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Bill de Blasio's Rubber Stamp?

The inside story of how Melissa Mark-Viverito came to run the New York City Council

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Last month, in a victory as unlikely as Mayor Bill de Blasio’s, an ally of his from East Harlem became the first Latino City Council speaker. Though Melissa Mark-Viverito is an established and well-connected councilmember, she is also especially progressive and won her position after defying the county-dominated system that had decided past speakerships. She also had some help from above, according to The New York Times, which referred to de Blasio's “successfully installing her” and reported that “de Blasio and his allies on the left appeared on Wednesday to have orchestrated the choice.” The impression left by the article as well as other media coverage is that de Blasio planted Mark-Viverito to be a rubber stamp for his populist agenda.

This impression has raised eyebrows from critics who worry that the Council will not serve as an effective check—which, ironically, was a chief concern of de Blasio’s when he was a councilmember and the speaker, Christine Quinn, deferred to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s wish to temporarily banish term limits for the 2009 elections. “I think [de Blasio’s people] want to be in control of the Council and get things done quickly,” says one councilmember who asked for anonymity to speak candidly about a colleague, “and I don’t think they will get resistance.” Just last month, de Blasio hired as his chief Council negotiator a political operative who had consulted on Mark-Viverito’s speakership bid. (The speaker’s office did not make her available. The mayor’s office referred to past remarks in which de Blasio admitted to playing a role in the speakership race, but said councilmembers made the call.)

De Blasio did play a crucial role in Mark-Viverito’s ascension, calling councilmembers and urging them to back her. But it wasn’t only the mayor who gave Mark-Viverito the gavel. Interviews with more than a dozen operatives, activists, and councilmembers involved in the process reveal how a broad swath of New York’s labor-dominated left installed one of its own into the second-most important position in New York City government. Quite apart from de Blasio, the backing of outside allies “got her on third base,” says one participant. (Several sources declined to comment on the record, citing concerns that they could not speak for their own groups.)

It all starts with the Working Families Party. Founded in 1998 by unions and community organizations (including ACORN), the WFP is a progressive third party that thrives on New York’s “fusion” voting system, in which more than one party can endorse the same candidate, each being credited with the votes punched on its own party line. The WFP has affiliates in seven other states, and will likely have more soon.

The WFP began recruiting Council candidates back in 2007 in the hopes of eventually amassing a progressive bloc. By the beginning of last year, the WFP had convened a regular meeting featuring its own officials, several unions (the Hotel Trades Council, the 32BJ Service Employees International Union affiliate, and the AFL-CIO’s local umbrella group, the Central Labor Council), the Latino advocacy organization Make The Road Action Fund, and even Rep. Jerrold Nadler’s chief-of-staff. (They insisted they followed campaign-finance laws regarding coordination.) Brad Lander, the councilmember from de Blasio’s old Park Slope district whom the Times recently profiled as the “shadow speaker,” played a significant role. “It only happened because there was two years or six years of sitting at a table, working, week after week, deliberatively developing a strategy, building a level of trust that is not a normal political way of operating,” says another participant.  

An internal memo from January 2013 drew up various “speaker scenarios,” including one in which an alliance with Brooklyn and “Independents” led to Mark-Viverito’s winning the race—which is exactly what happened. Even de Blasio’s last-minute kingmaking was not the deus ex machina that press reports portrayed: The WFP employee who interviewed prospective candidates all the way back in 2007 was Emma Wolfe, now de Blasio’s influential director of intergovernmental affairs.

“What happened in New York City was no mistake—it was built deliberately over years by a partnership of progressive community, labor, and electeds, fueled by a bold vision and patient, grassroots work,” argues WFP state director Bill Lipton. “It’s a great model for the left.”

But that model provides plenty to discomfit both sides of the ideological spectrum. Fred Siegel, a historian at the conservative Manhattan Institute, argues that it’s evidence that “the left-liberal wing of the Democratic Party is the coming power.” He adds, “The public sector unions are the beating heart of the party electorally. I think this is part of something happening nationally.” Then again, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie recently said of de Blasio and Senator Elizabeth Warren, “I don’t think they are affecting the rest of the country all that much.” While Mark-Viverito's ascendancy is an encouraging story for liberals, it also sows doubt as to how scalable this “model” is.

In the 2009 elections, although the term-limits move eliminated dozens of open seats, some WFP-backed challengers were successful. Danny Dromm and Jimmy Van Bramer became the first openly gay councilmembers from outside Manhattan; Debi Rose became the first black councilmember from Staten Island. In March 2010, they and nine others, led by Lander and Mark-Viverito, formed the Progressive Caucus.

The so-called 2013 Project was hatched at a WFP retreat in Ellenville, New York, in the summer of 2011. Typically, the speaker is chosen through negotiations among the Democratic Party chairmen of Queens, Brooklyn, and the Bronx, who whip their councilmembers into blocs. (Staten Island and Manhattan’s blocs are smaller. As for Republicans, presently there are three among the 51 councilmembers.) The idea was to elect more progressives and form the resultant bloc into, effectively, a sixth county. The goal was to influence the speakership, partly in anticipation of Quinn’s becoming mayor (she was the frontrunner for all but the final month of the Democratic primary), and to reform the rules to democratize the Council and dilute the speaker’s power. They strategized, and also encouraged sympathetic councilmembers to meet among themselves. Certain councilmembers were given races to “adopt”; the newly elected Antonio Reynoso’s campaign referred to Van Bramer as Padrino. “We were less interested in who the speaker was than having a seat at the table,” says Josh Gold, the political director of the Hotel Trades Council. “The idea from the beginning was to be part of the conversation at the end.”

Council progressives and their outside allies gained momentum in the spring of 2013 when, after years of trying and failing, they forced Quinn to negotiate a paid sick days bill. It was an experience Dromm compares to coming out of the closet. After the September 10 primaries, the Council makeup (and the next mayor) became clear, and, as Van Bramer puts it, “the three most intense months of my life” commenced. Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn rebuffed offers to negotiate.

In mid-November, 20 current and future councilmembers, including Mark-Viverito, met at the Bronx Zoo, where Lander asked them to commit to support whichever process the bloc aligned behind—whether to endorse a speaker candidate, and, if so, whom. They and two additional councilmembers did. Alison Hirsh, of the SEIU affiliate, and Sarah Johnson, the WFP’s city elections director, then conducted interviews with each councilmember in the bloc and determined that—although some preferred Manhattan councilmember Dan Garodnick, who became Mark-Viverito’s prime rival, and some cared more about their own committee chairmanships—the majority preferred Mark-Viverito. 

But 22 does not a Council majority make. Nor was the count set in stone—for example, one Queens member subsequently backed out. Meanwhile, the party chairmen coalesced around Garodnick. So the bloc set about accumulating more members. Some came independently of de Blasio, such as Brooklyn’s Inez Barron. Others, such as Queens Republican Eric Ulrich, reportedly came after de Blasio called them. “When the mayor started making phone calls to councilmembers personally,” remarks Garodnick, “we all knew that would make things much more difficult.”

Finally, as votes trickled toward Mark-Viverito, de Blasio reportedly convinced Brooklyn chairman Frank Seddio, who had been backing Garodnick, to throw his weight behind Mark-Viverito. All told, 30 councilmembers, not including Mark-Viverito, appeared in a December 18 press release declaring victory. The final vote, in January, was unanimous.

This could go sour. Conservatives have used the WFP to tar de Blasio as more left-wing than he would probably like, with a National Review article referring to “Bill de Blasio’s Other Party.” (A federal investigation into the relationship between the WFP and its for-profit arm shuttered in 2010 without indictments.) De Blasio’s closeness to Mark-Viverito and other Council members could create the appearance—and the reality—of an overly compliant speaker. “It’s unusual,” says Fred Siegel. “I’ve never seen a situation where the Council didn’t to some degree act as a check.”

Even with ostensible Council control, the progressives’ agenda is ambitious. De Blasio’s preliminary budget included a tax on the wealthiest to pay for pre-kindergarten that may have already run aground in Albany. It did not fully address new contracts for unions, nor the unions’ demands for retroactive raises. Already the Council has worked on a paid sick day law that would exceed the one passed last year, and that’s just one of the 13 Bold Progressive Ideas that constitutes the Progressive Caucus’s platform.

The WFP can claim success this year, whether it is de Blasio (whom it did not support in the primary but whom many of its members backed), the ascension of its stalwart Letitia James to Public Advocate, or Mark-Viverito. At the state level, the WFP’s Progressive Pipeline Project saw the party vet over 1000 candidates and win 24 of the 38 races they were involved in.

But what are the national implications? New York is a reliably blue state. And New York City—labor-heavy, liberal, dense—was uniquely amenable to the 2013 Project’s “patient, grassroots” strategy. “That is precisely the challenge we face,” acknowledges WFP executive director Dan Cantor. “Can we elect populist-progressives to state senates and state assemblies across the country, and then governors, and up the food chain?” They made it here. But it is an open question whether they can make it anywhere else.

Correction: An earlier version listed Make The Road New York when it should have listed Make The Road Action Fund.