It’s early days in the race for New York City Council speaker. New and returning council members will only whisper about who they might support. The likely incoming mayor is expected to put his finger on the scales for a preferred candidate but has yet to confirm it. Voting blocs led by influential Democratic county party leaders or members of Congress are still forming. It’s mid-October, less than three months from when the speaker will be officially elected, and the campaign is still happening behind closed doors. No public forums have been scheduled yet.
It’s a race that requires patience for someone like Council Member Keith Powers, who is one of a few people who have been campaigning for speaker for years. Powers and fellow speaker contenders Carlina Rivera and Justin Brannan have been lauded for hitting the pavement during the primary this year, endorsing and helping to elect new council members whose support they hope to secure in the speaker race. Since the primary, Powers has continued to forge relationships with Democratic nominees and returning members. He’s also working those closed-door rooms filled with the power brokers who have historically had influence in choosing the speaker. “I’ve met with and talked to almost every single incoming member. I’ve of course met with (Eric Adams). I’ve talked to labor. I’m at every big event,” Powers, who represents Midtown and the Upper East Side, told City & State recently. “Especially this year, you have to really build a coalition.”
In a year with several dozen new members – some of them on the far left and not aligned with the Democratic establishment – it’s unclear what those coalitions will look like. Several incoming council members have told City & State that they feel good about Powers, including some who said he was their top – if not final – choice. “We don’t know where this might go because it’s early in the game,” said one likely incoming council member who praised Powers and said they support him, but who asked not to be named because they haven’t made a final decision. “I don’t want to box myself (in), but I do know that Keith is one of the people on my list.” While Powers is regarded as a strong contender in the race, acceptable to progressives and a competitor for Adams’ support, it may not be enough to be on everyone’s list of maybes. “Just because you’re on someone’s list doesn’t mean you’re at the top of their list,” said one Democratic consultant who asked not to be named because they don’t want to get involved with the speaker race. “If you’re Keith, you want to be the last person standing and wait for other people to be eliminated.”
Powers has at least one undeniable strength going into the race: He is well liked. His record is generally free of major problems. “He is not a controversial person in the City Council. I think he’s a bridge builder,” said Council Member Ben Kallos, a Democrat who is term-limited and represents the Upper East Side. And while “noncontroversial” can often describe policy lightweights and lawmakers who don’t stick their necks out on any particular issue, that’s generally not Powers’ reputation. A former lobbyist with Constantinople & Vallone Consulting, the Manhattan lawmaker ran on a 22-point government reform agenda in 2017, and he now chairs the council’s Committee on Criminal Justice where he cites closing Rikers Island and dealing with the current crisis at the jails complex as priorities. (Replacing Rikers with borough-based jails, which Powers supported, is unpopular with some progressive Democrats, however.) Powers has said the council should continue to evaluate the NYPD’s budget and voted in favor of the 2021 fiscal year budget – though that budget was criticized by the left for not reducing the police funding enough.
Powers’ lane to victory is likely as a compromise or consensus candidate. While some insiders suggested Brannan might be too moderate for the incoming class of farther left council members and Rivera too progressive for an Adams administration, Powers may be able to please a broader coalition. But newer entrants into the speaker race, including Council Members Diana Ayala, Adrienne Adams and Francisco Moya, are competing for support too. Their districts include the outer boroughs and each has a strong case to make to win the backing of Bronx and/or Queens county leaders – seats of power that were decisive in electing Corey Johnson as speaker in 2017. As voting blocs and potential county alliances form, Powers will have to convince leaders – including Reps. Adriano Espaillat, Grace Meng and Hakeem Jeffries, and state Sen. Jamaal Bailey – that he is not just an acceptable candidate but the best one. Either that, or he’ll have to be the “last person standing,” as the Democratic consultant said.
There’s also pressure to elect a woman – in particular, a woman of color – to the council’s top role. The idea of another white male speaker from Manhattan in particular elicits some groans from people who want the council’s leadership to represent the actual diversity of the body. It’s not the only factor council members and other power brokers are considering. But if the speaker race is a war, this is a battle Powers and Brannan have already lost. “I think it’s not an easy road for Keith,” said Camille Rivera, partner at the progressive consulting firm New Deal Strategies. “I think with the way the dynamics of citywide elections come up, it’s going to be really hard to make an argument for another Manhattan person who is a white male to be able to make that lift. It’s not impossible, but it’s not going to be easy.”
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