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
Carl, a big guy, shook his head stoically.
“Maybe Carl isn’t allowed to have beer,” Mr.
“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
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
“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
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
believe I ‘m
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
“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
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.
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
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
“Between May and January, when I was elected Speaker, I took four
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
“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
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.
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
“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
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
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
“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
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
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’
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.