It was a big speech for New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson – his first to the city’s business leaders assembled at the Association for a Better New York breakfast on Jan. 30. He spoke carefully, centering himself for the emotional crescendo.
“Four years ago, I took office with one simple goal: to be the next City Council speaker,” he said. “I’m just kidding. Kind of. No, I really am kidding. It was about two years ago. Two and a half.”
Johnson was poking fun at himself for his own ambition, but when you’re talking about politicians, ambition is always taken seriously. Over the course of more than a dozen interviews and conversations with City Council insiders, it became clear that some members are already thinking about running to be the next council speaker in 2021.
“It’s never too early to start to organize, to start to develop your relationships and to start planning for the future. Corey Johnson taught us all that,” said City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, who ran for speaker against Johnson last year. “And I think the very initial jockeying is already underway, pretty clearly.”
Because of term limits, only 15 members of the 51-member City Council will be eligible to run again in 2021. And among them, five names came up repeatedly as candidates to watch: Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Adrienne Adams, Francisco Moya, Rafael Salamanca Jr. and Carlina Rivera. Additionally, Diana Ayala and Keith Powers may be in strong positions to run, come November 2021.
Ampry-Samuel was elected in November to represent Brownsville and East Flatbush and was picked to chair the Public Housing Committee, giving her a prominent position to oversee the underfunded and scandal-plagued New York City Housing Authority.
Ampry-Samuel is already being eyed as a “talented, smart, hardworking elected official,” said a Brooklyn political source who asked to speak on background in order to be candid. If she lives up to expectations over the next few years, the source said, “she’s in a strong position to be a speaker candidate.”
From Queens, both Adrienne Adams and Francisco Moya are seen as contenders – but especially Moya, who served in the Assembly for seven years before being elected to the City Council in November to represent northern Queens. Both members are aligned with the Queens Democratic Party and its leader Rep. Joe Crowley, who held immense sway in choosing Johnson as speaker last year.
“Francisco has a lot of buzz behind him,” said one City Council source who asked to remain anonymous. “He’s well-liked, he’s from Queens, he’s Latino, the unions like him.”
And Moya may have another advantage – he’s good friends with his former Assembly colleague Marcos Crespo, who also has power in the speaker’s race in his role as Bronx Democratic Party chairman.
But the Bronx may have its own candidate in Rafael Salamanca Jr. Elected in a 2016 special election, the South Bronx councilman has two years of extra experience on his colleagues. He’s also close with the Bronx Democrats and currently holds one of the council’s most powerful positions as chairman of the Land Use Committee.
Carlina Rivera may have an advantage by geography alone. The last four City Council speakers have hailed from Manhattan, thanks to a sort of power-sharing détente among the Queens and Bronx political bosses. Rivera was elected in November to represent the East Village, and she was named chairwoman of the Hospitals Committee, a position that, like Ampry-Samuels’, gives her a soapbox to talk about pressing issues like the fiscal challenges at the public hospital network New York City Health + Hospitals.
Though fewer sources mentioned them as likely contenders, Diana Ayala and Keith Powers also both have the Manhattan advantage. Ayala was elected in November to represent former Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito’s district, and has earned a leadership position as co-chair of the council’s Progressive Caucus. Powers, who represents Manhattan’s East Side, was named a vice chair of the Progressive Caucus and will be able to grab headlines as chairman of the Criminal Justice Committee, which oversees the city Department of Correction.
But Powers’ identity as a straight, white male may work against him in a council that has been criticized for its lack of diversity. All the other contenders named are people of color, and Adams and Ampry-Samuel could compete to be the body’s first black speaker.
Beyond race, committees and relationships, the biggest factor in the speakership race may hinge on another electoral outcome: who becomes mayor in 2021. Though council members technically elect the speaker, outside players have a lot of influence, and a newly elected mayor could try to replicate Bill de Blasio’s feat in 2013, when he lobbied council members to elect Mark-Viverito, a close ally.
Of course, this assumes that all the City Council members will run for re-election and win. Re-election is all but assured in the council, with only one incumbent losing in each of the last two election cycles.
This analysis also assumes the council will maintain its current two-term limit. With a number of council members backing the idea of a term limit extension last year, there’s no telling what kind of support the contentious issue would garner if the council brought it up this session.
Unlike the mayoral race, which lasts for months, the speaker’s race is generally fast and furious, with members announcing their candidacy and a winner being chosen in less than two months. But that doesn’t mean council members are waiting.
“I’m sure they’re thinking about it. And probably acting calmly about it,” said Doug Muzzio, a professor at Baruch College’s Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. “It’s amazing how long they prepare and plot and connive and fundraise. It’s all subterranean for the most part. It’s not that it’s devious; it’s just that it’s really under the radar and under the ground.”
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