Culminating a dramatic showdown in City Hall Wednesday, Melissa Mark-Viverito was unanimously elected New York City Council speaker, giving Mayor Bill de Blasio a close ally at the top of city government who shares his fiercely liberal ideology.
After weeks of tense backroom negotiations and an unusual interjection from de Blasio into the race, all 51 councilmembers anticlimactically voted for the Puerto Rican-born Mark-Viverito, who becomes the first Hispanic person to hold the speaker’s job.
“While it was difficult at times, that only makes today’s show of unity even better,” Mark-Viverito said after the vote. “We will work together because that is what New Yorkers expect and that is what New Yorkers deserve.”
Highlighting the historic nature of her position, the new speaker at one point answered a Spanish-language reporter’s question in Spanish, refusing — despite being prodded — to translate it into English.
In the weeks prior to Wednesday’s vote, Mark-Viverito had made the rounds to various ethnic communities, assuring them that she understood their concerns. Several Jewish organizations who met her praised the selection.
“Councilwoman Mark-Viverito’s election as speaker is testament to her skills, her intelligence and her appreciation of the great diversity of humanity that makes up New York City,” Agudath Israel said in a statement, adding that they have worked with her in the past.”
“We appreciate that Ms. Mark-Viverito chose to visit our community coalition at the start of her outreach to the Jewish community, and has been working with us for months, to foster a bright future for the city and the Orthodox community,” said Josh Mehlman, chairman of the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition.
Backed by the Bronx and Queens delegations, Councilman Dan Garodnick had worked through the past few days trying to get councilmembers to support his speaker bid, only to abandon it as all 31 of Mark-Viverito’s supporters marched into City Hall, in a staged show of support ahead of the noontime vote.
Garodnick walked in moments before the City Council vote, striding through the crowded chamber to Mark-Viverito while mouthing “congratulations.”
“I will do my part to resolve any rifts this process may have caused among our colleagues and am here to take any steps necessary to help move forward together,” Garodnick said on the council floor.
The striking moment drew a raucous standing ovation from the rest of the council and was the culmination of a topsy-turvy race that placed one of the council’s most liberal members in the city government’s second-most-powerful office, a position that has the most power to speed up or obstruct the chief executive’s legislative agenda.
De Blasio applauded Mark-Viverito’s election.
“She is a tremendously intelligent, purposeful, good human being,” said de Blasio in a press conference after attending Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address in Albany. He applauded her commitment to fighting income inequality, which he had dubbed “The tale of two cities” and placed at the center of his mayoral campaign.
“She’s going to be a great partner in government,” de Blasio said.
De Blasio became the first mayor in more than 50 years to get publicly involved in the selection process for the post that is often seen as a check to the power of the city’s chief executive.
During a bitter Democratic primary, de Blasio had criticized the previous speaker, Christine Quinn, as being too close to Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He said on Tuesday that they were “profoundly different realities,” though he did not explain why.
Mark-Viverito, who was born in Puerto Rico and represents East Harlem, was among de Blasio’s earliest supporters, but she took pains Wednesday to insist that she would not simply be a rubber stamp on his legislative agenda.
“We will unite to hold the administration and mayor accountable,” she exhorted her colleagues in her acceptance speech on the council floor. Her victory was a huge win not just for de Blasio, but for several labor unions, including 1199 S.E.I.U, the health care workers union, which had thrown its support behind her.
Mark-Viverito, 44, said that her early legislative priorities would include building more affordable housing and raising the minimum wage.
Also on hand for the council’s first day were 21 new councilmembers, including four representing Orthodox areas in Brooklyn: Chaim Deutsch of Flatbush, Mark Treyger of Coney Island and Bensonhurst, Carlos Menchaca of Sunset Park, and Alan Maisel of Sheepshead Bay.
Councilman David Greenfield, who said he has worked closely with Mark-Vevirito in the past, said “it was especially inspiring to see the entire Council unite behind [her] out of recognition of what is best for the city.”
Deutsch said that he was “truly confident” that Mark-Viverito “has the strength, compassion and skill required to unite this legislative body. She has my hopes and prayers for great success.”