Council Watch: Rise of the Outer Boroughs

Council Watch: Rise of the Outer Boroughs

Council Watch: Rise of the Outer Boroughs
January 30, 2014

The ascension of the first Brooklyn mayor since Abe Beame marks a shift in the power dynamics of the city, as Manhattan’s dominance over the political culture of New York appears to be on the wane. Christine Quinn’s disastrous mayoral bid, backed heavily by all sectors of the Manhattan elite, demonstrated convincingly that elections are not won on the editorial pages, but require the buy-in of the voters who, however unfortunately for the wannabe kingmakers, actually decide who wins.

Now, as attention shifts to the election of the Speaker of the Council, alliances are forming that could further effectuate the long-awaited rise of the outer boroughs to prominence. The bosses of the Democratic organizations of Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx, who traditionally have selected the Speaker, are now being taken on by a bloc of reform-minded Council members, allied with the Brooklyn-based Working Families Party, who are demanding a seat in the proverbial backroom. The Progressive Caucus and its auxiliary “Progressive Bloc” have linked arms and issued an ultimatum that they will only agree to vote for a “progressive” Speaker.

Yet amid the current hubbub regarding the ascending “progressive moment,” as Speaker candidate and PC co-chair Melissa Mark-Viverito calls it, the question of what being progressive means has become increasingly hard to define. For example, in announcing the appointment of Bill Bratton as his police commissioner, Mayor-Elect de Blasio hailed Bratton as “a progressive visionary.” If Bratton, who was the guiding spirit behind CompStat and the Giuliani-era zero-tolerance policies, can be included in the progressive camp by de Blasio and Mark-Viverito (who called Bratton “fair and progressive”), then the definition of progressive is elastic at best.

Who in New York City isn’t some kind of progressive? Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz of Forest Hills and Rego Park remarks, “I’m a progressive person, my whole life has been progressive and in support of progressive policies; I just don’t believe in joining caucuses to demonstrate it.” Councilman Oliver Koppell of Riverdale, who was first elected to the state Legislature in 1970, championed environmental legislation and disability rights throughout his career, and in 1971 sponsored a bill to restore voting rights to felons. A former senior aide notes, “Koppell put himself on the line for liberal causes like LGBT rights years before it became fashionable. Joining the Progressive Caucus is more of a means of political affiliation than it is an ideological alignment.”

Indeed, PC members tend to be unaligned (or less aligned) with existing political organizations or clubs. Koslowitz, for instance, is closely tied to the Queens County Democrats, and Koppell is a member of the powerful Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club. The current members of the PC received election on the WFP line and in most cases (Letitia James, Julissa Ferreras, Debi Rose, Jimmy Van Bramer, Jumaane Williams, Margaret Chin and Danny Dromm) were insurgent candidates who did not originally have machine backing.

Consider the case of Manhattan, which has the least powerful Democratic organization, and which exercises little aggregate influence on citywide questions such as the election of the Council Speaker. All of the new class of Manhattan Council members (Corey Johnson, Mark Levine, Helen Rosenthal and Ben Kallos) have aligned themselves with the “Progressive Bloc,” and all but Helen Rosenthal have made it clear that they plan to join the Progressive Caucus as full members. Johnson, Levine and Kallos were all backed by the WFP and received substantial financial support from its affiliated unions; Helen Rosenthal, who received endorsements from some smaller unions but raised most of her campaign money from individuals, is exercising restraint about whether to join the PC. Basically we see that the elected officials who owe the most to the driving forces behind the Progressive Caucus are the ones who join most readily, while members who owe them less are not as likely to sign on.

The expansion of the PC, which will entail embracing a more vague, broader ideological definition of “progressive,” could harm the faction’s political “brand” if its agenda becomes too thin to have much impact, or if the membership grows big enough that it is no longer a vanguard. The Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the Council is a cautionary example: Comprising more than half of the body’s elected members, the BLA Caucus is too unwieldy to stand as a significant political force. Note Councilman Charles Barron’s constant exhortations for the BLA to elect one of its members as Speaker, raising the question of why such a large group lacks actual power.

On the issue of member items, for instance, the PC’s statement on rules reform calls for allocation on a “fair and objective” basis. But as we heard during the Speaker forums, there is no consensus about what constitutes “fair and objective.” Some of the contenders, including Councilman Mark Weprin, call for equal distribution of member item money; others, including Mark-Viverito, insist that money must be allocated according to a need-based formula. This difference may sound trivial, but in fact it cuts to the heart of the progressive agenda: Equal, to a progressive, is inequitable, because some communities, the argument goes, start from a higher baseline of need. How to distribute the money assigned to the Council for allocation (which constitutes less than one percent of the budget) is the kind of item of contention—like the flat tax or the taxation of investment income—over which schisms occur, because it arises from a fundamental philosophical question as to what government’s role in distributing wealth should be.

Councilman Jimmy Vacca, who is also in the running for Speaker, has not endorsed the rules reform statement because of precisely that ambiguity, and he makes the point that changing the existing levels of member item allocation would disproportionately hurt the districts that have benefited from the current system, such as those represented by Quinn allies, like Joel Rivera and Leroy Comrie, who were rewarded with largesse for their fealty to the Speaker. After all, should the local organizations in those needy districts suffer cuts from their accustomed level of funding, simply because they happened to have profited from a skewed system of patronage? “Equality sounds good,” says Vacca, “but the Speaker has to have flexibility to address extenuating circumstances.”

Such rules reform would radically diminish the role of the Speaker, grant chairs far more control over the operation of their committees, and make it easier for members to get legislation to the floor for a vote. This disaggregation of power, which appears likely to happen given the number of sponsors the reform movement has attracted, hints obliquely at the increasing possibility that the next Speaker will not be from Manhattan. Councilmen Dan Garodnick, Vacca and Weprin, the latter two of whom are close to Queens County Democratic boss and “Third Way” centrist Rep. Joe Crowley, have emerged as front-runners in the last few weeks, as the candidacies of Inez Dickens, Jumaane Williams and Annabel Palma have sputtered. Melissa Mark-Viverito continues to alienate her colleagues with her persistent use of assumptive language, proclaiming, “When I am Speaker” even when there is no one around except other Council members.

Vacca, who demurs from being labeled a potential “Bronx Speaker,” prefers to be considered “a representative of the outer boroughs,” whose district “is similar in many ways to Bayside or Bensonhurst.” Weprin, whose father was Speaker of the Assembly prior to Sheldon Silver, has signed on to rules reform, as has Garodnick, a Manhattanite who demonstrated his independence when he nixed the rezoning of midtown last month. Either of them would thus satisfy the demand of the progressive bloc for a “progressive Speaker.” What remains to be seen is if the progressive wing of the new Council has the tenacity to hold fast to its principles and force the hand of the county bosses when it comes time to vote.

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Seth Barron