In a year when the city’s political zeitgeist has drifted far to the left, Councilman Jimmy Vacca is hoping to govern the City Council from the relative center.
“I’m not an ideologue,” Mr. Vacca told Politicker this morning. “I know some members feel they have to say certain things to appeal to the 51 members. I stress certain things that I consider to be common sense. I’m a common sense person. I’m realistic.”
“I think sometimes we don’t have the common sense, we don’t have the ability to say things that have to be said whether people like to hear them or not. And I’m going to say them,” he added.
Mr. Vacca, who hails from the Bronx, is one of at least seven candidates vying to be the next speaker of the City Council–the second-most powerful post in the city. Speaking at a chic cafe just a few blocks from City Hall, Mr. Vacca outlined the pragmatist pitch he’s making to fellow members. Not long before he arrived, one of the council’s new liberal power brokers, Brooklyn’s Brad Lander, coincidentally plopped down at a booth on the other side of the coffeehouse. Neither council member, who hail from opposite ends of the city, saw the other, which was just as well–in the backroom contest that will be decided by the council’s 51-member body, Mr. Lander and Mr. Vacca are not quite playing for the same team.
Mr. Lander, a leader of the burgeoning left-leaning Progressive Caucus, is hoping to crown a new speaker that shares the caucus’s commitment to more liberal legislation and reforms that check the powers of the speaker. But Mr. Vacca, an amiable political veteran, is singing a different tune: he wants the speaker position to retain its current powers and notably has not agreed to the caucus’s reform proposals.
The councilman, the chair of the transportation committee, does supports many liberal policies, like a law he recently spearheaded that would require more accommodations for pregnant workers. A backer of Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s plan to hike income taxes on high earners to fund universal pre-kindergarten and after-school programs, Mr. Vacca nonetheless indicated that, as a speaker, he would not willingly raise taxes to address social and economic ills.
“I’m not a tax and spend person,” he said. “I think that we in New York are one of the highest taxed jurisdictions in the country and I think we have to be careful not to tip the scales any further.”
Insiders question Mr. Vacca’s viability in the speaker’s race. The relatively moderate Bronx lawmaker is thought to be long-shot to receive the support of the Progressive bloc, which is expected to include as many as 20 members come January. Mr. Vacca notably voted against a piece of legislation expanding the definition of racial profiling that was championed by the council’s black and Latino caucus. He is further competing with two other white male councilmen, Councilmen Dan Garodnick from Manhattan and Mark Weprin from Queens, in a body that would prefer more diversity in its political leadership; two Hispanic councilwomen, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Annabel Palma, are in the race, as well as two black members, Jumaane Williams and Inez Dickens.
Mr. Vacca is aided, however, by his close ties to county leaders in Queens and the Bronx, two of the three most tightly-knit Democratic organizations in the city. And with so many candidates in the field, Mr. Vacca is looking to become the consensus candidate once some of his colleagues’s first choice picks fade from the scene.
“How to get there is to meet with everybody, talk to everybody, let you know you’re available,” he said. “Let them know you’d even be their second or third choice if they get to that in this race: sometimes people say, ‘He’s my third choice but I can’t live with him.’ But sometimes people say, ‘He’s my third choice but he’s okay.’ So I think that’s a lot of what I’m trying to convince people of.”
He also hopes his message, which is very outer borough-centric, will resonate.
“I’m collegial. I have good relationships with my colleagues. I think people have to understand that the Bronx has never been at the table in a meaningful way,” he explained. “The Bronx has never had a speaker. I think I’m someone from the Bronx who understands the people of the Bronx, people of the outer boroughs, who can bring to the speakership that type of perspective. Neighborhood perspective, the perspective of immigrants, the poor. One and two-family home owners, seniors. That’s who I represent in the Bronx.”
“I don’t represent people on the cocktail party circuit,” he added.