Giff Grows Up: Council’s Boss Learning Fast

City Council Speaker A. Gifford Miller, clad in a Yankees cap and

clutching a Miller Genuine Draft, turned to face his bodyguard, who was sitting

behind him in field-level box seats behind home plate at Yankee Stadium on

opening day, April 5.

“Do you want a beer, Carl?” Mr. Miller asked over the roar of the

crowd.

Carl, a big guy, shook his head stoically.

“Maybe Carl isn’t allowed to have beer,” Mr.

Miller remarked.

“I’m allowed to have beer,” Carl said.

“You are? That’s great! “

Mr. Miller glanced up towards the upper deck, where he owns a

box. (He upgraded for opening day, buying field-level seats from a friend.)

Several moments earlier, with Carl in tow, he’d stopped by the nose-bleed section hoping

to visit his pals-“They’ll get a big kick out of me if they see me with a bodyguard,” he

said-but

they weren’t there.

“I’m an upper-deck kind of guy,” Mr. Miller said. “I’m not a lower-deck kind

of guy. If I ever get elected Mayor, I’ll keep going to the upper deck. It would

be lame if I started sitting down here.”

If I ever get elected Mayor

….

It may seem hard to imagine that Mr. Miller, a boyish Upper East

Side pol of 32 wh loves talking about Spinal

Tap , could view himself as Mayoral material. But then again, no one except

Mr. Miller and a few close friends viewed him as Council Speaker material,

either. Now Mr. Miller is suddenly the second-most-powerful elected official in

the city, and while he has yet to be fully tested, he has defied predictions

that he would rapidly lose his grip on the Council. Suddenly, almost

improbably, he has a chance to graspthe moment and become a major ­political

player.

“Gifford Miller has emerged out of obscurity to become not only

the dominant force on the Council, but potentially a major figure in New York

City politics,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy

Institute who is also a frequent critic of the Council. “He’s

become the leading voice of the opposition to [Mayor] Bloomberg. All the other

major players in Democratic politics have temporarily moved offstage, opening

the way for a younger generation of leaders to emerge. The first of these is ­Gifford

Miller.”

Mr. Miller, who won the Speaker’s post after a chaotic scramble for votes

in January, controls a staff of nearly 300, travels the city in a dark

sport-utility vehicle equipped with a phone and fax, and is tailed just about

everywhere by a security detail. He’s the most powerful Democrat in city

government, which means he’s the man to see when Presidential

contenders pass through. When Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, a possible

contender for the 2004 Democratic Presidential nomination, visited New York in

late March, he met privately with Mr. Miller to discuss national politics.

“It is kind of amazing,” Mr. Miller said. “I told [Senator

Lieberman] that I was amazed. I said, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting here.’ And

he said, ‘I

can’t

believe I ‘m

sitting here.”

Mr. Miller has an extraordinary opportunity for a politician his

age. Although a Council member only six years, he has the seniority and the

power to help unify his party after last year’s bitter, racially charged Democratic

Mayoral primary. He can raise his profile by turning the Council into an

effective counterweight to Mr. Bloomberg-an exercise that began on April 8, when he

called for a variety of tax increases that directly challenged the Mayor’s

no-new-taxes pledge. And he’s in a perfect position to endear himself

to the city’s business and civic elites, who remain anxious about the

effects of term limits, which upended municipal government and drove veteran

Peter Vallone, Mr. Miller’s 15-year predecessor, from office.

Of course, Mr. Miller has a great deal to contend with. He’s

term-limited, which will make it tough for him to exercise leverage over his

members, and the Mayor has some powerful allies on his side as he digs in for

the coming battle over tax hikes. But if Mr. Miller keeps the Council relevant,

and if he keeps his left flank happy during budget negotiations without getting

pigeonholed as a retro Dinkins-era liberal, he will be well-positioned for the

future.

“If Gifford can establish himself as the city’s

Democratic voice and challenge the Mayor’s punishing budget without alienating the

business community, he will come out of this as a political all-star,” said

City Council member Eric Gioia of Queens, an ally of Mr. Miller. “The

danger for him is that if he digs himself into the center, he’ll

alienate the Council members on his left without winning over the business

establishment.”

Mr. Miller’s most immediate challenge may be to get himself taken more

seriously. He is physically unimposing, and can come across as boyish,

exuberant and earnest. As such, he’s the target of some City Hall humor. Not

long ago, a 9-year-old boy in his Sunday best was scampering around the City

Hall lobby. As a small crowd gathered to watch, several onlookers-at

least one of them an aide to the Mayor-began referring to the boy as “Mr.

Speaker.”

Mr. Miller tries to be a good sport when faced with the

inevitable jibes about his age. But it’s not always easy. Strolling through a

Yankee Stadium corridor on opening day, for instance, Mr. Miller encountered

Mr. Bloomberg, who was standing with columnist and author Sid Zion.

“Are you the oldest City Council Speaker in the history of the

city?”

inquired Mr. Zion.

“I’m the second -oldest

Speaker in the history of the City Council,” Mr. Miller deadpanned.

“That’s true,” remarked Mr. Bloomberg. “Peter Vallone is the first. There have

only been two.” (Who says Mr. Bloomberg doesn’t know his New York political history?)

Mr. Miller deserves more respect. He has steadily surprised

people who have dismissed and ridiculed him, proving to be politically shrewd,

hard-working and persistent. He began plotting his ascension to the Speaker’s

post as early as 1998, just a year and a half after being elected to the

Council on the Upper East Side. Well before any of the other contenders began

thinking about the post, he recognized that the city’s new term-limits law

would change the power dynamics of municipal government, possibly in his favor.

He Saw His Chance

With 35 veteran Council members, including Mr. Vallone, unable to

run for re-election in 2001, Mr. Miller had the opening he needed. He assembled

a kitchen cabinet that included political consultant Evan Stavisky and several

Manhattan Council members, and formed a political-action committee, Council

2001, to raise money for favored candidates. He managed the difficult task of

staying on good terms with county leaders-who think it’s their birthright to select the leader of

the City Council-even as he spent thousands of hours working to elect new Council

members on the unspoken understanding that they would, in turn, back his bid

for Speaker.

“Between May and January, when I was elected Speaker, I took four

days off,”

Mr. Miller said. “Including Christmas.”

More recently, he managed the difficult balancing act of opening

up the Council to reform and more debate without appearing to lose control of

it.

“There was tremendous concern among business and civic elites

that the Council would be in turmoil, that members would go off in 51 different

directions,” said lobbyist Ethan Geto. “But Giff organized the Council quickly and

effectively, and created harmony with surprising speed.”

“In just a matter of weeks, he’s made that office more accessible than it’s

ever been to a wide range of institutional players,” added political analyst

Richard Schrader.

Still, Mr. Miller faces a huge problem: term limits. Due to a

wrinkle in the law, he is one of several Council members who will be out of

office in two years. They were elected in special off-year elections, and

because term limits specify eight years and out, he’ll be gone at the end of

2003. This complicates life for Mr. Miller in any number of ways. It gives him

scant time to build an agenda that could raise his profile. It makes it tougher

to build up support and loyalty among individual members. And it means it’ll be

harder to run for office again. It’s unlikely he’ll run for Congress,

because the East Side Congressional seat is occupied by his mentor, Carolyn

Maloney, which makes it more likely that he’d run for Mayor or Manhattan borough

president in 2005.

According to a close associate of Mr. Miller, the Speaker and his

senior staff have been exploring various ways of extending term limits-either

through a Council-passed law or another referendum.

“This is life or death,” the associate said. “The

question is, will he be a lame duck whose influence will dissipate rapidly, or

will the knowledge that he’ll be there for a long time enable him to

wield more power?”

Mr. Miller said it was premature to discuss reversing term

limits, but acknowledged that they posed a political problem. “If I

were to look at some race in 2005, it’s better to run from an office than not

run from an office,” he said. But he added: “For the first time in a long time, I don’t

know what my next move is going to be.”

Mr. Miller, who grew up at 98th Street and Fifth Avenue, has been

immersed in politics since childhood. His father worked in the administrations

of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, helping write legislation creating

the U.S. Agency for International Development. His mother, a painter, is

well-known among the civic elite, and she designed the ­Central Park

Conservancy Garden and Bryant Park, among other public spaces.

Schoolyard Daze

Mr. Miller went to St. Bernard’s School on East 98th Street, where he was

known to his fellow private-school pupils as the most talented practitioner of

the “carrier” role

in “kill

the carrier.”

“The recess deck at St. Bernard’s bore an uncanny resemblance to Lord of the Flies ,” said

one former student. “If Gifford was running past you with the ball, you couldn’t

help but stick your leg out and have him fall face-first into the asphalt.”

Confronted with this damning anecdote, Mr. Miller politely asked

for its source. When told the teller preferred to remain anonymous, Mr. Miller

burst out laughing.

“An anonymous-classmate source?” he said. “That’s hilarious! Tell him he can say that for

the record. I promise he can still have his sidewalk café if he owns a

restaurant.”

Mr. Miller’s first run at elected office came at Middlesex, a boarding

school in Concord, Mass. He ran for president of the student body, using the

slogan “Better

Water Fountains.” He lost.

When Mr. Miller was at Princeton, he showed little interest in

politics, dividing his time instead between watching baseball, keeping tabs on

the Oscars and eating at the Cottage, a club once frequented by F. Scott

Fitzgerald and Bill Bradley, among others. His competitive instincts were

confined to sports and the occasional game of paintball, according to a

roommate, Robert Hammond.

They were not completely idyllic years. A college girlfriend was

hit by a truck and killed when the two were biking together on Martha’s

Vineyard.

“It was in Edgartown, right after a hurricane,” Mr.

Miller recalled. “We went down to look at the beach erosion. When we biked back, there

was a guy who was drunk-he ran my girlfriend over. She was killed instantly. It was

terrible.”

Mr. Miller is married now, and he and his wife have a

20-month-old son. A second child is due within weeks.

When Mr. Miller graduated from Princeton in 1992, he said, “I

didn’t

know what to do, so I went into politics.” He was a huge fan of Bill ­Clinton, who

was on the verge of being elected President, so he packed up a car and drove to

Washington, where he hoped to find work in government. He later got a job with

Ms. Maloney, who had been financially supported by his parents’

office.

Several years later, Mr. Miller decided it was time to try

politics on his own. Charles Millard, a Republican Council member from the

Upper East Side, was about to resign to ­become chairman of the city’s ­Economic

Development Corporation. Mr. Miller was living in Greenwich Village at the

time, but not for long. He quickly packed up and moved to a new apartment in

Mr. Millard’s district. Mr. Millard quit two months later; Mr. Miller ran

for the seat in a special election and won.

“I moved to run for City Council,” he said. “It was the coldest winter in a long time.

During my campaign, for 45 days, the temperature got over zero three times.”

A year later, he began plotting his run for Speaker.