Why NYC Council speakers never become mayor, or anything else

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at Encore Senior Center in August.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at Encore Senior Center in August.
John McCarten/New York City Council
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at Encore Senior Center in August.

Why NYC Council speakers never become mayor, or anything else

Cory Johnson dropping out of the 2021 mayoral race makes him just the latest speaker to fail to move up in electoral politics.
September 24, 2020

With his announcement that he’s dropping his bid for mayor, New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson became the latest in a long line of Council speakers who have failed to realize their mayoral ambitions. While holding the quasi-citywide position certainly boosts name recognition, it also burdens speakers with consequential legislative decision making that could haunt them in the future. 

By comparison, citywide positions such comptroller and public advocate enjoy the benefits of publicity without the drawbacks of responsibility, which may explain why politicians in those jobs have been much more likely to go on to win the Democratic nomination for mayor or another higher office. 

Since a major charter revision created the position in 1989, a Council speaker has never once become mayor, or anything else, despite nearly every single one trying. In fact, none have managed to even win the Democratic primary. Peter Vallone Sr. became the first City Council speaker in 1990, serving in the position until 2001, when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor and came in third in the primary. After Vallone came Gifford Miller, who fizzled in the 2005 Democratic primary for mayor, finishing fourth. And in 2013, Christine Quinn finished in third. Melissa Mark-Viverito has been the only Council speaker not to run for mayor, although she ran for both public advocate and Congress since leaving the Council, and lost both times.

By contrast, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio previously served as public advocate and New York state Attorney General Letitia James was his predecessor as public advocate. Former New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi became state comptroller, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson was the Democratic nominee for mayor in 2009, and former Public Advocate Mark Green was the Democratic mayoral nominee in 2001. (The most impressive election result for a City Council speaker has been Vallone’s Democratic primary win in the 1998 governor’s race, although he lost in the general against then-Gov. George Pataki.)

Johnson has decided to drop out of the mayoral race before ever officially entering it, although he had been publicly exploring a run since January 2019, with expectations he would declare dating even farther back. In late 2018 and through much of last year he already appeared to be a frontrunner. Affable and social-media savvy, Johnson served as a foil to de Blasio, popping up as a shadow mayor whenever the real one fumbled or made an unpopular decision, from fighting against the controversial Amazon HQ2 deal the mayor championed to proposing an ambitious streets master plan that aimed to break the city’s car culture.

The speaker position is somewhat unique in that it gives lawmakers citywide power without first getting citywide approval. Speakers are chosen by their fellow Council members, not by the voting public. They are otherwise only elected by their individual district constituents. “They’ve never been judged and validated by voters beyond their own council district… so making that jump to a citywide (election position) is very difficult,” progressive Democratic strategist Trip Yang told City & State. Tyquana Henderson-Rivers, a Democratic consultant who worked for Vallone, added that speakers are chosen by political insiders, which influences who they try to cater to. “You don’t have to be responsible, necessarily, to Joe Q. Public,” Henderson-Rivers said. “You're consumed with very high-level discussions with high-level insiders.”

At the same time, the Council speaker bears an incredible amount of responsibility by leading the city’s legislative body, placing them under klieg lights with every decision they or the Council make. Compared to city comptroller and public advocate, both citywide elected positions, the role of speaker in many ways comes with more baggage. “A lot of times, we call it the second most powerful position in city government, and that’s probably true,” Yang said. “They, by necessity, have to get caught up in some of the most controversial fights.” He said that’s why it’s much easier to run for mayor from a comptroller or public advocate position because those have “a lot of soft power,” but are largely able to stay out of complicated policy and budget fights that the Council speaker can’t avoid. “Comptroller can sit there and critique budgets and proposals without actually having to come up with an answer,” Henderson-Rivers added. “The speaker is charged with a legislative answer.”

For Johnson, 2020 demonstrated the downside of being the speaker, as the city was rocked by protests against police brutality and faces a dire financial situation thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Those circumstances forced him to negotiate and pass a budget that made his progressive base unhappy by not cutting the New York City Police Department funds as much as activists wanted. Good will he had built up the past two years dissipated when he was forced to negotiate between the mayor, progressives, conservatives, activists and the NYPD. 

In 2013, Quinn was seen as a frontrunner early in the process thanks in part to the exposure she gained from being Council speaker. And once former Rep. Anthony’s Weiner’s campaign imploded, her prospects in theory should have improved even more. But that exposure turned out to be a double-edged sword as decisions she made during her tenure ultimately turned off many Democrats. Unlike Johnson, who has made it a point to maintain a healthy distance from de Blasio, Quinn decided to work closely with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent who had been first elected as a Republican. She worked with him to extend term limits so that he could serve for another term, and she would not support a paid sick leave bill that Bloomberg opposed, despite that putting her at odds with other Democrats. Quinn also had an aggressive leadership style that some called volatile in private. “I don’t think she would have been better off if she hadn’t been speaker,” one former New York City lawmaker told City & State. “But it cuts both ways – it helps in some ways and it hurts in others.”

In the case of Miller and Vallone, their tenure as speaker may not have explicitly hurt them, but holding the citywide position did not seem to help very much either. Vallone ultimately lost to Mark Green, who at the time was the city’s first public advocate. Unlike Council speaker, the bully pulpit position of public advocate was in part created to help propel up-and-coming politicians to higher office. For Mark Green, it almost worked before he narrowly lost to Michael Bloomberg. 

History was never in Johnson’s favor, no matter how bright his prospects seemed a year ago. Dropping out early at least prevents him from diminishing his future potential by losing this time. 

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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