For all their backroom dealing and complicated coalition building, the seven men and women running for Speaker of the City Council are chasing a post that, while once powerful, has suffered from a bad bout of post-term-limit anemia.
The position of Speaker, arguably the second-most-powerful job in the city, is meant to serve as a legislative counterbalance to the Mayor’s executive power. But since the new age of hot-potato power dawned in 1993, when city voters limited municipal elected leaders to two terms in office, the job has lost much of its institutional authority.
It is wildly unlikely that any Speaker will again accumulate anywhere near the power amassed by Peter Vallone, who ruled over the Council from 1986 to 2002 and who was the first person to hold the title of Speaker. Now the job effectively changes hands every four years—unless, of course, a freshman member enrolls directly as big man on campus. But no self-respecting veteran is going to let that happen.
“It’s ridiculous, because there is no balance any longer,” said Mr. Vallone, who documented his head butting with four Mayors in a new book, Learning to Govern: My Life in New York Politics, From Hell Gate to City Hall. “The moment they are elected, they are a lame duck looking for something else. It makes the Mayor stronger and stronger and the Council weaker and weaker.”
Mr. Vallone further argues that a diminished Speaker isn’t good for the Mayor either, because it denies whoever holds the post the opportunity to work with one person consistently, to broker long-term deals and govern without worrying about whether the Council’s position on issues will dramatically change. Under the weakened leadership, Mr. Vallone predicts that undisciplined members will be looking out for their district’s parochial interests at the expense of the entire city.
“You’re going to have anarchy,” he said.
Most of the Council members who will choose a new Speaker on Jan. 4 wouldn’t have been elected were it not for term limits, but they are nonetheless eager to loosen them from eight to 12 years.
The outgoing Speaker, Gifford Miller, has urged the 43 returning incumbents and eight new members of the Council not to take the matter into their own hands, but to leave it up to the city’s voters, who mandated term limits in the first place. Many members want to revise the law by an in-house vote and not via referendum, a position that has been assailed by good-government groups.
Even as they try to expand their tenures, the candidates bristle at the notion that the Speaker is currently toothless. The job is a far cry, they say, from the borough presidents, who were stripped of all their power when the Board of Estimate was dismantled in 1989. They argue that the Speaker’s post still offers an opportunity for significant leadership.
“You can get a lot done in four years,” said Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio, a candidate for Speaker, who nevertheless argued that the position could be vastly fortified by extra seasoning. “In the end, the ability to work over a longer time frame increases effectiveness. Your ability as a broker, an honest broker and a leader, is greatly enhanced if you are around for a longer amount of time.”
Other Council members emphasized that after the abolition of the Board of Estimate, the Council picked up increased budgetary and land-use powers that forced the executive branch, just across the foyer at City Hall, to take the Council more seriously. No longer did they need a king to claim the chamber’s upholstered mahogany throne.
“The times have changed,” said Brooklyn’s Lewis Fidler, who is considered to have an outside shot for Speaker, especially after performing well in a public forum held to boost the job’s profile. “We’re looking for a strong Speaker, but not one that will rule with an iron fist, who needs everything to pass the Council 51 to nothing. A lot has changed since those days.”
But what hasn’t changed is the desire for power, however diminished that power may be. The candidates—Mr. Fidler and Mr. de Blasio of Brooklyn; David Weprin, Leroy Comrie and Melinda Katz of Queens; Christine Quinn of Manhattan; and Joel Rivera from the Bronx—are all jockeying and jousting to win the votes of 26 members. More than racial, religious or philosophical affiliations, it is borough that turns out to be thicker than blood. Members tend to vote in geographical blocks, and county chairs like Thomas J. Manton of Queens and Jose Rivera of the Bronx broker deals in exchange for their members being appointed committee chairs. It is widely believed that Mr. Miller’s victory as Speaker came as a result of a phone call between Mr. Manton and Mr. Rivera.
And since the candidates all have similar positions on the big issues, it basically comes down to a horse race that began well over a year ago and which is only now reaching the final stretch. It also has elements of a high-school popularity contest, and Queens appears to have the coolest clique in town. The borough’s 14 members were a determining factor in the last election as well, evidenced by their strategic chairs in the finance and land-use committees.
This time, Queens has three candidates in the race, but some insiders think that, at the end of the day, the county boss, Mr. Manton, believes the borough would be better served if it kept control of important committees. Some Council staffers said that 10 to 12 of the Queens members are expected to vote in a bloc, and the two favorites emerging to vie for their support are Mr. de Blasio and Christine Quinn.
Mr. de Blasio, a campaign veteran who managed Hillary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign and John Edwards’ 2004 Presidential effort in New York, argues that the Council needs regularly scheduled meetings “like in Washington and Albany,” and plans to give committee heads more power and make them the “equivalent of cabinet secretaries.”
People close to Mr. de Blasio say that the head of the Brooklyn delegation has secured 15 votes. But other members and candidates disputed that figure.
“Anyone who says they have the votes doesn’t,” said one skeptical member who doesn’t support Mr. de Blasio. “The only vote that truly counts is in January.”
Indeed, some members accused Mr. de Blasio of being untrustworthy, and he recently weathered criticism from the Campaign Finance Board for drafting a bill that allows affiliated unions to separately donate maximum campaign contributions to a candidate. That legislation wins him support from the unions that wield influence in the Council and the Speaker’s race, but his coup over control of the Brooklyn delegation has earned him enemies as well.
The Likability Factor
Ms. Quinn, on the other hand, is widely seen as likable, as well as the continuity candidate for those happy under Mr. Miller. Some insiders think that being a gay woman helps her, as some are loath to have a mirror image of a straight white male mayor as Speaker. Most important, however, is that Ms. Quinn has been actively courting Mr. Manton, hosting a fund-raiser for Representative Joe Crowley, Mr. Manton’s preferred Queens politician.
Ms. Quinn is against term limits, but she believes that “even in the post-term-limit era, the Council continues to be an effective legislative partner to the Mayor when that is the right thing to do, and to be a counterbalance and check on the Mayor when that is the right thing to do.”
Mr. de Blasio, Ms. Quinn and most of the Speaker candidates are in favor of retooling term limits legislatively, through a loophole already on the books. Many political observers have warned that such a move could be seen by voters as undemocratic. But Ms. Katz, who is considered the strongest of the Queens candidates (thought perhaps too close to State Comptroller Alan G. Hevesi to get the job), argued that a Speaker’s job is to unite disparate and often-warring colleagues to fight the Mayor.
“Whether or not there are term limits doesn’t change whether it’s easy or hard to get consensus,” said Ms. Katz. “If it is eight, 12 or 24 years, it isn’t going to change that.”