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The evolution of the City Council Speaker's Race
How the race to become New York City's second most powerful executive has progressed over time, and what that means for this year's contenders
The race to be New York City’s next City Council Speaker is in the home stretch. Depending on who you ask, the race has been either going on for months, or even years.
Presiding over the fifty-one member unicameral legislature, the Speaker is effectively the second most powerful person in the entire City. Being tasked with representing the council in budget negotiations with the Mayor, choosing what legislation is brought to the floor for a vote, which council members serve on what committee, and who receives lucrative discretionary funds - all while maintaining some semblance of harmony amongst the body’s members - is no easy feat.
While every past speaker never held elected office after relinquishing the role, the race remains as competitive as ever. This year, eight contenders: Carlina Rivera, Justin Brannan, Diana Ayala, Francisco Moya, Adrienne Adams, Keith Powers, Gale Brewer, and Farah Louis are all vying for the position
The city’s traditional power brokers: county bosses, congressional members, union leaders and even the Mayor, have long-made backroom deals to name the speaker. In many cases, individual council members were deprived of their autonomy, pledging their vote to whatever organization they owed their election to. Concerns about ideology, especially amongst the City’s neoliberal Democrats in the 80’s, 90’s and early 2000’s - were largely irrelevant. Party patronage ruled the day.
While the race has evolved, with individual members' ideology playing a larger role than ever before, its essence has stayed the same. Today’s power brokers, influential organizations, and coalitions can be traced back to the vestiges of yesteryear.
But what has changed? And what can it tell us about this year’s race?
To find out, we must go back to the beginning.
On May 24th, 1985, City Council Majority Leader Thomas Cuite, a subdued but authoritative seventy-two year old councilmember from Brooklyn, issued his retirement. The announcement, which was timed as a “Friday news dump” - 3:30 p.m. leading into Memorial Day Weekend - triggered a rash of speculation as to the Council’s future leader, and the political power shift that would ensue.
The race to replace Cuite, and become New York City’s first City Council Speaker, was underway.
Editor’s Note: From 1986 to 2001, the positions of Council Speaker and Majority Leader were held by the same member.
Peter Vallone Sr, the crux of a multi-generational Queens political dynasty, emerged as the presumptive favorite to win over the Council’s Democratic members. Vallone, who had represented Astoria in the City Council since 1974, was pitted against Samuel Horwitz of South Brooklyn, who represented Coney Island, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay.
Mayor Ed Koch, fresh off a commanding victory in the 1985 Democratic Primary, was flanked by Bronx Democratic Chairman Stanley Friedman and the original “King of Queens”, County Boss Donald Manes. All three were determined to pool their collective influence to elevate Vallone to lead the Council. Koch, in particular, owed a tremendous debt of gratitude to both Friedman and Manes, who were integral to the Mayor’s outer borough working class coalition, which had propelled him to a third term.
While this trio seemed destined to deliver a victory for Vallone, Koch spent his first two terms alienating Brooklyn County Boss, Howard Golden, in addition to many of Manhattan’s liberal reformers, who were routinely deprived of coveted committee chairmanships.
In what Vallone dubbed the “Unholy Alliance”, council members from Manhattan and Brooklyn, many of whom were not even on speaking terms, united to combine their collective voting power (seven from Manhattan, eleven from Brooklyn). Their total of eighteen votes gave them a precariously slim majority in the then thirty-five member body, to sway the vote to Horwitz, who agreed to dole out the desired committee chairs to his supporters.
“When the Manhattan delegation polled its members an hour before the formal roll call, they were unanimous in their support for the majority-leader candidate from Brooklyn.”
Despite the increasingly bleak outlook, Manes and Friedman remained undeterred, as they not only kept their own members in line, but managing to infiltrate the Manhattan delegation, ultimately convincing Robert Dryfoos, a forty-three year old Upper East Side reform Democrat, to defect to Vallone at the last possible minute.
In what became known as the “Dryfoos Betrayal”, Dryfoos absconded to Vallone during the roll call in dramatic fashion, sparking intense outrage: “The next time I talk to him I hope it’s over his respirator,” bellowed Manhattan County Boss Herman (Denny) Farrell.
Many others were not shy to speak their mind:
“Some Manhattan council members compared Dryfoos to Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. Vallone said, on the contrary, that Dryfoos should be compared to John Paul Jones and Nathan Hale.” (The New Yorker)
For the desertion of his fellow Manhattan delegation members, Dryfoos was handsomely rewarded with a lucrative committee position, much to the delight of Koch and Vallone.
In an era pre-dating term limits, Vallone served as council speaker and majority leader for the next fifteen years.
Yet, halfway through Vallone’s tenure, the landmark 1994 revision to the City Charter established the office of Council Speaker as we now know it today.
While the revision, which was spurred by a referendum the year prior, was headlined by the implementation of term limits for elected officials, the city council’s leadership structure was also shaken up.
Vallone, who was previously forced to jockey with the Council President for command of the body, saw that office replaced outright with the newly-minted Public Advocate position. As such, the now-defunct council president’s powers were bestowed onto Vallone, who saw his office firmly cemented as the second most powerful in the entire City.
Despite the Republican resurgence under Guliani, Democrats still overwhelmingly controlled the council, enabling Vallone, whose total tenure exceeded a quarter century, to remain speaker for fifteen years, before being forced to vacate his post in 2001 due to the newly implemented term limit law.
In what would become a theme of future Council Speakers, Vallone ran for Mayor. Despite being the City’s second most powerful executive, Vallone struggled to draw attention to his work in the Council, which was overshadowed by the heavy-handed Gulianni. His reputation as a “cautious, clubhouse-style politician” did little to excite the electorate. Nor did the notion that Vallone, who eagerly took credit for the reductions in crime and spending, governed “alongside” Gulianni, who, especially amongst the Democratic electorate, had worn out his welcome.
While he retained the support of close ally Ed Koch, even hoping to replicate his coalition of conservative outer-borough Catholics, Jews and elderly voters, Vallone was abandoned by the Queens’ bosses so integral to his rise.
Despite “many of the city’s most powerful interests - the real estate industry, Wall Street, the cultural institutions - [feeling] more comfortable with an institutional player like Vallone,” he failed to build a substantial base with the City’s Black or Latino voters, who preferred Mark Green and Fernando Ferrer, dooming his chances in the primary.
Vallone finished third with under 20% in the five-way primary. He never sought elected office again.
As Vallone departed, the council, freshly expanded to fifty-one members, was primed for unprecedented turnover. Given that thirty-seven of them were newly elected, selecting a new speaker was at the top of the agenda.
The bitterly contentious and racially charged Democratic runoff between Public Advocate Mark Green and Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, set the table for a speaker’s race where racial equity was poised to assume center stage.
Green, who fell short to Ferrer in the primary, but narrowly edged him in the subsequent runoff, drew the ire of Ferrer, and his closest allies, namely Bronx Democratic Chair Roberto Ramirez and Congressman Charles Rangel of Harlem. Both Ramirez and Rangel were incensed over a series of targeted phone calls and literature, perpetuated by rogue Green operatives, that implied Ferrer was a pawn of the Reverend Al Sharpton. Such efforts, which were solely focused on South Brooklyn and Staten Island, were designed to increase turnout in white ethnic neighborhoods ahead of the runoff election.
Ramirez went so far as to lodge a formal complaint with Democratic national chairman, Terry McAuliffe, while Rangel proceeded to publicly laude the Republican nominee, Michael Bloomberg.
While Green won the runoff, he was cast as a pariah in Black and Hispanic communities heading into the general election, leading to his eventual defeat at the hands of Bloomberg.
In spite of Green’s defeat, this bad blood lingered into the speaker’s race, where Ramirez and Rangel were destined to play an integral role.
Ramirez, who stated that building a Latino base throughout City politics was the single most important goal of his life, had even publicly lobbied Green after the runoff to ensure that a person of color was chosen to be the next speaker.
The power brokers were in luck, as three of the four main contenders were people of color: Bill Perkins, Al Vann and Angel Rodriguez - with Gifford Miller, a thirty-two year old councilman from the Upper East Side and former aide to Representative Carolyn Maloney, as the lone white challenger.
The founder of the political club, Council 2001, Miller contributed to and endorsed many incoming Democratic candidates across the City, leaving in the good graces of council’s new members, who commended his hard work on their behalf.
Yet, given that three of the county leaders, Denny Farrell (Manhattan), Ramirez (The Bronx), and Clarence Norman (Brooklyn) were either Black or Latino, coalescing behind either Perkins, Vann or Rodriguez should not have proved difficult.
Rodriguez, a Hispanic councilman from Sunset Park, appeared to be the early frontrunner, winning Norman’s backing outright, a blow to Vann, in addition to tactfully forming his own coalition of members unallied with the county parties.
However, Ramirez was miffed by Rodriguez’s neutrality during the Mayoral primary and runoff: “all of us needed to stand up in that historical race,” despite Rodriguez reportedly offering to endorse Ferrer if he promised to do the same for his speakership bid - both declined.
Village Voice reporter Wayne Barrett also suspected other ulterior motives:
“The Bronx leadership sees itself as the focal point of Latino politics, just as Harlem has long claimed primacy in Black politics, and Rodriguez’s win would have elevated the power of Brooklyn’s Latino community, which has elected three councilmembers compared to the Bronx’s four. In addition, Rodriguez might well have eclipsed Ferrer and Ramirez by becoming the top Latino leader in the city.”
This fallout amongst three of the City’s most influential Hispanic leaders created an opening for Gifford Miller, whose voting record and ideology had no discernible difference to Rodriguez’s.
Ramirez, in spite of the fact that Miller actually endorsed Green, swiftly began to rally support for Miller amongst the City’s other premier power brokers. Ramirez tapped labor leaders like Dennis Rivera, the President of the influential health care workers union, 1199 SIEU, while teaming up with the county bosses, like Farrell in Manhattan and Tom Manton (Joe Crowley’s predecessor) in Queens.
Manton, whose massive delegation of fourteen proved invaluable to any speaker coalition, also saw the four Republican councilmembers tie their votes to him, which fittingly “tipped the ethnic scales in the council to majority white”. Essentially, Manton controlled eighteen votes, all but ensuring he would handpick the speaker.
The death blow to Rodriguez’s once-promising candidacy came from Manhattan Boss “Denny” Ferrell, who, along with Charles Rangel and DNC vice chair Bill Lynch, pushed Bill Perkins of Central Harlem to withdraw from the race and back Miller, which netted him six more votes.
Between the five votes delivered from Ramirez’s Bronx delegation, the six gained through the endorsement of Perkins/Ferrell, and the eighteen secured by Manton, Miller coasted to a majority, becoming the youngest speaker in council history.
Editor’s Note: Just a year later, Angel Rodriguez was arrested on federal bribery charges. He pled guilty, serving 52 months in prison while paying a combined $43K in fines and restitution.
When Miller entered the role, he was seen as a rising star teeming with Mayoral ambitions. Yet the “golden boy” soon rankled members who labeled him as “immature,” citing a lack of urgency in handling a sexual harassment allegation against a council member, his reluctance to support a bill designed to reduce lead paint in public housing, and mismanagement of the budget during a period of fiscal uncertainty. Some criticisms, fair or not, stuck to Miller like glue. Miller became an easy target, not only for his colleagues, but also Mayor Bloomberg - who used his wealth and influence to fund opposition research against his prospective opponents, which he then fed to the tabloids.
Once viewed as the next John Lindsay, Miller limped to a last place finish in the 2005 Democratic Primary. Miller’s backroom dealings in the Speaker’s race, which brought him the support of many Black and Latino council members, were ineffective in the Mayoral primary, where he failed to gain traction with the city’s working class voters. He never ran for office again.
"Quinn understood better than I did that a lot of the ballgame revolved around the Democratic county leaders." (WNYC)
Before their high-profile matchup in the 2013 Democratic Primary, Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio clashed for the first time in the oft-forgotten 2005 Speaker’s race. The dynamic between the two was notably inverse of how the Mayoral primary fared eight years later.
De Blasio, the popular labor-aligned councilman from Park Slope, was the presumptive frontrunner in a large field of seven, given he was the leading contender from the City’s biggest borough.
Editor’s Note: Other notable then-council members who ran - Melinda Katz, David Weprin and Leroy Comrie
Quinn, the lone entrant in the race from Manhattan, was well-acquainted with the insider politics necessary to win, having been a close ally and early supporter of Gifford Miller during both his campaign for speaker and in the mayoral primary.
A clear contrast emerged between Quinn, who favored a “top down” approach - convincing county leaders to line up their members behind her - as opposed to De Blasio, who preferred a “bottom up” strategy - winning support from individual members. Quinn coalesced much of Manhattan while De Blasio relied upon the outer borough members for support, foreshadowing a key dynamic of their eventual rematch.
Interestingly, in one of the closest speaker’s races in City history, De Blasio’s ties to Hillary Clinton, arguably hurt his chances:
“Several members grouse that De Blasio’s past as campaign manager in 2000 for Hillary—a pedigree that would be a boon in any other race—is making them worry that he’d spend more time fund-raising and otherwise helping Hillary prep for 2008, and less time on, well, them. ‘But it’s a safe bet that Speaker De Blasio would be spending a fair amount of time in Iowa and other states for Hillary. Bill’s not a local pol; he’s a political operative,’ says a member.” (NYMag)
But De Blasio’s gambit to focus on members rather than county organizations, ultimately cost him the position.
Quinn's first building block was early backing of now-disgraced Brooklyn Boss Vito Lopez, a long-time ally that proved integral in steering county loyalists toward Quinn. But in order to win, Quinn needed the backing of The Bronx and Queens organizations, whose council delegations were most in lock-step with their county leaders.
While the influential Queens Chair Tom Manton was dying of cancer, he was determined that Quinn would be his “last hurrah.” Quinn had already ingratiated herself with Manton’s handpicked successor, Joe Crowley, by hosting a fundraiser for him prior to a series of meetings with the county leaders.
While De Blasio heavily courted Jose Rivera, the Bronx county leader, the durable alliance between the Bronx and Queens held firm despite the appeals of the Park Slope councilman. Without such an accord, De Blasio could have potentially peeled off the Bronx delegation, which likely would have been the tipping point to his victory. Yet, because of Manton’s demand for Quinn, his fate was sealed. In a meeting with both Manton and Rivera, the three parties reached a deal that delivered the speakership to Quinn. To the party bosses, Quinn seemed less threatening than De Blasio, and therefore a more comfortable choice.
For their help, Quinn delivered the county organizations with desired committee chairmanships and lulus, “in lieu of expenses”, to their favored legislators.
The county leaders were rewarded handsomely. Manton’s top members, Katz and Weprin, kept their leadership positions on Land-Use and Finance. Lopez’s close ally, Erik Martin Dilan, was picked by Quinn to lead the Housing and Buildings Committee. De Blasio, despite being Quinn’s chief rival in the race, was appointed to be the assistant majority leader.
Yet some council members who did not support Quinn, like Tish James, who instead backed fellow-Brooklynite De Blasio, did not receive either a chairmanship or a lulu.
Such a harsh reality reflects the transactional nature of the speaker’s race. Every cycle, some members choose to run for speaker knowing fully they lack a viable path to win, but solely as a means to trade their candidacy for a desired committee chair appointment. The same can oftentimes be said for those who back a particular candidate to appease a boss, hoping to secure a chair position or a generous lulu in the process. That is how the game is played.
Quinn, whose tenure as council speaker was marred by her support for a controversial Bloomberg backed term-limits extension, was dogged throughout the Democratic primary for her close working relationship with the Republican Mayor, finishing a distant third behind Comptroller Bill Thompson and De Blasio, who eclipsed forty percent, avoiding a runoff election entirely.
Like Vallone and Miller before her, Quinn, ever adept at brokering with the bosses, struggled mightily once her fate rested in the hands of the voters, rather than in a backroom deal.
While Vallone, Miller and Quinn did curry favor with the outer borough county leaders who claimed to speak for their Black and Hispanic constituencies, those voters ultimately sank all three campaigns, repudiating the judgement of the bosses.
In part, De Blasio owes his triumph in 2013 to losing the speaker’s race in 2005, as he not only avoided the debilitating fights that often characterize the position, but successfully ascended to the Public Advocate’s office in the interim. As Public Advocate, De Blasio, insulated of any real responsibility, was given a citywide mantle to criticize the bruised Quinn, who was forced to make difficult executive decisions on a daily basis. Such a dynamic underscores the perils posed by the speaker role to any future electoral ambitions.
After assuming office with what many pundits declared a mandate, De Blasio was determined to handpick his Council Speaker, something no Mayor had done since Ed Koch backed Paul Vallone Sr. in 1986, a move meant to streamline his progressive agenda.
De Blasio, who had won all five boroughs and (though he didn’t know it at the time) was at the zenith of his political capital, assumed significant risk by inserting himself into the speaker’s race, as if his ploy failed, it would be an early blow to his reputation.
Once more, the optics of the role, which had previously only been held by whites, were under intense scrutiny, especially given that citywide leadership: De Blasio and new-Comptroller Scott Stringer - were also both white men.
Melissa Mark-Viverito, a Puerto Rican native representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, quickly became De-Blasio’s choice, which soon led to her frontrunner status.
A co-founder of the council’s progressive caucus, Mark-Viverito was the first council member to endorse De Blasio’s longshot Mayoral bid, while also being a longtime favorite of the influential healthcare workers union, 1199 SIEU, that was critical to De Blasio’s victory.
As the political winds crested behind De Blasio and re-energized the City’s progressives, Mark-Viverito, a frequent critic of Bloomberg, was well-positioned to reap the rewards of her loyalty and emerge as one of the city’s Latino standard bearers.
But Mark-Viverito, despite her powerful allies, was no shoe-in. After being assailed by some as a gentrifier in her home district, she submitted a paltry showing as a two-term incumbent, winning her primary with only thirty-five percent of the vote. Given her reputation as a progressive, many politicos saw her candidacy as vulnerable to the moderate preferences of the city’s outer borough power brokers.
Her chief rival, Manhattan centrist Daniel Garodnick, had the full backing of “the city’s corporate and real-estate classes, accustomed to a place of influence under previous administrations,” in addition to Bronx Democratic Chair Carl Heastie and the infamous Joe Crowley, who doubled as a high-ranking congressman and Queens County Boss.
Never before had a council speaker won without the Bronx or Queens.
Nevertheless, Mark-Viverito, with the help of De Blasio and Frank Seddio, the Chair of the Brooklyn Democratic Party, froze out the Queens and Bronx bosses in favor of assembling her own unique coalition, which centered progressive ideology rather than county loyalty:
“Ms. Mark-Viverito drew on her Vieques organizing experience to win. She knitted together a patchwork of allies: the labor-backed Working Families Party, the new incarnation of Acorn known as New York Communities for Change and a couple of prominent consulting and lobbying firms.” (Observer)
Mark-Viverito, one of the first speaker candidates to frequently tout their ideology throughout the campaign, saw her progressive bona fides pay off.
For the first time, an ideological bloc of council members emerged. Un-tied to their local county organizations, they were determined to elect a speaker who shared their values. The bloc, which doubled in size after the 2013 election (totaling more than twenty), ultimately decided to back Mark-Viverito, cementing her victory, as she became the first person of color to become council speaker.
In a contest that pitted labor unions and progressive organizations against the city’s moneyed interests, Mark-Viverito prevailed, stymying the Queens and Bronx county organizations for the first time ever.
Editor’s Note: In a bizarre episode that Joe Crowley compared to George Bush’s premature “Mission Accomplished” declaration during the Iraq War, Mark-Viverito preemptively announced she had secured the votes necessary to become Speaker weeks before official vote. This tactic nearly proved disastrous, as Mark-Viverito was bombarded with a rash of negative stories, which threatened to put her voting bloc in jeopardy. Unlike Samuel Horowitz in 1986, there would be no “Dryfoos Betrayal”, as despite the negative press avalanche, Mark-Viverito kept her voting bloc intact.
Unlike past council speakers, Mark-Viverito did not run for Mayor - but her electoral prospects succumbed to a similar fate. In both the 2019 Public Advocate Special Election and the Democratic Primary for the NY-15 open congressional seat, Mark-Viverito failed to garner significant support, finishing third and sixth. The winners, rising stars Jumaane Williams and Ritchie Torres, had built their respective brands on an independence from the Mayor, a potent new dynamic that, despite Mark-Viverito’s progressive bona fides, hindered her effort.
After being embarrassed four years prior, Joe Crowley was determined to reassert his dominance as the city’s premier kingmaker. The county organizations in the Bronx and Queens, unaccustomed to being left out in the cold, remained confident in their ability to dictate the balance of power in the speaker’s race.
Crowley and De Blasio were destined for an epic rematch.
Julissa Ferraras-Copeland, Queens’ first Latina elected official, who infamously broke with the county organization to back Mark-Viverito’s speakership bid, was De Blasio’s preferred choice four years later. Ferraras-Copeland, who enjoyed a combative relationship with Crowley, was a favorite amongst progressives. She appeared destined to replicate Mark-Viverito’s coalition on her way to becoming speaker, foiling Crowley again.
However, in spite of the speakership at her fingertips, Ferraras-Copeland shockingly declined to seek re-election, opting to relocate to Maryland to spend more time with her husband and young son. This difficult, yet admirable decision, turned the race upside down.
Editor’s Note: De Blasio officiated Ferraras-Copeland’s wedding
De Blasio, now lacking a clear favorite, reassessed his options as a lame duck Mayor entering his second term. As his ego brimmed with national ambitions, the Mayor opted to play a much more deferential role to Crowley this time around, hoping to curry favor with the fourth ranking House Democrat to boost his future prospects. Crowley, through sheer luck, had drawn a winning hand.
Concerns about racial equity again brimmed towards the surface. While five of the eight candidates (all men) were either Black or Hispanic, two of the three leading contenders were white: Corey Johnson of Chelsea and Mark Levine of Northern Manhattan. The third, Robert Cornegy of Central Brooklyn, gained the early support of Brooklyn Boss Frank Seddio and emerged as the favorite amongst the body’s African American members.
Despite calls for the council to choose a Black speaker, advisers to Cornegy lamented to The New York Times that prominent Black leaders, like Congressman Hakeem Jeffries and Greg Meeks, declined to publicly come out in favor of Cornegy, concerning with the optics of backing a losing candidate. This catch-22 - an unwillingness to support a candidate with fringe viability even when one’s support would significantly boost said candidate’s viability - ultimately doomed Cornegy’s effort to coalesce support amongst the council’s BLAC members (Black Latino Asian Caucus).
While Mark-Viverito served as an extension of the De Blasio administration, some members had soured on the Mayor and craved a greater degree of independence from the next speaker. Johnson, who had once labeled himself the “anti-De Blasio,” routinely framed himself as the perfect counterbalance. This dynamic hurt Levine, whose soft-spoken, friendly nature was seen by several members as detrimental to holding De Blasio accountable.
Johnson enlisted Metropolitan Public Strategies, a lobbying and consulting firm run by Neal Kwatra, to run his speaker campaign. Together, they raised tens of thousands of dollars, with Johnson “giving more than $75,000 to 25 of his current and probable future colleagues.”
His dogged campaigning style, despite alienating members, won over the necessary fringe supporters:
“Corey won it though by sheer force of personality. He was a constant presence in members’ districts, campaigning for them, raising money for them, deploying his own supporters to volunteer on their behalf.” (Politico)
The last test was Crowley, whose support would make or break Johnson’s speakership bid. Luckily for Johnson, who branded himself a “progressive” but was routinely outflanked to the left, his politics were amenable to the county organizations. In a blow to the city’s progressives, Crowley and Bronx Chair Marcos Crespo, coalesced their machines behind Johnson, which helped deliver him crucial votes in both the Bronx and Queens, putting him over the necessary threshold.
Without a formidable power broker in his corner, nor the means to rally the council’s Black and Latino members to buck the might of the county organizations, as Mark-Viverito had done four years earlier, Johnson’s rivals were destined for defeat.
The Council’s Progressive Caucus saw some members leave, like Daniel Dromm and Ritchie Torres, who were both rewarded with plum committee chair assignments for supporting Johnson. Bronx county loyalists, like Rafael Salamanca and Fernando Cabrera were also picked for coveted chairmanship positions.
Many progressives who opposed Johnson, like Jumaane Williams and Brad Lander, either lost their posts or were snubbed entirely. As a whole, the Progressive Caucus lost many key committee assignments, with a distinct contrast emerging between Johnson and his predecessor:
“Of the 18 Democrats joining Mr. Johnson on the powerful budget negotiating team, only six are caucus members; under Ms. Mark-Viverito, three-quarters of the team were caucus members.” (The New York Times)
Once considered a Mayoral frontrunner, Johnson did not escape the speakership unscathed.
A bruising 2020 budget negotiation - where Johnson, at the behest of Majority Leader Laurie Cumbo and other moderate Democrats, resisted calls from progressives to divest billions from the NYPD budget into social services - led to his exit from the Mayor’s race, citing a decline in his mental health.
Even when Johnson launched a late bid for City Comptroller, his tension with the city’s progressives throughout his tenure as council speaker came back to haunt him.
In the Comptroller primary, progressives swiftly consolidated behind Brad Lander, who won the enthusiastic backing of The New York Times and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the architect of Crowley’s downfall. Johnson, despite support from organized labor and much of the political establishment, fell short.
Lander and Jumaane Williams, both sidelined from their desired committees four years prior, are now set to occupy two-thirds of the citywide offices.
Reflecting thirty-five years worth of history, it is increasingly clear that a strong speaker candidate, beholden to a narrow set of council members and power brokers, does not always make for a successful citywide candidate, and vice versa. The qualities necessary to broker backroom deals are far different than those needed to win over a five borough constituency that spans race, ethnicity, class, ideology, gender, geography, occupation and age.
If history is any indication, 2021 could be the most fascinating speaker’s race yet.
Much has changed over the last four years.
Joe Crowley is now vanquished, leaving behind the skeleton of a once mighty organization. Queens County, the kingmaker for nearly every speaker’s race, is no longer the high-powered engine - capable of almost single handedly willing a bid forward - it once was.
The Bronx County Organization, detached from Crowley’s alliance, is now guided by the steady hand of Jamaal Bailey. The party has enjoyed a progressive revival, culminating in the impressive victories of Amanda Farías, Althea Stevens, Marjorie Velázquez and Pierina Sánchez - the entirety of the party’s city council slate.
As the influence of some county organizations has waned, ideological alliances have filled the void, aided by nonprofit left organizations like the Working Families Party, Make the Road Action, New York Communities for Change and Citizens Action.
The rise of DSA and revival of socialism cannot be understated either. While the DSA caucus is only officially numbered at two - Alexa Avilés and Tiffany Cabán - many incoming members of the ever-growing Progressive Caucus are either DSA members themselves or have politics and ideals that align with the movement’s principles. Black Panther Charles Barron and Abolitionist Kristin Richardson Jordan round out this group nicely.
For the first time ever, the council will be majority women, while the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus is set to be the largest ever, only heightening the sense that a woman of color, like Carlina Rivera, Diana Ayala, or Adrienne Adams, should become the new speaker.
The Republican caucus, while numbering only five, count conservative Democrats like Kalman Yeger and Robert Holden as allies. In what looks to be a close race, the Republicans, led by Minority leader Joe Borelli, have a real hand to play - with the potential to ally themselves behind a candidate, party leader, or even the incoming Mayor to potentially sway the race.
Eric Adams, who lacks the mandate shared by De Blasio and Koch, is nevertheless malcontent to remain on the sidelines. Adams’ allies, which include the city’s corporate class and large labor unions, have repeatedly taken aim at progressive Carlina Rivera, the favorite of Representative Nydia Velázquez.
Velázquez, who called out Adams in a closed door meeting with New York City’s congressional delegation for incessantly targeting Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is set to be a central figure in this year’s race.
The tension between Adams, a key ally of embattled Brooklyn Chair Rodneyse Bichotte, and Velázquez, who has been battling Brooklyn’s bosses since Adams was a police officer, represents the ideological schism piercing through their borough. While Rivera’s candidacy has endured its ups and downs, her enduring support from Velázquez, who backed ten new council winners this June, ensures she has a strong chance.
It is possible that Adams, who prevailed with a margin fewer than 7,000 votes, might be overplaying his hand this early, a move that could backfire, which would be an unprecedented failure for an incoming Mayor.
Progressives, whose gains in the council were overshadowed by Adams’ triumph in the primary, would be wise to rally behind Rivera, who would serve as the necessary check on an Adams administration.
More moderate council members, like Justin Brannan, Francisco Moya, Diana Ayala, Adrienne Adams, and Farah Louis, all of whom supported Adams in the primary, hope he gets involved on their behalf.
To win, Moya would need a coalition headlined by Adams and many of the city’s large labor unions, in the mold of the De Blasio-1199 coalition that powered Mark-Viverito to victory. Given the other formidable candidates, I doubt Moya can win this race without such a clear intervention.
The same could be said for Adrienne Adams, as candidates deep in the outer-boroughs are typically at a disadvantage. While Congressman Gregory Meeks is in her corner, the Queens County Boss, who backed Ray McGuire for Mayor, cannot move votes the way Velázquez or Adrianno Espaillat can.
Editor’s Note: Keep your eyes on Rep. Grace Meng, who is currently uncommitted. Meng backed Sandra Ung, Linda Lee, and Lynn Shulman - all of whom won
As controversy habitually ensnares the Brooklyn Democratic Party, and their chair Rodneyse Bichotte, the odds Farah Louis, a longshot candidate and close ally to both, becomes speaker looks increasingly remote.
Brannan, long considered near the top of the pack, has rattled off momentum following his narrow victory over right-wing conspiracy theorist Brian Fox in his purple Bay-Ridge / Bensonhurst based district. While betting sites like PredictIt tip him as the favorite, I am skeptical of any coronation, given that Brannan, a white man from Brooklyn, is an identity and geographic mismatch for this council. Given the body’s historic diversity, a woman, let alone a woman of color, is undoubtedly the preference of many.
Since Brannan will be up for re-election in two years, I doubt Republican members would ally themselves with him, considering they so bitterly attempted to knock him off just a few weeks ago. Without Adams, Brannan could be left without a formidable power broker in his corner, a time-tested rule spanning the past five speaker races.
To win, one must have a formidable power broker on their side.
Such a notion foreshadows a bleak outcome for the other Manhattan contenders, Keith Powers and Gale Brewer. While Brewer’s experience, she previously served twelve years already on the council, is enticing, she is a late entrant to the race and might struggle to gain traction. Powers, a former lobbyist, does not seem to have the political winds at his back, and, I doubt we have a council speaker from the Upper East Side for a long time. However, Powers could eventually trade his support to friend Justin Brannan, which is a scenario worth watching for.
This brings us to a dark-horse candidate, Diana Ayala. Ayala, a Puerto Rican native and close ally of Dominican representative Adriano Espaillat, represents East Harlem and the South Bronx. Espaillat is one of a select few politicians in the city capable of actually moving votes and brokering deals behind the scenes.
Both Espaillat and Ayala supported Adams’ Mayoral campaign (after leaving Scott Stringer) and have curried favor with many incoming council members in preparation for this move.
As ideological polarization besieges City politics, Ayala looks to be a potential compromise candidate. If Adams declines to directly back a candidate, but puts his thumb on the scale just enough to ensure Rivera lacks the necessary votes, Ayala could stand to benefit.
Ayala, who represents two boroughs, is amenable to the Mayor, has the powerful backing of Espaillat, and reflects the council’s growing diversity as a Hispanic woman.
It would be wise not to count her out.
I will be back in ONE week to give a more detailed preview of this year’s Speaker’s Race, including an in-depth breakdown of how EVERY council member will align. Sign up below to have my next piece delivered right to your inbox.
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