City Council Speaker Gifford Miller may be the second-most-powerful elected official in New York City, but as he wandered through the hallways of a housing complex for seniors in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood on Sept. 7, he could have been mistaken for the lowliest of City Council staffers.
Clad in a T-shirt and black slacks, the exuberant 33-year-old politician was walking several steps behind neighborhood City Council member Diana Reyna, who was in the midst of a tight re-election fight and was asking the building’s elderly residents for their votes on Primary Day, Sept. 9. Lugging a pile of brochures, Mr. Miller knocked on doors and implored the building’s elderly residents-some of whom came to the door in their pajamas-to support his colleague.
“I’m here with my friend Diana Reyna,” he told one elderly voter. “She’s a terrific person,” he enthused to another. “We gotta work, work, work,” he informed a woman who had opened her door a crack and was peering at him with a bewildered expression. “You gotta pull out the vote in this building, O.K.?”
At the close of each encounter, Mr. Miller took care to hand his listener a business card as he discreetly introduced himself: “I’m Gifford Miller, Speaker of the City Council.”
Over the past several weeks, Mr. Miller has quietly spent scores of hours doing political grunt work for incumbent Council members facing re-election fights in special off-year primaries throughout the city. He has shaken hands at subway stops at 7 a.m., knocked on hundreds of doors throughout the five boroughs, and worked local street fairs on behalf of embattled candidates. Mr. Miller’s stated reason for devoting himself to such lowly political chores is that he wants to build loyalty among members of his Democratic Party conference, thus making himself a more effective Speaker.
But all these extracurricular activities have another purpose: They are a key part of Gifford Miller’s shadow campaign for Mayor in 2005.
Mr. Miller, a native of the Upper East Side who won election to his neighborhood’s Council seat in the mid-1990′s and was the surprise winner of a chaotic race for Speaker in 2002, has never run for citywide office. And he is well aware that he has no chance of being competitive in the 2005 Mayoral race if he doesn’t figure out a way of raising his profile in the outer boroughs. By constantly campaigning on behalf of Council members in neighborhoods far from the Upper East Side, Mr. Miller is hoping that Council members may later return the favor by turning out votes for him in their districts should he run for Mayor. At the same time, he’s seizing an opportunity to shake the hands of Democratic leaders and ordinary voters all over the city.
“Miller’s No. 1 obstacle is that he doesn’t have a persona outside Manhattan,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political consultant and informal adviser to City Comptroller Bill Thompson, another potential Mayoral candidate in 2005. “He’s never held citywide or even countywide elected office. So he’s using his appearances with Council members to build relationships with outer-borough voters. It’s a smart strategy.”
It’s also a strategy that Mr. Miller has employed before. In the late 1990′s, when the young Upper East Side Council member was plotting his ascension to Speaker, he logged hundreds of hours campaigning alongside other City Council members and even created a mini-machine to raise money for them. This created a pro-Miller faction on the Council which, in turn, carried him to victory in 2002, when term limits ended former Council Speaker Peter Vallone’s reign and forced a new Speaker’s race.
Now Mr. Miller is at it again.
Mr. Miller and his advisers won’t discuss his Mayoral ambitions, although many political observers are convinced that the Speaker will run for Mayor in 2005, if only because term limits will end his tenure that year. Asked whether his efforts on behalf of other Council members could serve a future bid for the Mayor’s office, Mr. Miller was careful to point out that being an effective Speaker was his top priority. But he added: “That said, there’s no denying that my abilities as a City Council Speaker will help with any opportunities that may arise down the road.”
City Council member Eric Gioia of Queens, a supporter of Mr. Miller, was a bit more direct. “He’s successfully putting together a grass-roots infrastructure which could serve as a field operation for any citywide race,” Mr. Gioia said. “By campaigning across the city for different candidates, he’s getting to know the terrain. And that kind of knowledge is invaluable.”
The Speaker is doing plenty of other things that seem designed to lay the groundwork for a potential Mayoral run in 2005. He is carefully crafting an image as a consensus-builder who is collaborating with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on a number of initiatives designed to steer the city through tough times. At the same time, he has boosted his appeal to city Democrats by undertaking a number of high-profile political attacks on distant Republican targets, lambasting Governor George Pataki and the Bush administration for shortchanging the city. And he is forging links to various members of the city’s civic and cultural elite, holding private discussions about the city’s future with business and real-estate leaders.
Mr. Miller’s advisers have also been discussing the possibility of holding a series of town-hall-style meetings this fall, in which the Speaker would go out and answer questions in various communities around the city. (Such an initiative would fill a vacuum of sorts that has been left by Mr. Bloomberg, who is suffering from the perception that he is not interested in connecting with ordinary New Yorkers.) And Mr. Miller is going to lengths to court members of the media. He and his aides recently held a barbecue for the media in the backyard of his Upper East Side duplex, where reporters and editors watched Mr. Miller grilling burgers and hot dogs as he discussed the technical difficulties of cooking meat over an open fire.
While Mr. Miller’s efforts are likely to raise his profile, it remains to be seen whether he’ll be able to retain the loyalty of his Council members in the Democratic primary of 2005. Mr. Miller’s predecessor, for one, well knows that individual members are quick to abandon the Speaker when he undertakes to win a promotion to Mayor. When Mr. Vallone ran for Mayor in 2001, many of his members deserted him and supported his opponents instead. (After running a lackluster campaign, Mr. Vallone finished third in the Democratic primary.) If a minority candidate such as Mr. Thompson or former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer runs in 2005, individual Council members may find that the tug of racial or borough-based loyalties may outweigh any lingering desire to repay Mr. Miller for his support.
“His help doesn’t necessarily translate itself into members supporting him for Mayor,” said Joseph Strasburg, a landlord lobbyist who was Mr. Vallone’s chief of staff for six years. “He may be supporting members in the Bronx now, but what if Ferrer decides to be a candidate? Do Bronx Council members support Gifford? I’m not sure that holds true.”
For the time being, Mr. Miller has been doing what he can to help those members hang onto their seats. It’s a task that comes naturally to the Speaker, who exhibits an almost geeky enthusiasm for low-level political work.
Campaigning in Bushwick alongside Ms. Reyna, for instance, Mr. Miller seemed the picture of contentment, even though he was missing a chance to spend the afternoon in his season seat at Yankee Stadium, where the home team was playing the final game of a crucial series against the Boston Red Sox. As he strolled up and down the hallways of the senior center there, he took extra care to hand-write a little note on each piece of literature before shoving it under the doors of people who weren’t home.
On each brochure, Mr. Miller wrote: “Sorry I missed you. Diana.”