Melissa Mark-Viverito

As speaker race heats up, gender disparity in the City Council is on display

Photo by Will Altariste for the New York City Council

There are at least eight candidates in the race to replace current New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is term-limited. Three of the candidates – Council members Corey Johnson, Ritchie Torres and Jimmy Van Bramer – are openly gay. Torres, Jumaane Williams, Robert Cornegy Jr., and Donovan Richards are members of the Council’s Black, Latino/a, and Asian Caucus. Speaker candidate Mark Levine is the chairman of the Jewish Caucus.

Yet among this diverse slate of contenders, there is not a single woman running to become the next speaker. City Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras-Copeland had been a frontrunner for the position, but made waves in June when she announced her decision to step down at the end of her term.

RELATED: Ranking the candidates for New York City Council speaker

The lack of gender representation among candidates is especially significant given that the past two speakers, Mark-Viverito and Christine Quinn, have been women. This step backward is mirrored in the Council overall. According to Mark-Viverito, when she first entered the Council in 2006, there were 18 women. In 2017, there are only 13 – and four of them will be stepping down due to term limits, along with Ferreras-Copeland.

To Mark-Viverito, increasing gender parity on the Council is necessary to ensure that the body offers adequate representation.

“New York City – and 50 percent of the world  – is female, so there should be representation equitable to that,” she told City & State in a recent interview. She added that it was important to have a female perspective on issues that specifically affect women, such as legislation on health care or reproductive rights.

Mark-Viverito also thinks it is important to elect more women to the City Council, because it serves as a sort of training ground for women to learn how to become effective politicians, and then perhaps move on to higher offices in the state and federal level.

“These legislative bodies also serve as an entry point,” she explained. “It's important to have that strong presence of women in the New York City Council because of where it could lead them after they serve here.”

RELATED: But really, what's next for Melissa Mark-Viverito?

In an effort to increase the number of women serving on the Council, Mark-Viverito is spearheading a campaign called “21 in 21,” with the goal of electing 21 women to the body by 2021.

“We want to be able to create pathways for other women,” Mark-Viverito said about the initiative, which she said would try to recruit and train women to run for public office, as well as help to raise funds for their campaigns. The speaker said that current Council candidates Diana Ayala, Marjorie Velazquez and Carlina Rivera were the inaugural recipients of support from the “21 in 21” campaign.

Some have criticized Mark-Viverito for not doing more to encourage a woman to run for council speaker. Even if the “21 in 21” campaign were wholly successful, 21 is fewer than half of the 51 seats in the City Council. However, Mark-Viverito has pointed to her support for encouraging women to run for office, and blamed what she believes are institutional roadblocks to increasing representation.

“It's unfortunately more of a challenge than I think it should be at this point,” she said.

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