A Tale of Two State of the City Speeches

A Tale of Two State of the City Speeches

A Tale of Two State of the City Speeches
February 23, 2015

The pomp surrounding Mayor Bill de Blasio’s annual State of the City address belies the fact that the tradition is actually not very old. Ed Koch occasionally gave January speeches starting in 1979, but only when he had good news to report: he skipped 1981 to 1983. The codification of the “SOTC” speech into law came with the revision of the City Charter in 1989, and was meant to provide transparency to the City Council regarding the operations of the city. It also aligned the mayor with the governor and the president as executives informing the legislative body regarding the health of the body politic.

The pomp surrounding the New York City Council speaker’s State of the City address, on the other hand, has no constitutional provision, and was essentially invented by Peter Vallone, Sr., probably as a means of defining the new-fangled position in the city’s political consciousness and promoting himself. But unlike the mayor’s address, the speaker’s speech is not required by law. In fact, not even the Council’s own internal rules say anything about the speaker making a special annual address.

It is also without precedent in the higher, parallel institutions. Sheldon Silver and Dean Skelos don’t make State of the State speeches, and neither do John Boehner or Mitch McConnell. When the city had Republican mayors, the speaker’s speech could seem like an “equal time” response, but when the mayor and speaker are in the same party, and basically have the same agenda, the double State of the City speeches are overkill.

Nonetheless, somehow the tradition persists. Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito appeared at the NYCHA Johnson Houses in her district (“the first time a State of the City address has been held in public housing,” we were informed breathlessly by the City Hall press office) in front of a series of flags.  In front, as protocol dictates, stood Old Glory, and next to it, obscuring the flag of New York State, hung la bandera del Estado Libre Asociado de Puerto Rico.

Positioning the Puerto Rican flag in second place, in front of the state and city flags, is a bold statement on the part of Mark-Viverito, who after all is not a resident, much less an elected official, of the Commonwealth.  Neither de Blasio nor Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as a point of comparison, flew the state flag of Massachusetts at their State of the City speeches, even though they were both born there. Elected officials hailing from out of state typically limit their statements of home state allegiance to rooting for the local sports team, but Mark-Viverito takes her Puerto Rican identity very seriously and is not shy about it. Recall that she pointedly did not recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag for her first seven years of service on the Council, and explained her abstention from the practice as rooted in her commitment to Puerto Rican national liberation.

The Speaker’s State of the City address was live-streamed via a new website called nycsotc.com, which was unveiled the day before the speech. The site was designed and built by Council staff, according to the press office, and it extensively documents all of the Council’s achievements over the term of Mark-Viverito’s tenure as speaker. It has the look and feel of a campaign website, and is replete with large pictures of the Speaker, widely smiling while she embraces ironworker hardhats, police white shirts and tiny, wrinkled immigrants alike. The site is branded “Lift Every Voice,” the title and theme of Mark-Viverito’s speech. Aside from the odd fact that an official Council website ends in “.com,” it almost seems like the domain name itself is a form of cybersquatting: after all, it is the Mayor, not the Speaker, who is required by law to give a State of the City speech. 

The Speaker certified the broad sense of her mission in a post-address NY1 interview in which she began by speaking generally of “my government.” Indeed, the speech itself could be read as the second half of de Blasio’s speech, as though he had ceded authority to the leader of the constitutionally weaker legislative body. Mark-Viverito took on the question of public safety, which the Mayor skipped over as though the question of police-community relations hadn’t been the primary obsession of the city over the last six months. The Speaker proposed the establishment of several new city offices or agencies, including an Office of Labor to grapple with broad questions of labor relations, and a coordinator of civil justice to assist with the spending of millions of new dollars in legal aid for non-criminal legal matters.

These new divisions would most likely be charter-level designations, and it isn’t clear how Mark-Viverito’s “government” would establish such offices without a referendum. However, the scope of the Speaker’s address likely matches the scope of her ambitions to raise her position and visibility to that of a kind of co-mayor. And given de Blasio’s own ad hoc and scattershot approach to his own administration of the city, it seems increasingly likely that she has a fair shot at so doing. 

Seth Barron (@NYCCouncilWatch on Twitter) runs City Council Watch, an investigative website focusing on local New York City politics.

Seth Barron