On Dec. 5, while newly elected City Council members met in City Hall for an orientation with departing Speaker Gifford Miller, Jessica Lappin waded in the shallow waters off the Galapagos Islands, gazing upon frigate birds, iguanas and the exotic landscape.
Ms. Lappin could afford to skip the seminar and soak up some new scenery: A tour of City Hall and the tutorial on the inner workings of the Council were unnecessary for the petite 30-year-old. She served, after all, as Mr. Miller’s district chief of staff for years and was elected to succeed him in the Upper East Side’s Fifth Council District.
For nearly a decade, she practically lived under the frescoed ceilings of the Council chamber. Her daily chores consisted of policy drafting and consensus building.
Indeed, when her time finally came to take the Council floor on Jan. 4 and cast her vote for fellow Manhattanite Christine Quinn as Speaker, the rookie Councilwoman received a rather unique greeting from her colleagues.
“A number of people came up to me and said, ‘Welcome back,’” Ms. Lappin said between bites of a cheeseburger at a local tavern on 74th Street and Third Avenue. “I had been in that chamber so many times, but to be sitting on the floor, actually voting—that was an amazing experience.”
What made the occasion even more memorable for Ms. Lappin, and significant for the Council, was the fact that she sat in both Mr. Gifford’s and Ms. Quinn’s chairs during the Jan. 4 session, a clear symbol that she was the consummation of Manhattan’s effective (though unsung) new Democratic machine.
“Manhattan is stronger than when I first started working for the City Council,” said Ms. Lappin, attributing the change to an influx of energetic Democrats, starting with Carolyn Maloney’s election to Congress in 1992. Ms. Maloney defeated longtime East Side Representative Bill Green. In short order, the Republicans lost their East Side Council, Assembly and State Senate seats.
“I think the conventional wisdom before Gifford was elected Speaker was that nobody from Manhattan could be Speaker. That’s what all the pundits said, and he proved them wrong,” Ms. Lappin noted. “And you didn’t hear that this time around—I didn’t see that sort of widespread punditry that there couldn’t be another Speaker from Manhattan.”
That confidence and pride in her borough’s pedigree was evident in the minutes before the vote for Speaker. Ms. Lappin’s lips were spread in a smile; her straight brown hair bounced on her shoulders, and her face was flushed above the staffer’s uniform of white pearls, white blouse, black blazer and black skirt. For a few brief moments, her slight shoulders shed their meticulous posture—a vestige of her years as a competitive figure skater—and an amicable warmth replaced her icy poise.
“I’m starting in Gifford’s seat just for the beginning [of the session], and then I’m moving into Chris’,” she said, clearly thrilled that she got to play a small part in the Speaker’s game of musical chairs.
Raised in Gramercy Park, Ms. Lappin, the oldest of two children, attended the United Nations school from kindergarten to eighth grade and was the only native English speaker in her French class.
“Why did somebody put me in there at the age of 5?” she asked. “Maybe because my name means ‘rabbit’ in French, they thought I was French.”
At the age of 9, she started taking ice-skating lessons, and by the time she attended Stuyvesant High School, she was skating to the theme song from On Golden Pond in regional tournaments.
“Oh, Gifford is going to love this,” she said with a high-pitched chuckle, noting the reference to her skating days. “He used to tease me about it.”
But it was also during high school that she first started becoming politically active. At home, the dinner-table conversations with her mother, Joan, the chairwoman and chief investment officer of the Gramercy Capital Management Corporation, and her father, John, a certified public accountant, were often political. The Democratic blue in her blood stretched back at least to her great-uncle, who served as the treasurer for Americans for Democratic Action.
“I wasn’t someone who, at the age of 5, said ‘O.K., now I want to be President,’” she said. But in 1992, she participated in a rally and became increasingly politically conscious. “That was the year Carolyn [Maloney] was elected. I was like 17 or 18, which is when you just start to pay attention to these things.”
These days, Ms. Maloney—who is seen as Mr. Gifford’s mentor—is paying attention to her.
“Her talent for coalition building, which is the most important skill a public official can have, will be a huge asset to her constituents,” Ms. Maloney said.
“Jessica Lappin knows the Council inside and out,” added Leroy Comrie, the Council’s majority whip, who shrugged off the criticism that coming up through the system made Ms. Lappin too much of an insider. “It was positive for me; it gave me an advantage of knowing something of what was going on in my district and what my district needed.”
After high school, Ms. Lappin went to Georgetown University, in part to be close to Washington. She studied government and French, which she speaks fluently, and dropped skating for sailing. “My family had a boat,” she explained.
Heading for the Hill
It wasn’t long before she found her way to Capitol Hill, where, thanks to an old family connection, she interned in Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s press office. Ms. Lappin said that she learned much from Kevin Sheekey, who ran the late Senator’s press operation at the time.
“He was smart and funny, incredibly shrewd,” Ms. Lappin said of Mr. Sheekey, now a deputy for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, adding: “You’d go buy lunch, and you’d leave and you’d come back and he’d have half-eaten it.”
These days, Ms. Lappin takes issue with Mr. Sheekey’s boss for not doing enough to provide affordable housing in her district, which stretches between 49th and 92nd streets on the East Side and includes Roosevelt Island. But back in 1997, when she graduated college, she was more concerned with the Far East, and so she set out on a three-month backpacking tour of Australia and Southeast Asia. In northern Vietnam, a villager threw rocks at her.
“It was a less warm and welcome experience than I had anticipated,” she said.
But once back in New York, she received an unexpectedly warm welcome from the office of a new, 26-year-old Council member named Gifford Miller. After a six-month stint doing public relations for Christian Dior, and handing out pamphlets and petitions as a volunteer in Christine Quinn’s campaign in Chelsea, Ms. Lappin blindly sent her résumé to Mr. Miller’s district office.
“I had just sort of heard that there was this younger guy that was just recently elected on the Upper East Side. He was only 26 at the time, and I remember thinking, ‘Oh, that’s intriguing—I can go work for somebody that’s in my generation.’”
She got to know the district’s issues and, in an early hint of her future ambitions, bought an apartment on East 59th Street in 1999. She became an expert on housing issues. But critics say that she also picked up what some consider to be Mr. Gifford’s aloof demeanor, hyperbolic ego and ambition.
There are some hints of that ego even in her personal life. When her husband, Andrew Wuertele, proposed to her in Bryant Park in 2003, he did so in front of the Josephine Lowell fountain, named after the first woman commissioner of the New York State Board of Charities. “He did it in front of the fountain named after this woman who was a sort of trailblazer, historically. It was very thoughtful.”
Her critics, like Republican Joel Zinberg, a surgeon and lawyer who ran against her for the Council seat, have accused her of being a classic political operative, an insider short on substance and real-world experience.
“I’m not sure which real world it was that he was living in,” Ms. Lappin said, bristling at Mr. Zinberg’s rebuke. “I mean, I live in the real world, too. I work every day, day in and day out, with the people who live in this district to make it better.”
On Friday afternoon, that commitment was evident. After a meeting with Speaker Quinn during which Ms. Lappin expressed interest in the Land Use, Sanitation, Education, General Welfare and Health committees, she conducted a mini–listening tour in the district.
She visited a senior center on 74th Street, making the rounds to tables decorated with wilting poinsettias and asking for “any concerns, issues you’d like to talk to me about.”
“I must say, you are looking very professional in your plaid three-button,” said Bill Farrell, referring to Ms. Lappin’s matching gray skirt and jacket. Indeed, she looked very much the part with her pink nail polish and pearls.
The sinewy firefighters she visited on 75th Street were all happy to see her and recalled a pasta dinner that she and Mr. Miller attended there in 2003. They lifted the slight Councilwoman onto a new Hazmat engine and sipped coffee with her in the kitchen. Ms. Lappin listened to their grievances and asked them if their new Hazmat responsibilities required any special training.
Rob Coppola, 38, said that the only way you could learn the skills was on the job. “It’s like being a firefighter,” he said. “You can go to the academy, but if you haven’t fought a fire, you don’t know nothing.”
Ms. Lappin, who for years made such calls in the company of Mr. Miller, said she understood.