Council Watch: Twilight Of The Bosses?

Council Watch: Twilight Of The Bosses?

Council Watch: Twilight Of The Bosses?
January 30, 2014

An odd bit of political theater surrounds the current campaign for New York City Council Speaker, in the form of a road show featuring the half-dozen or so candidates for the job making a pitch to the public, debating one another as though the position were open to a general vote. Of course, the Speaker is elected by his or her colleagues on the Council, and only needs to amass support from 25 other members to win. So what is the point of this present spectacle—this pretense of populist concern?

Historically, the election of the Speaker, arguably the second most powerful political office in the city, has been even less democratic than it might appear, because more than half of the members of the Council essentially do not have free will over their votes. The county political organizations of the Queens, Brooklyn and Bronx Democratic parties have traditionally directed the votes of its members, and thus the Speaker and the key committee chairmanships have been divvied up through a series of negotiations and compromises among the party bosses.

With the advent of the council’s Progressive Caucus, some have argued that the heyday of the bosses is over and that a new bloc of reform-minded Council members will dominate the legislature of the city. The members of the caucus have vowed to vote as a unit in order to leverage the votes of their roughly 20 members into a powerful counterforce to the dominance of the county organizations.

Yet as outgoing Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr. commented, “Reports of the demise of the Queens County Democratic organization have been greatly exaggerated.”

Indeed the grip of the Queens Democratic boss, Congressman Joe Crowley, on his party machine appears to be as firm as ever. When one member of the Queens delegation, who is also affiliated with the Progressive Caucus, was asked whether it was likely that anyone from the borough would vote against Crowley, the Council member replied, “Well, I wouldn’t.”

What appears to be the fundamental difference between the strong county political organizations and an affinity group such as the Progressive Caucus is that no member of the Council is afraid of crossing the Progressive Caucus. The PC has no teeth. On the other hand, party organizations such as those in Queens, the Bronx and, to a lesser extent since the collapse of its former boss Vito Lopez, Brooklyn, can make political life miserable for elected officials who go rogue.

For example, county organizations control important resources, such as heavy-duty election lawyers, who can be deployed to challenge petitions and knock candidates off the ballot. The bosses also control judgeships and other jobs, which they dangle as rewards for politicians who stay in line, or distribute to divert unwanted competitors from mounting challenges against incumbents or their anointed favorites in races for open seats. Consider what happened in 2012 when Rory Lancman defied Crowley by taking on his preferred candidate, Grace Meng, for Congress: The Queens machine inserted party-loyalist Jeff Gottlieb into the race in order to split the Jewish vote, to Lancman’s fury. Or when David Weprin made his first run for Council in 2001 and his chief opponent, Bernice Siegal, was offered a judgeship to bow out.

The Progressive Caucus may have a skillful press operation, but at this point in its development it does not have the kind of clout that makes kings. As Vallone puts it, “If anyone believes that the Queens County members of the Progressive Caucus will vote against the party organization, then I have another bridge you can rename.”

If we read between the lines of what the PC has been saying, it becomes apparent that its leadership is aware of the limits of its actual power. For instance, the caucus is currently riven by the procedural question of whether it will have a secret ballot to determine its choice for Speaker. Incoming Councilman Mark Levine, who intends to join the PC, affirmed that the question “is right at the heart of what we are talking about now.”

He continued, “The Progressive Caucus is committed to electing a progressive Speaker and promoting progressive issues”—which you will note is different from being committed to electing a member of the PC itself to the Council’s top job. Thus it appears the PC’s underlying aim is to demonstrate that it is having an impact on the decision process of selecting the Speaker, so that whoever is chosen for the post will have to acknowledge the influence of the PC and take its legislative agenda seriously in the coming session.

Vote counting being one of the most important skills a legislative leader can possess, it makes sense to look at the arithmetic at play in this most exclusive of elections. The Queens delegation will likely deliver its 13 votes as a bloc. Brooklyn has 16 votes, but it lacks the cohesiveness of the Queens delegation, so it is not inconceivable that its PC members could defect, in which case 10 members will vote with the county organization. Assuming this tally is accurate, only three votes would be needed to close out the balloting, and the Bronx’s Democratic boss, Assemblyman Carl Heastie, is all but certain to be able to deliver at least five or six of the Bronx’s eight members, only one of whom, incoming Councilman Ritchie Torres, is likely to be PC-aligned.

So who is likely to win? Of the seven announced candidates it is fair to say that only four are serious contenders. Manhattan’s Inez Dickens, once considered a favorite, is now seen as too closely tied to Christine Quinn and her opaque, top-down style of governing, which is out of step with the new spirit of reform that is supposedly ready to blow the cobwebs out of 250 Broadway. Brooklyn’s Jumaane Williams has social views on gay marriage and abortion that would make him unelectable to any office in most areas of New York City. And the Bronx’s Annabel Palma’s lackluster performance in the debates so far has shown her candidacy to be a nonstarter; her name never comes up in discussions with insiders.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose district is split between Manhattan and the Bronx, came off a strong showing at the Somos conference in her native Puerto Rico, and exploited her home-field advantage to good effect, returning to New York a leading candidate in the eyes of the press. Her union backers have worked hard to gin up the appearance of massive grassroots support for her candidacy, flooding social media with calls for her speakership, as though, like Caesar, she should be elected by popular acclaim. Mark-Viverito has also faced relentless beatings in the press, which have highlighted her left-leaning affiliations. It is clear that major real estate interests oppose her candidacy, and she remains unpopular among her colleagues, even though she keeps insisting that they will be her “co-partners” should they elect her. The mayor-elect is said to want her to have the job, presumably because she would likely take Christine Quinn’s place as mayoral cat’s-paw, but it is unclear why the party bosses would ever submit to such an arrangement, since it would signal a profound decline in their potency.

If Crowley decides he wants the speakership, then Queens’ Mark Weprin is all but certain to get the job. Although Queens county has historically opted for controlling plum committee chairmanships rather than the speakership, the fact that Weprin has two terms ahead of him, unlike all the other contenders (except Williams), who are term-limited in four years, might make the post a greater prize to him then it is has been in the past.

If, however, Queens passes on the speakership, then the race becomes extremely tough to call. It is noteworthy, though, that Jimmy Vacca is close to Crowley, whose congressional district includes the section of the Bronx that Vacca represents. Vacca also demonstrated political savvy and muscle in getting his protégé Ritchie Torres elected in the adjoining district. While Vacca initially seemed a very long shot for the post, increasingly insiders are buzzing that he could wind up a compromise choice that would be pleasing both to Heastie and Crowley, while appeasing the rank-and-file members, who would not mind the speakership opening up sooner than later, so one of them can get a turn four years from now.

The last contender, Dan Garodnick, is universally acknowledged by his colleagues as a “nice guy,” and as a Manhattanite seems to be a plausible choice, but part of the problem of being a Manhattan Council member is that there is no county machine pulling strings on your behalf.

Weprin is in an enviable position at this point: If he is passed over for Speaker then he will surely become chair of the powerful Finance Committee—like his brother, David, before him—which traditionally belongs to Queens. Land Use, currently chaired by outgoing Queens Councilman Leroy Comrie, would probably then go to another member of the borough’s delegation, Julissa Ferreras, a founding member of the PC. Ferreras has overseen the Willets Point development and the soccer stadium deal in Flushing Meadows–Corona Park, demonstrating her competency to negotiate with real estate interests. As a Latina Ferreras would provide the kind of representation in the Council leadership that Mark-Viverito’s supporters have demanded, while doubling as a progressive who is more palatable to many of the interests whose opinions matter in the process.

In the case of Weprin being crowned Speaker, the chief committee assignments will be disbursed outside of Queens. Given that scenario, there is speculation that Vacca, or possibly Brooklyn’s David Greenfield, could get Finance, and PC co-chair Brad Lander, also of Brooklyn, would wind up heading Land Use. Another possible candidate for Land Use would be development-friendly PC-member Margaret Chin, whose selection would keep this key committee in the hands of a minority.

Whatever the ultimate real-life outcome to this game of fantasy league politics is, the Progressive Caucus will share in the spoils, though it will not unilaterally decide the speakership. The PC has yet to achieved the political power to demand obeisance from its members.

One is reminded of what Stalin said when warned that he should heed the Vatican’s authority: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Progressive Caucus has certainly mastered the art of self-promotion, but it still has a ways to go before it can become a major political force in the city.

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


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Seth Barron