Five of the prospective candidates for City Council speaker made their case to the public at a forum in Queens (organized by Make the Road New York) Thursday night. Council members Dan Garodnick, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Annabel Palma, Jimmy Vacca and Mark Weprin all participated, and each made a clear effort to carve out their own space and distinguish themselves from current Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Despite the speakership being a position voted on only by council members, the event, organized by Councilwoman-elect Helen Rosenthal, was designed not so much as a public debate, but a forum on the role of the speaker and a chance for the public to get to know the person who helps pull the legislative levers. As the first of several upcoming speaker’s forums, this was an opportunity for the candidates to contrast their colleagues’ positions against their own.
Many council members, both incoming and current, were in the building, including Ydanis Rodriguez, Leroy Comrie, Andy Cohen, and Assemblyman David Weprin (no doubt in support of his brother). State Sen. Jose Peralta was also on hand, as was Roberto Perez, a close adviser to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, perhaps to evaluate the mayor-elect’s potential partner in policy over the next four years.
The venue was somewhat awkward to discuss such a high-profile position—a Jewish community center in Jackson Heights that Councilman Daniel Dromm and Peralta normally reserve for their Democratic club meetings—though the candidates did not so much debate each other as attempt to stand out from the pack. Candidates were cordial to one another, and the typically acerbic dialogue reserved for public debates was not on display.
The candidates’ opening statements served as their attempt to position themselves in the race. Mark-Viverito, considered the frontrunner at the moment with support among the newly powerful progressive caucus, as well as, sources say, Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, immediately declared herself “the progressive candidate for City Council speaker.”
“I have demonstrated through my trajectory of two terms of consistently being vocal…and very visible on issues that are important to communities across this city,” Mark-Viverito said. “In 8 years, I’ve been able to pass legislation important to lives of New Yorkers, I’ve been able to bring resources to community organizations in my district as a way to provide for constituencies across the city and across our districts.”
Mark Weprin, another top candidate, acknowledged that Mark-Viverito was the “most progressive of all of us,” but he pointed to his “20-year progressive record” to debunk the notion that he’s a politically moderate legislator. Weprin also directly addressed one of the criteria that some members have for the next speaker—that the Speaker only have one term left so as to avoid the Council having a leader with the potential ambition for higher office, as Quinn did. Hoping to alleviate this concern, Weprin explicitly stated he would never run for mayor or any other elected office. He is one of the few candidates who can serve for more than one term, but tried to spin that fact as an advantage rather than a liability at the forum.
“I have the ability to run for a second term, unlike the rest of the panel here tonight, and the reason why that’s important is because I’m gonna be held accountable for my promises,” Weprin said. “I have to go back to my colleagues and say, ‘Hey, how am I doing? Do you want to keep me in the job?’ They could throw me out after four years and I want to tell them, ‘I’m going to be an advocate for them and that’s how you’re gonna judge me.’ ”
Garodnick’s public appeal focused on the City Council’s role as an independent legislative body that is not necessarily beholden to the will of the mayor—an accusation leveled against Quinn many times over her tenure, and a chief concern that some members have about the potential relationship between Mark-Viverito and de Blasio, who are closely aligned politically.
“It’s important for the City Council to be a strong, but respectful, counterbalance to the mayor,” Garodnick said. “We have a new mayor-elect that many of us are extremely excited about, who got a strong mandate from the people of this city. We want to help him deliver on the many exciting promises, but we also need to be able to stand on our own two feet.”
Palma and Vacca are considered longshot candidates along with Councilwoman Inez Dickens, who was scheduled to participate but did not show up until after the forum ended, citing prior obligations. Palma came off as slightly less polished than her colleagues, her voice shaky at times, but she made a passionate case for herself as someone who climbed the ladder of success from the working class to get to her current position, and saying she would lead a more inclusive “member-driven” Council. Vacca discussed making the Council a more effective legislative body, specifically by introducing fewer resolutions and more legislation, and doing a better job at holding city agencies accountable.
Garodnick, Mark-Viverito, and Weprin all stated their support for the proposed package of legislative reforms to the City Council, which include allocating discretionary member item funds on a more Democratic basis. Quinn gained a reputation for politicizing the distribution of member items, reportedly using the speaker’s discretionary pot to “reward” or “punish” members. Mark-Viverito argued that member items should be allocated according to a need-based formula based on the composition of a member’s district, such as poverty measures and percentage of public housing (of which she has the highest). Weprin, on the other hand, said that all members should start out with an equal amount of discretionary funds.
“We’re talking about $50 million of a $70 billion budget,” Weprin said. “The budget should be on a needs basis, the budget has to solve all our problems in the city, and the bigger the problem the more it has to be solved. The member item money, in my opinion, should start with a level amount for everybody because everybody has needs in their district.”
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