Young Giff Miller Storming Council, Is Elected Speaker

Gifford Miller is 32 years old and looks a good deal younger. His old elementary-school friends still refer to him on occasion as “Giff-Giff,” recalling the undersized but ambitious student plagued by nosebleeds at St. Bernard’s School on East 98th Street. More recently, veteran reporters in City Hall’s press room refused to take the boyish council member seriously, rolling their eyes each time he ventured into the reporters’ dingy sanctum to talk about his earnest ideas for improved subways and lower heating-oil prices.

Now, after a carefully plotted campaign followed by a chaotic, late-in-the-game scramble for support among his colleagues, Giff-Giff has succeeded Peter Vallone as Speaker of the City Council. Mr. Miller has become the city’s most powerful Democrat, with the ability to thwart or ensure the success of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s legislative agenda. Even more surprising is the fact that, with his six years of service as a council member from the Upper East Side, Mr. Miller is now the city’s senior elected official.

Politicians often talk of “passing the torch,” almost invariably to “a new generation of leadership.” In a political world turned upside-down by term limits, that abstract cliché has instantaneously and dramatically become reality in New York. Of the Council’s 51 members, 38 are freshmen, and most of those new members are as young (or younger) than Mr. Miller. And while City Hall’s East Wing suddenly seems light on institutional knowledge, the same can be said of the building’s West Wing, where the Mayor-a novice himself-has his working quarters.

“It is somewhat amazing that the New York City Council has a Speaker who, at 32, is not only the senior elected official in New York, but whose experience far surpasses the Mayor’s in terms of public service,” said Eric Gioia, a newly elected council member from Queens.

Nothing better illustrates the sea change in municipal politics than the process by which Mr. Miller prevailed over his rivals for the Speaker’s post. The election was wide-open, disorderly and weirdly, well, democratic. The presence of so many new faces in the Council meant that alliances and loyalties to other members played a much smaller role than in the past. New public-financing laws led to the election of many new members who didn’t need the help of traditional Democratic county organizations, ensuring an unusual measure of independence from the once-fearsome county chairs. And while a Democratic Mayor would have been expected to exercise huge leverage over the process to help a preferred candidate, the upset victory of Mr. Bloomberg, a Republican, ensured that the Speaker’s contest would be conducted without any interference from the executive branch. Hence the oddly suspenseful process that saw Mr. Miller win out over the likes of Angel Rodriguez, the favorite of the Brooklyn machine, and Bill Perkins, a Harlem member whose heavy-hitting support included Congressman Charlie Rangel, political consultant and former Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch, and former Mayor David Dinkins.

It became apparent that Mr. Miller would win on Sunday, Jan. 6-three days before the scheduled vote-when Mr. Perkins decided to withdraw from the race. With Mr. Perkins’ support and a solid base of backers concentrated largely in Queens, Mr. Miller went home that evening confident he’d be the next Speaker. At 10 p.m., the phone rang at his Upper East Side duplex apartment. It was Alan Gerson, an unaligned council member from the Lower East Side, calling on behalf of some 20 uncommitted members who wished to discuss the possibility of endorsing him.

They arrived shortly after midnight. It was a motley bunch, coming from all over the city. Among them were several members who were leaning towards Mr. Miller’s two remaining opponents. Some of them brought staff members. A bleary-eyed Mr. Miller patiently listened to their “demands”-mostly unspecified assurances that Mr. Miller would allow members a significant role in decision-making-while occasionally excusing himself to tend to his year-old son, Addison. About two hours later, the impromptu caucus resolved to support Mr. Miller, and the members finally went home.

By 11 the next morning, Mr. Miller was accepting concessions from Mr. Rodriguez and Harlem member Phil Reed, the other remaining candidate, at a cordial press conference in the lobby of City Hall.

“It’s not just about what my priorities are on the City Council,” Mr. Miller said, as Mr. Reed nodded his approval. “It’s about what all of our priorities are. I’m committed to making the Council into the kind of place where every council member has the opportunity to provide leadership on every issue that they are interested in.”

It’s an understatement to say that such a scenario would have been unimaginable the last time there was a contested election for leadership of the City Council. In 1986, Mr. Vallone, the hand-picked candidate of the Democratic bosses of Queens and the Bronx, edged out Sam Horwitz, who was backed by Brooklyn and Manhattan, in a bitterly fought backroom contest that broke almost exclusively along borough lines. Mr. Vallone’s margin of victory was provided by a renegade member from the Upper East Side, Robert Dryfoos, who voted against Mr. Horwitz at the last moment. Among his Democratic colleagues, Mr. Dryfoos became as welcome as Vermont Senator Jim Jeffords would be today in a Senate Republican caucus. He was left to fend for himself in 1991 and lost to Republican Charles Millard, who in turn resigned in 1996 and was succeeded by … Gifford Miller.

It should be noted that while the party bosses no longer have the dictatorial sway over their members they once had, they did play an important role in Mr. Miller’s victory. Queens leader Thomas Manton helped ensure that his delegation voted as a block of 13 for Mr. Miller. Bronx boss Roberto Ramirez doomed the candidacy of Mr. Rodriguez, his sworn enemy, by directing the five or six members under his influence to back Mr. Miller as well. And it was Mr. Farrell, along with the other powerful backers of Mr. Perkins, who eventually encouraged his candidate to concede, starting the final avalanche of support for Mr. Miller.

But it was Mr. Miller himself who recognized early on that term limits would alter the rules by which political power and influence are accrued in New York, and it was his actions more than any of the chairmen’s that enabled him to leverage his position into the Speakership. While maintaining cordial relations with party leaders, Mr. Miller created Council 2001, a political club that he used as his own mini-machine to help elect new candidates, in turn creating a pro-Miller faction on the Council. Council members say that by providing money to candidates throughout the city, and by knocking on doors himself for those candidates, Mr. Miller had instant support on the newly constituted Council. “Giff became Speaker because of the hard work he’s put into his job as a member, and particularly the hard work he’s done getting qualified people elected to Council,” said Manhattan Councilwoman Christine Quinn, an early supporter of Mr. Miller’s.

Mr. Miller also helped his cause by building his own relationships with labor unions, whose endorsements helped ensure his victory, and he communicated regularly with influential advocacy groups. In short, hecreatedhisownconsensusby ingratiating himself with as many people as possible and making no enemies.

New Paradigm

“Gifford represents a completely new paradigm,” said Harry Gianoulis, a consultant who helped coordinate Mr. Miller’s campaign for Speaker. “It’s consistent with the way that all of these new guys think that he took a multi-track approach and tried to talk to everyone, instead of saying ‘I’ve got Queens and the Bronx’ and ignoring everything outside that target audience. He started early with his campaigning, and he didn’t make enemies. The old model doesn’t work anymore, where you sit on your ass and wait for a county leader to pick you.”

Of course, it makes sense that there’d be changes in the way the game is played, given major recent changes in electoral law. “Clearly, there would not be a Gifford Miller as Speaker if it were not for term limits and campaign-finance reform, and there wouldn’t be so many dynamic young new members of the Council,” said freshman Council member Bill De Blasio. “These are fundamental reforms.”

If the arrival of a swarm of fresh-faced Council members and their boyish leader does indeed presage some new era in city politics, it remains to be seen whether that’s an entirely good thing. No one knows, for example, whether Mr. Miller’s feel-good consensus-building will be as effective as the stricter control exercised by Mr. Vallone to usher legislation through the Council. And there won’t be that much time for trial and error: Thanks to term limits, Mr. Miller, now the grizzled veteran of New York City politics, is scheduled to hand over control of the Council to someone new on Dec. 31, 2003.