Members Question Whether Council Has Enough Black Leadership

Councilman Jumaane Williams (left) with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

Councilman Jumaane Williams (left) with Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito.

While Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and her backers hailed the diversity of the council’s new leadership, several council members wondered whether enough blacks had won the top slots. 

Councilman Jumaane Williams, now a member of the council’s leadership team and the chairman of the housing and buildings committee, today expressed concern about the amount of black leadership in the city, hinting that the council could have done more for black council members. 

“My hope was that diversity would be considered a little bit more,” said Mr. Williams, once a candidate for speaker himself, while voting to approve the committee assignments at the council’s first session. “I am concerned about blacks in powerful leadership positions actually across the city, particularly with the role that they play in getting a lot of the issues forward and getting people where they were.”

“So it concerned me that we haven’t achieved that. But I decided that I have faith in madam speaker … and I am looking forward to what we’re going to do,” he added. 

Two other African-American council members, Inez Barron and Ruben Wills, also spoke briefly about the need for blacks to be on par, leadership-wise, with other racial groups. Ms. Barron was chosen to chair the higher education committee while Mr. Wills will chair a subcommittee on drug abuse, a lesser role. 

Ms. Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico, made history as the first speaker of color, but the members’ comments today suggests that some tensions remain over representation. Many of the most coveted committees, including the powerful rules, finance and land use committees, as well as many second-tier ones like the transportation, education and general welfare committees, went to Latino or white chairs. However, the new City Council has 10 “leadership” slots and two of those went to black lawmakers, Mr. Williams and Councilwoman Debi Rose.

Speaking with reporters after the meeting, Ms. Mark-Viverito said she would be willing to hear out any grievances. 

“I am someone that really takes points of views and concerns to heart and it’s part of my deliberations as a speaker and the leadership and every single member has an open-door policy and will be able to be heard by this speaker,” she said. 

Some longtime observers, reflecting on the potential rift, nevertheless wondered whether it was politically wise for council members to question Ms. Mark-Viverito at the start of her tenure.

“I suspect there is some sort of lack of communication,” a source close to the council told Politicker. “However for those members to take it public in such fashion is not the best strategy. They are testing the waters and pushing the boundaries. I am certain it will be handled–I can’t tell you how but it will be, but the speaker cannot be admonished like that publicly.”
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