When other incoming New York City Council members talk about Council Member Diana Ayala’s campaign to be the next speaker, they point to her life story. Born in Puerto Rico and raised in public housing in New York City, Ayala was a pregnant teenager when her son’s father was shot and killed. She spent time in the homeless shelter system, and survived an abusive relationship.
“Her story speaks volumes,” said Marjorie Velázquez, an incoming council member from the east Bronx who is not formally supporting any candidate in the speaker race. “This is a woman who’s gone through so many tough things in life and she could have chosen any path, but she chose a life of service.”
That story influenced the way she approached her job as council member, where she has represented East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx since 2018. “I’ve had personal experiences with gun violence, domestic violence, food insecurity, homelessness. And so I really do look at the world and this job through a social services-driven lens,” she told City & State. But the population that has had those experiences is underrepresented in government, which inspired her speaker campaign. “I don’t see people that see us and understand us in that way. And that’s why I thought it would be a great idea to jump in.”
But Ayala leapt much later than most other contenders for the seat – with the news leaking in a mid-August Daily News story that painted her as a long shot who some members viewed as weak. She didn’t make a habit of volunteering on other candidates’ races, and hasn’t been networking nearly as aggressively as some of her colleagues – and in a race that’s partially a popularity contest, that could hurt her. “I think she has a very difficult path. She doesn’t have a tremendous well of support,” said an incoming member. “She doesn’t know many of the new members.”
Nevertheless, Ayala is increasingly seen as a real contender in a race that – on the eve of the Somos conference in Puerto Rico – still seems to be wide open, with no single front-runner. Ayala is a woman in a council that is set to be majority-female for the first time, and she is Latina in a year when many stakeholders have been raising the alarm about the lack of Latino political leadership at the state and city levels. Ayala also has something that is still rare at this point in the speaker race: a fellow incoming council member who is willing to unequivocally state their support on the record. “She’s my mentor. She’s the reason I’m in the game. She encouraged me to run,” said Council Member-elect Althea Stevens, who will represent parts of the South Bronx. Ayala is Stevens’ preferred pick for speaker and “everybody knows it,” she said. “Loyalty means more than anything else. If she wasn’t my pick, that would be weird.”
But the speaker race isn’t a typical election, and a preference in November doesn’t guarantee a vote in January. Coalitions are forming. The unions behind Labor Strong 2021 are trying to get allies to vote as a bloc, and Bronx Democratic Party Chair Jamaal Bailey is trying to hold his nine members – including Ayala – together as well. Another incoming City Council member noted that Ayala has “a little traction” in the race, “but she’ll need other people to push her. It’ll have to be labor, or maybe the Bronx and Queens to make her a viable speaker contender.”
One helpful advocate in that case could be Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who represents part of Ayala’s district and told City & State on Friday that she is his preferred pick – but like most other players in this race, he’s not ride or die with any one candidate, since that could weaken his negotiating power. Another Ayala supporter is former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. Ayala worked in her office for years, most recently as her deputy chief of staff, and won her seat when Mark-Viverito was term-limited at the end of 2017. But in a year when many members want to see a member-driven process, appearing to be too close to allies can be dangerous – especially ones like Espaillat and Mark-Viverito, who have as many political rivals as they do friends. So Ayala is appreciative of her supporters, but keeping a respectful distance. “There’s an assumption that Adriano convinced me to run, and that’s not true,” Ayala said. It’s also not true that her candidacy was a reaction to Council Member Carlina Rivera’s, a fellow Manhattan Latina, whose stock may be fading. “It didn’t have anything to do with there being or not being an opening,” Ayala said. “I think that Carlina is great.” And Ayala isn’t a mini MMV, just because she worked for her. “She and I are very like-minded, but I’m me,” Ayala said. “I’m different.”
Ayala is different from all the other legislators in one way: She’s the only member who just got reelected and agreed to have a new borough-based jail in their district. Some praised her for taking a concrete step to close Rikers Island, but it wasn’t without controversy. Many Bronxites, including Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr., who represents the neighboring district, criticized the placement of the proposed jail and felt that Ayala should have fought it. Other progressives – including some incoming council members – didn’t think the city should be building new jails at all, but rather focusing on incarcerating fewer people. Ayala could face opposition to her candidacy on multiple grounds related to the jail.
But that’s natural for Ayala, whose politics aren’t as easily characterized as some other members. She originally endorsed progressive Scott Stringer in the mayoral race, then switched her endorsement to the more moderate Eric Adams after Stringer was accused of sexual harassment. “I think I can swing a little bit. I consider myself a progressive, but sometimes I can be a little more moderate. I try to be pragmatic,” she said.
Ayala isn’t considered likely to get Adams’ support for speaker, if he chooses to back anyone, but at least one incoming member appreciated her not-too-close, not-too-far relationship with him. “Does she have the chops to make hard decisions and stand up to the mayor when necessary? Yeah I could see that,” the incoming member said.
There’s no question that Ayala has a lot of ground to make up in the speaker race, since she started late. The council member seemed to be feeling the pressure last week, when it was hard to find time to talk to City & State amid a hectic schedule ahead of Election Day. “I should have been a nurse,” Ayala joked. “But I’m afraid of blood.”
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