Barring a reversal of the world order, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller woke up on the morning of Nov. 5-a day short of his 34th birthday-as a newly re-elected lame duck and a likely candidate for Mayor of New York.
These new conditions bring a new set of challenges for the boy wonder of city politics, who has steered the rambunctious 51-member City Council with a steady hand for two years. Now, Mr. Miller-who will be forced out of office by term limits in 2005-has to keep his members in line while he looks beyond the Council. He’ll also have to prevent them from getting underfoot in a Mayoral campaign. Already there are stirrings of unrest in the Council’s black, Latino and Asian caucus, whose leaders say they think Mr. Miller’s ambition puts them in a position to win concessions. And the young Speaker’s critics fear that his inevitable Mayoral campaign will make him a hostage to interest groups.
“How does a lame-duck Council Speaker run for Mayor? He panders,” said Fred Siegel, a professor at Cooper Union and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. “Miller had that tendency before he was a lame duck, and now he’s going to go into full pander-bear mode.”
On Election Day, Mr. Miller showed no signs of concern about the challenges ahead. He was standing outside a subway entrance on East 86th Street and Lexington Avenue at 7 a.m. dressed, as usual, a bit like a banker in a blue pin-striped suit. Aides carried signs with his slogan (“Leadership for New York’s Future”) and distributed fliers that made Mr. Miller’s straightforward face look sit-com handsome. He was, as always, on message.
“Today, I’m trying to get re-elected,” he said, referring to the challenge he faced from Jennifer Arangio, a Republican lawyer. “Tomorrow, I’ll worry about” the next term.
It took Mr. Miller’s political mentor, Representative Carolyn Maloney, to reveal what many of his supporters see as his trump card in managing the City Council.
“He’s not a lame duck; he’s running for Mayor,” said Ms. Maloney, who was standing beside Mr. Miller.
Belatedly she turned to her protégé, who has yet to declare his intentions for 2005. “Can I tell him that you’re running for Mayor?” she asked.
“No, you can’t,” Mr. Miller said.
The scion of a prominent East Side family, Mr. Miller has thrived on low expectations. Elected in a 1996 special election on the strength of a Princeton degree and a few years of staff work, he began laying the groundwork for his election to Speaker even before term limits cleared out most of his colleagues in 2001. Mr. Miller leveraged the strength of his Upper East Side district-its wealth-by raising money for Council hopefuls around the city. He spent days campaigning for unknown novices in Queens and Brooklyn. And when many of his allies were elected, he had the edge over six older politicians in the race for Speaker.
“Every step of the way, people have told me I’d be unable to control the Council, I’d be unable to grapple with the fiscal crisis, I’d be unable to pass important legislation. And, every time, we’ve done it,” he said.
The conventional wisdom Mr. Miller now has to surmount says that it’s tough for legislators, and particularly legislative leaders, to make the jump to the executive branch. The last man elected directly from the U.S. Senate to the Presidency, for example, was John F. Kennedy. No Speaker of the House or Senate Majority Leader has ever moved directly into the Oval Office. And Mr. Miller’s predecessor as Council Speaker, Peter Vallone, departed after failed campaigns for Governor and Mayor.
What’s more, there’s reason to think that Mr. Miller may face more determined internal challenges next term. His lame-duck status, shared by several of his peers, means that members have less reason to bend to his will. The main reason to stay in line, as Ms. Maloney noted, is that he might be Mayor. But that campaign will also make Mr. Miller more vulnerable to the threat of airing dirty Council laundry.
Race is the issue most likely to cause trouble for Mr. Miller, who as a white man from the Upper East Side is automatically vulnerable to charges that he can’t represent a majority-minority city. Two recent Democratic Party primaries-for Mayor and for Governor-left two white candidates, Mark Green and Andrew Cuomo, tarred with charges of racial insensitivity, and left the party racially divided. Mending that gap is any Democrat’s key challenge. Mr. Miller’s sensitivity to the race issue, and his eagerness to avoid racially charged conflict, is as well known in the Council as his ambition, and some legislators are already planning to turn Mr. Miller’s plans to their advantage.
Mr. Miller’s potential candidacy “presents an opportunity for Council members-and especially the black, Latino and Asian caucus-to make sure that our voices are heard,” said Hiram Monserrate, a Queens Council member and co-chairman of the caucus. “In these two years, not only will our voices be heard-they will be amplified.”
Black, Latino and Asian Council members, needless to say, differ widely among themselves. But Mr. Miller has occasionally had trouble saying no to the caucus’ most radical wing. An embarrassing moment came last Sept. 12, when Brooklyn’s Charles Barron, a sometime black revolutionary, invited the widely criticized president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, to visit the Council’s chambers and defend land confiscations beside a statue of Thomas Jefferson.
Now, Mr. Barron-himself a Mayoral candidate-says he’s looking forward to the next term.
“He has to be extremely careful. No one is going to win the Democratic Party primary without the support of communities of color,” he said of Mr. Miller.
With the issue of race always in the air, recent months have seen a more serious challenge emerge from Bill Perkins of Harlem, a veteran legislator partial to snappy suits and Panama hats. Mr. Perkins had hoped to become Speaker last year, but had to settle for the title of deputy majority leader. Earlier this year, he began pushing hard to speed the passage of a set of tough restrictions on lead paint through the Council. At a July press conference on the steps of City Hall, the bill’s advocates made thinly veiled suggestions that Mr. Miller hadn’t pushed the bill through because the children affected were mostly black and Hispanic.
“There’s no question in my mind that if these children came from what I call ‘silk-stocking districts,’ this would have been considered an emergency,” Mr. Perkins said at the press conference.
Mr. Perkins’ hardball tactics have worked. Instead of facing some kind of internal discipline for his challenge to the Speaker, Mr. Perkins has been getting what he wants. His allies at the New York Public Interest Research Group have been working with Council lawyers to draft the lead-paint law, and Mr. Perkins said he expects to lay out details of the bill on Nov. 6.
“There were no real concessions on our part at all,” he said of the legislation, which uses the threat of expensive lawsuits to force landlords to clean up lead paint and paint dust.
Mr. Perkins, who says he’s “seriously considering” a run for Manhattan Borough President, has had his way in his district as well. In another case with racial undertones, the Council, at his urging, refused to designate the Cathedral of St. John the Divine a landmark. The decision, backed by Mr. Miller, comes down on the local community’s side of a decades-old fight with Columbia University over developing Morningside Heights.
The Council also passed an unusual set of reprieves for property owners whose buildings owed so many taxes and fees that the city was prepared to confiscate them. All three were in Mr. Perkins’ district.
This has led to some grumbling among other Council members, who say they think Mr. Perkins has more power than he should.
Mr. Perkins “walks around like he’s the Speaker,” griped one member. But Mr. Perkins has no plans to retreat.
Mr. Miller “is obviously going to have to build coalitions, and I’m going to try to maximize the opportunity to get things done for my district and for the causes that are important for the city,” he said.
Although Mr. Bloomberg vetoed the cathedral plan and one tax reprieve, Mr. Miller defended them both, along with the lead-paint legislation. “We’ve done what we think is the right thing to do as a body,” he said.
If anyone can navigate the currents between a militant Council and a moderate Mayor, it’s Mr. Miller, whose adeptness in winning near-unanimous votes on controversial issues like a property-tax hike and an indoor-smoking ban have amazed observers.
“He’s been handed a very difficult assignment in the worst of times, and he’s managed to keep nearly unanimous votes in the Council. That’s unheard of,” said Mr. Vallone, the former Speaker and Mayoral candidate.
“I did exactly the same thing: I was a lame duck and I was a candidate for Mayor-thought I would win the damn thing, and so did most people,” Mr. Vallone said. “If you have a realistic opportunity to become Mayor, that’s going to give you the kind of strength that you need to govern.”
But then, Mr. Miller isn’t exactly trying to follow in Mr. Vallone’s footsteps. While Mr. Vallone kept the Council well in hand, he finished third in the Democratic Mayoral primary. It will be up to Mr. Miller to avoid being submerged in the Council-or buried by it-while he keeps an eye on the other side of City Hall and Mayor Bloomberg, his potential opponent. And while the Speaker will probably do his best to avoid fights with his members, many observers predict that he’ll pick them with the Mayor. One is the veteran consultant Norman Adler, who said he’s given Mr. Miller just that advice.
“My own view is that I think he needs to pick a couple of good fights in the next two years, so he’s not viewed as the prime minister to Bloomberg’s emperor,” said Mr. Adler. “And my suspicion is that he will.”