So much for the progressive commitment to transparency in government. If nothing else, the bargaining to determine a successor to departing city council speaker Christine Quinn demonstrates that the backroom backslap remains a Big Apple mainstay. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. Even as an ideal, total openness in government is a recipe for paralysis, and council-level politicking in New York is about as far from the ideal as can be, east of Chicago—or south of Albany.
The candidate with the strongest claim to the speakership is Melissa Mark-Viverito, a term-limited, hard-left bomb thrower from East Harlem. She specifically names 30 of the body’s 51 members as supporters, which would seem to seal the deal. Even so, the ascension probably won’t be settled before January 8, when the newly elected council meets to organize itself.
But how will it be settled? Without any backroom dealing on his part, says mayor-elect Bill de Blasio—which, of course, means with lots of it. No disrespect to the incoming mayor, but he is a politician, and that’s what politicians do. This is why the new assembly will resemble your grandfather’s city council, its Progressive Caucus pledges to the contrary.
Reportedly, de Blasio slapped Brooklyn Democratic Party chairman Frank Seddio on the back hard enough to cause the boss to cough up enough constituent councilmembers to put Mark-Viverito over the top. This involved separating Seddio from his fellow county leaders—most notably, Queens County chairman Joe Crowley. If the deal holds, the sun will be shining on Kings County in the New Year, when they begin to divvy up the swag. Or when the new order begins practicing “progressive” democracy—probably best defined, to paraphrase the nineteenth-century essayist Ambrose Bierce, as four unions and a hedge-fund guy voting on whom to mug.
The unions have been away from the municipal buffet table for two painfully long decades, and they are beyond impatient. As de Blasio himself puckishly put it when asked about bringing Republicans into the new administration: “Let’s not get crazy about this diversity idea.” No, indeed, let’s not. And let’s not get sanctimonious about patronage, either. Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg won their elections and, for better or for worse, they got to populate their administrations. In most instances, it worked out for the better—much better—and who can say, at this point, that de Blasio won’t be equally successful?
True, the early signs aren’t encouraging. The new administration’s obligations to the massive Service Employees International Union—one of the most overtly political, openly transactional unions in recent New York memory—are especially worrisome. SEIU was an early, energetic, big-bucks de Blasio campaign backer. It was no accident that all four people standing at the front of the room when de Blasio introduced his core management team early in December—including the mayor-elect himself—have personally cashed SEIU checks over the past decade or so.
De Blasio was paid as an SEIU consultant while he ran for the New York City Council in 2001. His soon-to-be first deputy mayor, Anthony Shorris, a ubiquitous career bureaucrat, left the Bloomberg administration in a dispute over his own SEIU consultancy contract. Emma Wolfe, de Blasio’s political gatekeeper, is a former SEIU organizer, and Dominic Williams, Shorris’s chief of staff, is a one-time SEIU operative. So Team de Blasio will obviously view things through SEIU-tinted glasses.
To be fair, the new mayor won’t be the first chief executive to be so compromised. Back in the 1990s, former governor George Pataki (and the Republican-controlled state senate) more or less turned New York’s health-care policy over to SEIU’s Dennis Rivera and Jennifer Cunningham, in return for campaign considerations.
But Pataki is history, and de Blasio is the man of the hour. And for all of its clout, SEIU probably only ranks as first among equals in the new administration’s union hierarchy. The United Federation of Teachers, the Communications Workers of America, and a maze of unions that represent mostly municipal employees will make claims on de Blasio and Mark-Viverito. The unions delivered for their candidates, after all; now comes reciprocity time.
Keeping track of it all will be a challenge. The unions, to say nothing of de Blasio himself, masterfully cloak self-interest in soaring rhetoric. But when the details begin to emerge, ask yourself, “Cui bono?” (Who benefits?). You can bet it will be the unions. And thus will the de Blasio record be a-building.