Last week, mayor-elect Bill de Blasio, the New York City Council’s Progressive Caucus, and the Working Families Party (WFP) pulled off what—for the moment at least—appears to be a stunning coup. This powerful new alliance secured public pledges of support from enough city legislators to make Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem the first Latina city council speaker in New York’s history. Mark-Viverito is a third-term councilmember from East Harlem and a longtime ally of de Blasio, whose support was crucial in elevating her above her rivals for the job. Assuming this new coalition holds, Mark-Viverito will be elected speaker on January 8.
Historically, the New York city council speaker has been selected by the five bosses of Gotham’s county-level Democratic organizations. These organizations, when functional, control the votes of their respective delegations. They maintain discipline in the manner of political machines everywhere—dispensing patronage positions, steering campaign contributions, and setting up primary challenges when elected officials go off the reservation. But county organizations in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Queens have been plagued by leadership problems and shaken by electoral losses to insurgent candidates run by the left-wing WFP. Built in the late 1990s as a coalition between ACORN and left-leaning labor unions such as the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and 1199 SEIU, the WFP is a mainstay on the New York State ballot; through fusion voting, the party cross-endorses many Democratic candidates. The WFP endorsed 34 of the incoming 51 councilmembers, including most of the candidates for speaker. Previously, the WFP’s electoral high-water mark in the city was 2009, when it succeeded in winning seven new seats on the council. This cohort, along with a few veterans such as Mark-Viverito, formed the now-ascendant Progressive Caucus.
From the beginning, the Progressive Caucus was organized as a reform movement in opposition both to outgoing speaker Christine Quinn’s centrist and domineering style and to the influence of the county Democratic organizations. The Caucus, which comprises the most committed and loyal WFP-backed candidates, entered the race for the speakership hoping to buck the county machines’ grip on the selection process. For the last few weeks, however, it looked as if the progressives lacked the political leverage to induce members to break their commitments to the county bosses. In a deft display of political maneuvering, de Blasio was able to convince Brooklyn boss Frank Seddio to defect and add his council delegation’s 16 votes to the 20 or so already committed to Mark-Viverito.
Mark-Viverito also enjoyed the full-throated support of the city’s labor unions, which sent the political director of 32BJ (the union representing 120,000 building-service workers) to negotiate with the county bosses on behalf of the Progressive Caucus. (Imagine for a moment the council’s four Republican members appointing a representative of the Real Estate Board of New York to serve as their negotiator in a meeting of elected officials.) With Mark-Viverito running the council, the unions and other WFP affiliates will not have to wait for an audience with the speaker—their political directors will have a direct line to the council floor.
De Blasio, too, stands to benefit politically from Mark-Viverito’s apparent victory. A far-left speaker will, by contrast, make him appear less radical. De Blasio knows that the council, though not an insignificant body, has limited authority. By giving the city’s progressives control of and access to it, he effectively insulates himself from criticism from the left. As speaker, a grateful Mark-Viverito will be well-positioned to run interference with the unions on behalf of her patron. She will surely try to mollify those radicals upset with the new mayor’s inevitable accommodations with the city’s real-estate and business interests. And when the speaker introduces pie-in-the-sky progressive legislation, de Blasio will cast himself as the reasonable centrist he knows he needs to be in order to win reelection in 2017.
In fact, don’t be surprised if, four years from now, de Blasio blames his first-term failures on the outgoing city council speaker. The billionaire Bloomberg often threw money at allies and enemies alike in hopes of shaping the city’s complicated political landscape to his liking. With pockets not nearly as deep, Mayor de Blasio will have to rely on his political wits. If last week’s unexpected developments prove anything, he’s got those to spare.