, heaping praise on Mark-Viverito for her big win. 

From his perch in the front row of the balcony, Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the Queens Democratic Party, surveyed the lovefest and did his best to go through the motions of applauding Mark-Viverito despite the fact that her election as Speaker reflects a marked change in the influence of the county organizations. For that ground shift Crowley has his former ally to thank: Frank Seddio, the Brooklyn Democratic boss who betrayed him and swung the race to Mark-Viverito by cutting a deal for his borough’s Council members to support her—presumably in exchange for the appreciation of the mayor and City Hall. The fractured relationship between Seddio and the other county bosses will likely take a long time to heal. Notably, Crowley vigorously applauded for all of the dignitaries Mark-Viverito thanked during her acceptance speech, but ceased clapping when she called Seddio’s name. 

Still, after it was all over there was Crowley, standing in the City Hall lobby, saying he was “proud” that “history was made today.” Mere weeks earlier Crowley had been in attack mode, comparing Mark-Viverito’s early declaration of victory to former President George W. Bush standing under a “Mission Accomplished” banner prematurely marking the end of the Iraq war. Crowley had also denounced Mayor Bill de Blasio, who supported Mark-Viverito and was reportedly instrumental in swaying certain Council members to her side, as “very comfortable in the back room.” 

Ah, yes, the back room: the playing field for the shadow games of city government—and specifically the Speaker’s race. Despite the best efforts of a small group of Council members to bring some level of transparency to the selection process, including public forums with the various candidates, the true dealmaking happened behind closed doors—first when Seddio delivered his Brooklyn membership for Mark-Viverito, and then in the final agreement between the warring factions. 

Nonetheless Mark-Viverito, in her acceptance speech on the Council floor, hailed the race for Speaker as the “most transparent” in the Council’s history. While this Speaker’s race had only the semblance of openness—the forums, while of little consequence, at least sparked a more public discourse on the role of the Speaker—it was only transparent in comparison with previous races, which were utterly opaque. Garodnick acknowledged the delicate balance of running a largely private race for a very public position when asked after the meeting about Mark-Viverito’s claim of transparency. 

“These Speaker’s races are notoriously odd beasts,” Garodnick said. “There’s no question that for the first time in history we participated in a lot of public discussions, a lot of debates; we went to every borough, we talked about rules reform, we talked about everything with just about everybody; and in that regard I believe [Mark-Viverito] is right.” 

And what of de Blasio, whose fingerprints are all over the outcome of this race? The mayor has played down his behind-the-scenes involvement in advocating for Mark-Viverito, insisting that the Council operates as an independent body and that the members would choose the best candidate for the position. Yet de Blasio, speaking to the media after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State speech in Albany the same day as the Speaker vote, was singing two wildly different tunes, emphasizing his “partnership” with the new Speaker, all the while touting her independence. 

“I think she’s going to be a great partner in government,” de Blasio said. “Now if you know Melissa, you also know she’s a very independent person, and I think we’re going to agree on a lot of things because we have a very similar philosophy, but there will be times when we disagree. And I know she will fight energetically for what she believes is right.” 

It is a risky two-step the mayor is dancing. De Blasio was a vocal and relentless critic of former Speaker Christine Quinn’s political alliance with Michael Bloomberg, though it is worth noting that Quinn broke with the former mayor on several major pieces of legislation, most notably the Community Safety Act, and overturned his veto a few dozen times. Both the mayor and Mark-Viverito will likely face regular questions about the nature of their political partnership, and you can bet de Blasio’s criticisms of Quinn will come back to haunt him. 

Mark-Viverito has proven herself a more than capable legislator as a councilwoman, and her prior advocacy work has been admirable. She will have every opportunity to prove she can be the consensus builder Quinn rarely was, and that she can preside over a Council that will likely have a new set of rules, notably those governing member items. For now, Mark-Viverito will be tasked with healing wounds from the Speaker battle, and placating key members of the Garodnick team. Her election was historic, a moment to celebrate for the millions of Latinos in New York City, but only time will tell if Melissa Mark-Viverito lives up to the elevated expectations and intense scrutiny that lie ahead. 

Nick Powell