Speaker Candidates Face Off for the First Time

The leading candidates.

The leading candidates.

The leading candidates for City Council speaker faced off for the first time tonight at a public forum, laying out their cases and weighing in on a host of issues, including a package of major rules reforms that would dramatically scale back the speaker’s power.

Though the candidates have been jockeying behind the scenes for months, the forum provided the first public glimpse of the contest, which will end in January, when the council’s 51 returning and freshmen members will come together following rounds of backroom negotiations to cast their votes.

The forum included five leading candidates: Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mark Weprin, Dan Garodnick, Annabel Palma and Jimmy Vacca. (A sixth candidate, Harlem’s Inez Dickens, arrived two hours after the scheduled start time, just as the forum was ending. “Oh God,” she told Politicker when told she was too late.)

“What I believe distinguishes me form the rest of the candidates is that I am the progressive candidate for City Council speaker … I am the most vocal, visible consistently on the issues that matter to all of us,” declared East Harlem’s Ms. Mark-Viverito to the audience of community members and a handful of colleagues gathered at the Jewish Center of Jackson Heights in Queens.

Ms. Mark-Viverito, who emerged from the annual Somos festival last weekend as the race’s early front-runner, is counting on the support of the growing Progressive Caucus, a lefty coalition of members that she co-chairs, and has received a significant boost from the healthcare workers’ union, 1199.

But the other candidates at the table would not let Ms. Mark-Viverito claim the progressive mantle all to herself. Mr. Weprin, another early front-runner who represents parts of eastern Queens, insisted that, despite his reputation as a less fiery lawmaker, he was also dedicated to liberal causes, including immigration reform.

“I’m not gonna argue Melissa’s the most progressive of all of us, but I’ve got a 20 year progressive record and if you look at every vote I’ve taken in those 20 years, I don’t think you’re gonna find one that wouldn’t call a progressive vote,” declared the former assemblyman, who repeatedly touted the fact that his district is the most diverse in the city.

“I think I actually have a very unique perspective in what members need in order to be effective advocates for their communities,” he said, adding that–unlike previous speakers–he has absolutely no intention of ever running for mayor.

Among the most significant issues in this year’s race is a package of pending rules reforms, which now has the backing of 31 returning and incoming members. After years of complaints about current Speaker Christine Quinn’s iron grip on the council, the reforms would scale back the power of the speaker, making it easier for members to bring legislation to the floor and dramatically transforming the process of doling out member items—which members charge is too politicized.

“The problem with the allocation is that it embarrasses people. It gives the speaker the ability to humiliate someone, maybe for a reason that has nothing to do with anything appropriate,” said Mr. Weprin, who argued that all members should be given equal allocations. (Others want the amounts determined by a district’s economic needs.)

All of those gathered also criticized Ms. Quinn’s decision to delay the passage of mandatory paid sick leave legislation for two years, despite overwhelming support from rank-and-file members. The bill only moved forward when members threatened to invoke a never-before-used parliamentary procedure to push it to the floor.

“I think culturally, in the council, what we need is for people not to fear that if they use the rules of the council that they will somehow be punished, that in fact they will be respected for the fact that they have taken that initiative,” said Mr. Garodnick, an East Side lawmaker who stressed his experience in his pitch.

“The job of the speaker is to everyday work to help your colleagues succeed, help them deliver positive results in their districts, help them solve the many significant issues we have in the city,” he said of the job.

Ms. Palma, who hails from the Bronx, and is not yet considered a front-running candidate, made the case that her compelling personal story made her an ideal candidate because she understands the problems facing struggling New Yorkers tying to make ends meet.

“What sets me apart from my great colleagues up here with me today is that most of the issues that we advocate for … I actually have either experienced them or lived them myself, whether it’s being a teenage parent, whether it’s being homeless, whether it’s getting my hours cut and not knowing where the next paycheck was gonna come from,” she told the group.

Meanwhile, Mr. Vacca touted his many years of public service and said he hoped to “galvanize the City Council into being a very effective force for good.” He also vowed to rein in the “unbelievable” number of resolutions he said the council wastes too much time passing and declared it “rude” that committee hearings and council meetings routinely begin hours late.

“They start an hour, an hour-and-a-half late, keeping the public waiting. I think that’s gotta be changed,” he said.

Brooklyn’s Jumaane Williams and Queens’s Jimmy Van Bramer have also indicated their interest in the job, among others.