From a perch 30 floors above City Hall, a small group of thirtysomethings is plotting to take over the city.
The chief of the Ferris Bueller brigade is City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, 34, who has quietly created what one staffer labeled a “war room” atop an office building across Broadway from City Hall. The main political advisers on Mr. Miller’s staff-ages 34, 34 and 31, steeped in city politics and 1980’s pop-culture references-have been given three small offices overlooking the Brooklyn Bridge. Beyond these offices and their views of the Chrysler Building sit two rows of cubicles staffed by a dozen aides, schedulers and liaisons to neighborhoods and ethnic groups.
While this looks a lot like the core of a political campaign-Mr. Miller is widely believed to be preparing for a Mayoral campaign next year-the shift in gears at the City Council has proceeded well below the radar. A March 28 article in The New York Times , for example, said “members of the Council have run over the speaker in ways that would have been impossible in councils past.”
Mr. Miller may not be twisting his members’ arms in the fashion of his predecessor, Peter Vallone, before his failed campaigns for Governor and Mayor. But members of the Council’s leadership got a glimpse of Mr. Miller’s control of the institution in late March, when they met the Council’s new communications director-who’d already been on the job for a month. “We didn’t have any choice in this, and we didn’t have any input on it,” said one member of the Council’s leadership. Indeed, the new operation on the 30th floor and a revving campaign office are signs that Mr. Miller is aiming to overcome some apparent disadvantages in the Mayoral race by being the first off the blocks.
“Gifford is methodical and he’s smart and he’s quiet,” said Eric Gioia, a 30-year-old Council member from Queens. “Before the other guy gets out of bed, he’s sitting there mapping something out.”
Mr. Miller, his admirers say, is repeating the pattern that made him Speaker in the first place-this time with money and staff. On paper, his prospective Mayoral campaign looks hopeless: He’s too young, critics say, and he lacks a traditional ethnic base compared to Democrats like Comptroller William Thompson, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer and U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner. But they said the same thing when Mr. Miller was aiming for his current job, and he compensated by starting his campaign earlier and being more organized than his rivals, and by forming a political-action committee to spread around the money he had raised in his Upper East Side district. Money and organization may matter less in the Mayoral contest, but it’s worth noting that 18 months before the Democratic primary, Mr. Miller already has assembled the foundation of a campaign.
“Everybody’s doing things, but he’s being particularly aggressive,” said a political consultant, Joseph Mercurio. “He’s one of the most underestimated guys in city government.”
The unofficial headquarters for the early stages of this campaign is in 250 Broadway, a modernist shadow of the tiered Woolworth Building beside it. It’s a wedding cake of five black boxes, each one smaller than the one beneath it. The core of the City Council’s “member services” division-a euphemism for its political operation-now occupies the smallest box, and the top floor. “Welcome to the Bat Cave,” said Miller aide Matt Mullarkey as he greeted a visitor.
The 30th floor has recently been beefed up with the hire of a handful of new staffers, including a new Jewish liaison and a former aide to Senator Charles Schumer. There’s an office for the new communications director, Stephen Sigmund, 34, who worked for former Public Advocate Mark Green. In the next room is the director of member services, Kevin Wardally, 31, already a legendary political organizer with an exhaustive knowledge of the city’s black community. The corner office is taken by Mr. Mullarkey, 34, a soft-spoken deputy chief of staff who ran Helen Marshall’s successful campaign for Queens borough president. Across the street in City Hall is a new press secretary, David Chai, 36, a veteran of Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s Presidential campaigns.
“To the degree that we have made staff changes, they’re done with one goal in mind: serving New Yorkers,” said Mr. Sigmund, who dismissed the political significance of the 30th floor.
Church and State
The rule that government and politics must be kept separate is typically observed in the breach, and there’s no suggestion that Mr. Miller has violated the letter of the law with the ramping-up of the taxpayer-financed political shop in 250 Broadway. The Mayor’s Community Assistance Unit, for example, has in the past served as a political liaison. Mr. Bloomberg has given his main political adviser the title of communications director.
The consolidation of Mr. Miller’s team has proceeded under the watchful eye of an expert on the fine line between government and politics. Harry Giannoulis, at 39, is the grizzled veteran of Mr. Miller’s young group. Between 1989 and 1994, he was Mario Cuomo’s director of regional services, running a program that employed young politicos as “regional representatives” around the state. Now he’s partners with Evan Stavisky, 35, in a hungry new political-consulting firm from Queens that’s hoping to help make the next Mayor. Mr. Giannoulis declined to comment on the changes in Mr. Miller’s organization, but people familiar with the plans said he’s been taking the lessons of Mr. Cuomo’s organization to City Hall.
The official campaign is getting underway as well. March 30 marked the first meeting of the Speaker’s finance committee, chaired by Robert Zimmerman, a major national Democratic fund-raiser and member of the Democratic National Committee. Attendees saw Mr. Miller’s first round of flyers, in which a smiling Mr. Miller, with smiling wife and smiling sons, is described as having “defeated the Mayor’s efforts to shut down after-school programs, child health clinics and initiatives to reduce infant mortality.”
Mr. Miller has also begun to pick public fights with the Mayor in the course of budget negotiations. He’s trying to reopen firehouses, cut taxes for the elderly, even add a tax break for tree pruning. He’s also milking the budget process more effectively than in the past, dividing his plan into parts and making news over the course of several days.
Aides said Mr. Miller will open a new campaign office near City Hall in April.
“Our attitude is [that] a year and a half is not that far away, and you’ve got to have an operation and you’ve got to be clicking,” said one aide.
While Mr. Miller’s supporters and rivals alike in the City Council have noted the Speaker’s new sense of focus, veterans of the body say there’s one saving grace: Under Mr. Vallone, the conversion to campaign mode was much more overt, and the arm-twisting could be painful.
“Introductions are better done late than never,” said another member of the Council leadership, deputy majority leader Bill Perkins, of Mr. Sigmund’s arrival. “Under the previous leadership, you didn’t know what was going on around here.”
Still, the Mayor’s top political hand, William Cunningham, raised an eyebrow when informed of the doings on the 30th floor.
Mr. Cunningham said he hoped Mr. Miller’s aides are drawing a careful line between political and government activities. “I assume they’re signing their time cards,” he said.