Power Punk: Gifford Miller

Happy Birthday, Boy Wonder! 34-Year-Old Tears Up Council, Raises $2 Million; Hops on Howard Dean, Prepares to Run for Mayor in 2005

On Dec. 8, Gifford Miller, Speaker of the New York City Council, endorsed former Governor Howard Dean, M.D. the power keg from Vermont running for President, and became his New York City campaign chairman.

Dr. Dean had this to say: “In just a short time as Speaker of the City Council, Gifford has revolutionized the way the process works at City Hall … increasing the transparency of how the body operates, to even slashing his own salary. The City Council has become more reflective of the city …. Gifford also knows the power of the grassroots …. “

Not since the days of John Purroy Mitchel, who in 1913-at age 35-became “the boy Mayor of New York,” has there been a rising politician with a shot at City Hall as young as Gifford Miller. Now at 34, Giff has grabbed hold of the Dean campaign-a day before Al Gore endorsed Dr. Dean in Harlem-fashioning himself into the local avatar of a movement that is transforming the Democratic Party.

The endorsement is a characteristically canny move for the top elected Democrat in city government. He has a $2 million fund for his (undeclared) 2005 campaign-not much when compared to Michael Bloomberg’s resources, but more than his competing Democrats-and a political career that is getting hotter by the moment.

A few weeks ago, on Nov. 19, at his 34th-birthday party, Mr. Miller welcomed his guests from the stage at Noche, a midtown nightclub, looking tiny in front of a vast silver backdrop. The Speaker of the City Council isn’t a particularly memorable speaker, and he rattled off a number of permutations on a single theme: New York sure is great. Also, New York is great. And, New York … it’s great.

But then came a change of tone as he stuck in the knife:

“I have to tell you that there’s often a difference of opinion at City Hall,” Mr. Miller said. “There are some who would like to slash the education budget, shutter senior centers and make it even more difficult for those trying to improve their lives.”

That would be Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The birthday party doubled, in a quiet way, as a launch party for a young man’s campaign to unseat the Republican billionaire who is Mayor of New York and old enough to be his father. As a present, Mr. Miller received about half a million dollars in donations at the event; he also got a Marvin Gaye CD from his brother.

His increasingly open challenge to Mr. Bloomberg is, among other things, a mark of a new generation’s emergence in city politics.

Gifford Miller is, oddly, the senior elected official in the City of New York. First elected to the City Council in a 1996 special election at the age of 26, Mr. Miller has slipped through loopholes in the term-limits laws and stretched an extension of his own making into a position to challenge Mr. Bloomberg. No one but his potential rivals even mentions his age any more.

“Sometimes I sort of forget to feel young,” Mr. Miller said over a decaf-he never drinks caffeine-at a Starbucks across the street from City Hall.

Alan Gifford Miller-friends call him “Giff,” enemies “Giffie”-grew up on Fifth Avenue and 98th Street, just south of the barrier that Mount Sinai Hospital puts between the Upper East Side and Harlem. His mother, Lynden, is a prominent landscape designer; his father, Leigh, was a political appointee under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Gifford attended St. Bernard’s, Middlesex and Princeton University, where he majored in political science. “I hate to tell people that, because it makes it look like I was planning to go into politics,” he said. At Princeton, he met Pamela Addison, whom he eventually married. She’s a lawyer with no evident love of politics. They have two children.

Mr. Miller’s straight path to power has an oddly accidental character. He was working for Representative Carolyn Maloney in an East Side district represented by Councilman Charles Millard, a Republican. Then he changed his mind.

But, he says, he’d been struck by Ms. Maloney’s capacity to create small-scale neighborhood change. So he moved back uptown later that year-just in time to see Mr. Millard resign for a job in the Giuliani administration.

Mr. Miller won the seat, and quickly became one of the wonkiest members of the City Council. Staffers grudgingly let him in on their discussions of budget nuances. He tried attending law school at Fordham on the side, but dropped out in 2000 to focus on the Speaker’s race.

Mr. Miller began his trajectory well in advance of the 2001 City Council elections, in which term limits emptied out the Council chambers. He launched “Council 2001,” a vehicle to raise money in his wealthy East Side district for unknown Council hopefuls. When many of those candidates won, they owed him. Their loyalty, combined with a backroom deal between the Bronx and Queens party bosses, made Giff Miller Speaker. The new Speaker took control of a Council full of energetic, ambitious rookie politicians, pushing through a property-tax increase, winning compromise on a controversial living-wage bill, and steering a middle course on an “antiwar” resolution that wound up being “antiwar, but …. “

It was something, Mr. Miller says, to “take a group of very new and diverse Council members and make the toughest decisions that any elected body has ever had to make in the City of New York.” Then he paused. “That doesn’t sound that exciting,” he said. But exciting may not be a big priority for Mr. Miller. The Speaker’s race, and the job of running a legislature, is an inside game, played with promises and favors. “Government is a serious job and should be treated as such,” he said. “It’s not helpful to have people who dabble.”

That jab provoked a sharp response from Mr. Bloomberg’s communications director, William Cunningham. “The next time he creates a job, it’ll be the first time,” Mr. Cunningham said. “The Mayor has created 8,000 jobs in his company.

“If you want to be taken seriously, I don’t think you should denigrate the people who create jobs for New Yorkers. But he’s young-he must learn these things,” Mr. Cunningham continued.

For the moment, Mr. Bloomberg’s camp isn’t sweating Mr. Miller’s challenge; some in the administration appear more concerned about the other possible candidates. But Mr. Miller is used to being underestimated. And he appears to have a plan.

At his birthday party, Mr. Miller spent a portion of the time locked in a kind of slow dance with Ethan Geto, the towering operative running Howard Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination in New York. Mr. Miller nearly disappeared in Mr. Geto’s embrace; he emerged planning his public endorsement of the former Vermont governor.

Mr. Miller’s endorsement marks only a minor coup for Dr. Dean-especially in terms of what he picked up the next day from former Vice President Al Gore. Nevertheless, the Speaker, through the City Council apparatus, has one of the stronger political operations in the city and can bring some resources to bear on primary day and before it. And like all of Mr. Miller’s moves, it’s also a coup for the Speaker himself. Dr. Dean’s campaign has used the Internet to organize new cadres of activists. Win or lose in 2004, Dr. Dean’s local supporters will be poised to energize a local campaign for Mayor.

Could Mr. Miller be looking that far ahead? “Not at all,” he says, then grimaces, turns red and emits a stifled chuckle. And what would Giff Miller do if he wasn’t in politics? His answer stamps him as a member of his generation:

“Do you like Spinal Tap ? ‘Probably vork vith children.'”

-Ben Smith