Handicapping the Next Speaker

Now that the primary election is over and the composition of the council-elect is fairly well established, give or take a possibly competitive inter-partisan election here and there, we can start trying to place odds on the next speaker.

Most of the races, after all, were foregone conclusions.  Perhaps six or eight of the primaries were competitive.  Only one incumbent lost.  Most of the drama of the last few months has been window dressing.  It is when we begin weighing the various blocs that will determine the boss of the whole body that things become interesting.

It is a little like a papal conclave: 51 equal members go in, and one of them emerges, transfigured through a mysterious process we hear little to nothing about.  It is an important moment, because the council speaker has, de facto, more power than the other 50 members combined.  The speaker sets the agenda, distributes money, makes committee assignments and decides which bills come to the floor.  Being an individual council member gives you a certain amount of influence in your home district, but being speaker makes you a player in city politics.

The election of the speaker isn’t really made just by the members of the council, however.  It is well known that the different borough delegations have varying degrees of freedom regarding their votes.  The Queens delegation, for instance, typically votes as a bloc according to the dictates of the county delegation, and the Bronx delegation has traditionally voted together as well.  The collapse of the Lopez machine in Kings County will likely result in a fragmentation of discipline among the Brooklyn delegation, and the Manhattan members have usually been free to vote their conscience.

Nevertheless, other factors come into play as well.  Different boroughs have traditionally been awarded specific slices of the political pie.  The following schema represents the historical facts, and I am not swearing that the future will reflect the past.  But this, according to elected officials who have spoken off the record, is how it has worked:

Manhattan gets the speakership.

Brooklyn gets judges.

Queens gets key appointments to central staff and major committee assignments.

The Bronx gets the majority leader.

And Staten Island?  Well, Staten Island gets to choose the minority leader.

The common view is that the next speaker will likely not be a white man.  I would agree with that perspective assuming that Daniel Squadron defeats Tish James in the PA runoff, because having the mayor of the city and his three successors be white men would be terrible “optics” as the expression goes.  However, the race question is very tricky when it comes to the city council.

Four years ago the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus of the council comprised for the first time an absolute majority of the body.  Emboldened by this ascendency, Charles Barron challenged Christine Quinn for the speakership, exhorting his comrades-in-color to seize the moment and elect one of their own (himself) speaker of the council.  Barron was punished for this rebellion, losing his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee, and none of his colleagues broke ranks.

The problem with electing a minority speaker is that there is a deep schism within the BLA Caucus between the black and Latino members.  They have drawn-out internecine battles over every internal appointment to the leadership of their own caucus, so the idea that they would reach a unified consensus on choosing one of their own members to lead the entire council is preposterous.

Besides, who is the minority candidate that would be acceptable, not just among the BLA members, but also to the white members of the council?  Remember that white representation will actually increase next year, with the replacement of Robert Jackson by Mark Levine in CD 7.  Inez Dickens’ candidacy is wrecked on the shoals of her support for Chris Quinn.  Jumaane Williams’ name has been put forth, but he is probably too liberal for the council's moderates to accept, and he faces opposition within his own delegation from Darlene Mealy and the representatives of the traditional Brooklyn machine.

Melissa Mark-Viverito wants the job, but is also too far to the left, and is not trusted by the black contingent of the BLA caucus.  Plus she is not very likable.  Nothing is impossible, of course, but it would not be surprising at all if Dan Garodnick emerges as the candidate of compromise, assuming Tish James wins the PA race.

I envision something like this: Garodnick becomes speaker, satisfying the real estate interests who feel soothed having a Manhattanite from below 96th Street in that role.  Annabel Palma becomes majority leader in order to maintain Bronx Latino visibility in leadership.  Jumaane Williams is made chair of Public Safety as a sop to the Progressive Caucus.  In order to mollify Queens, Mark Weprin becomes Finance chair, taking over his brother’s position from four years ago, while Karen Koslowitz gets Land Use and Julissa Ferreras gets bumped up to Economic Development.  This calculus doesn’t favor Brooklyn, but realistically speaking, half of Brooklyn’s delegation will be freshmen, while only 1 out of Queens’ 13 council members will be new.

This is all pretty much rotisserie-league stuff, but the logic is there.  If Squadron wins, that would make for a different mix.  Let’s see what happens.