Council Speaker Candidates Vie for Progressive Label

NEW YORK -

The race is on to determine the next City Council Speaker, and at least seven council members are vying to fill the second-most-powerful position in the city, one that could provide key support — and potentially fierce opposition — to incoming Mayor Bill de Blasio.

It is a post that has just 51 constituents: the other council members. They are expected to officially vote on the post in early January, after the new council is sworn in, though backroom deals often settle the matter before then.

But while the public has no say in the process to replace outgoing speaker Christine Quinn, the leading candidates have engaged in several open debates reminiscent of the mayoral forums that dominated that campaign last spring. The most high-profile one so far will be held Wednesday night in Manhattan.

The candidates, all Democrats, have similar left-leaning views and have been largely fighting over the progressive mantle, stressing their close ties to de Blasio, whose unabashedly liberal platform delivered him a record-setting landslide earlier this month. A sign of the leftward tilt in the council’s Progressive Caucus, which will nearly double in size from 11 to 20 when the new members are seated.

Melissa Mark-Viverito, a co-chair of that caucus from East Harlem, is favored by the city’s powerful unions and is currently considered the frontrunner.

“Now is the progressive moment in time,” she announced at a Brooklyn forum Tuesday night. “I am the progressive candidate that has an inclusive vision that has demonstrated effective leadership in the past.”

The other candidates are pushing for a secret ballot, which they believe will allow other councilmen to vote against Mark-Viverito without upsetting the unions. “1199 (a healthcare workers’ union) would chop their heads off,” one source told the Daily News.

Council member Jumaane Williams from Brooklyn has staked his candidacy on his high-profile opposition to the NYPD’s stop-question-and-frisk policy, which allows police to stop people acting suspiciously. The tactic drives down crime but its critics say that police use it to unfairly target minorities.

“I think we’ve made a right turn, which is actually left, where we’re going to a progressive city,” Williams said at a Tuesday night speaker’s forum. “The entire country is looking at us and we have the weight of responsibility on us and I want to make sure we understand that if we fail this time, it’s going to be generations before we get another shot.”

Other candidates in the running include Dan Garodnick and Inez Dickens of Manhattan and James Vacca and Anabel Palma of the Bronx. Seen as the moderate in the race is Mark Weprin, a secular Jew from a powerful Queens political family whose mother was raised in Cuba, giving him a leg up among the city’s sizeable Hispanic population.

Mark-Viverito and Dickens were considered to have duked out their competition via the mayoral race, with the former getting the job if de Blasio wins and Dickens emerging as frontrunner if Quinn were the victor. De Blasio has no formal role in the selection process but is believed to favor Mark-Viverito, the first council member to back his then-underdog mayoral campaign. Dickens, a close ally of Quinn, was believed to have the upper hand until the speaker’s mayoral campaign imploded.

The dark horse in the race is the last minute entrance of Williams as a speaker candidate. Although he is a close ally of Councilman Brad Lander, who, together with Mark-Viverito, leads the Progressive Caucus, his more conservative positions on social and moral issues may alienate the liberals on the legislature.

“I don’t think any of that matters for the job that I’m trying to get,” Williams told reporters. “The only thing I can tell you is to look at the issues that have come before the city council. … Another time I’m happy to discuss it. My beliefs aren’t private, they’ve never been.”

There will only be three Republicans, one less than last term, on the new council when it convenes in January. It is expected to be largely supportive of de Blasio’s agenda.

Under Quinn, who aggressively used the powers of the speakership to favor council members who supported her and sometimes punish those who didn’t, the liberal council had a topsy-turvy relationship with Republican-turned-independent Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But Quinn largely supported his signature initiatives — including his push to overturn term limits in 2009 in order to run again — and her links to Bloomberg were a major factor in the downfall of her mayoral campaign this year.

With reporting by The Associated Press.