Freshmen Council Members Get Crash Course in Politics on First Day

Wednesday was the first day on the job for 21 of the 51 members of the New York City Council. Their first order of business was no easy task: electing a new Speaker.

The official vote was in the Council chambers, however, there has been intense politicking for weeks. County leaders and Mayor Bill de Blasio have tried to sway the members to back their preferred candidate. The pressure gave some of the freshman Council members—many of whom have never held political office before—a first taste of New York City politics.

“I'm a community activist. I am a policy person. I am not ashamed to say the politics of the job can be a little overwhelming,” said freshman Councilman Ben Kallos. “But what's great about this process is that policy, unity, and good governance won out.”

For 15 of the 21 new members, their decision was made weeks ago when they put their support for Melissa Mark-Viverito, the Progressive Caucus candidate, in writing. Six chose to back Dan Garodnick, a favorite of the Queens and Brooklyn delegation.

“It was intense period. You had the mayor making calls and the other side making calls,” said Councilman Steven Matteo, a freshman from Staten Island.

Matteo had publicly given his support to Garodnick despite news reports in late December claiming Mark-Viverito would win.

“I gave him [Garodnick] my word and up until this morning we didn’t know how the vote was going to go,” Matteo said.

Garodnick supporters met prior to the noon Council meeting and after realizing they did not have the votes to best Mark-Viverito, he conceded in an emailed statement. Instead of a putting the young Council in a brutal floor fight for the leadership the Council decided unity was the best way forward.

Freshman Councilman Ritchie Torres, who represents the Bronx, was given the honor of formally nominating Mark-Viverito. Like his fellow Progressive Caucus members, Torres backed Mark-Viverito in late December.

“Ladies and gentleman, this is a historic moment. Today we will be electing the first Latina Speaker in the City Council,” said Torres. “I urge my fellow members to stand with me and give our Madame Speaker, Melissa Mark -Viverito, our undivided support to move forward and conduct the business of the people of our great city.”

On hand for the historic vote was Peter Vallone, Sr. who was elected as the first City Council Speaker in 1986. Vallone Sr. was was on hand to watch his son Paul Vallone be sworn in and witness the historic vote.

“The shoes, Madame Speaker, you are about to fill were first created by my father, the first Speaker of the City Council,” Paul Vallone said while explaining his vote. Vallone initially supported Garodnick, however he switched to Mark-Viverito in an act of unity.

“In the end, we wanted our first act to show the City of New York we are a unified body and we are very proud to have Melissa Mark-Viverito as our Speaker,” Vallone said.

Vallone said his father did not try to persuade him to back a particular Speaker candidate but did offer a small bit of advice for the next four years.

“I called him last night and he said what he did when he was speaker: just do the right thing,” Vallone said.

The first day on the job for the freshman Council members lacked the anticipated drama and showed the Council is ready to march forward as one body. With a tough decision behind them, now the real work begins.

“It has been a stressful few months and a more stressful three weeks, said freshman Council Member Corey Johnson. “Now, we can actually get to work.”

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