NYC Council Speaker Takes First Steps Onto Bigger Stages

NEW YORK (AP) -

She was little known outside her City Council district a mere 15 months ago, but New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has briskly taken her first steps onto the national stage and out of the mayor’s shadow.

Mark-Viverito, whose political positions are largely to the left of the famously liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio, is becoming a prominent voice on such issues as immigration and criminal justice reform.

She wore an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt in honor of Eric Garner’s last words. She called out Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his stances on charter schools and his lack of public statement on a gas explosion in East Harlem. And she will travel this month to Arizona, a hotbed of immigration debate, to push for a municipal ID card that benefits illegal immigrants.

“I believe in equality and justice for vulnerable populations,” Mark-Viverito said in an interview. “I want to be part of that conversation. I want to be part of moving the dial.”

Mark-Viverito, 45, who was born in Puerto Rico, spent years as an activist and labor organizer before being elected to City Council in 2005. After securing re-election in 2013, she made a bid for the speaker post, a job traditionally doled out by the Democratic party’s borough bosses.

But de Blasio took the unusual step of intervening in the council’s race to elect a new speaker, throwing his support behind Mark-Viverito — a longtime ally and one of the first to endorse his longshot campaign — and pressuring council members to do the same.

Mark-Viverito won, becoming the first Hispanic to hold the powerful post.

With a City Council comprised of 48 Democrats and just three Republicans, the body helped usher in de Blasio’s vision of an activist, liberal government. In rapid succession, the council passed an expansion of paid sick leave and living wage reform, opening up the speaker to criticism that she was indebted to de Blasio and would march lockstep with him.

“She was an obscure local councilwoman who got catapulted into a very visible role that she was not immediately prepared to leverage,” said Dan Gerstein, a New York political strategist. “It was inevitable that it would take her some time to find her footing.”

But there have been clashes. Most notably, the council championed hiring 1,000 new police officers during the last budget season, only to be turned down by the mayor’s office. But Mark-Viverito has continued to advocate for it, and the mayor’s office appears set to blink this year and at least hire some officers.

Some of her bold stances may be fueled by the knowledge that term limits will force her out of office after 2017. She has moved past de Blasio on some calls for criminal justice reform.

But immigration is the issue on which her profile is largest. She’s become a semi-regular on cable news as the debate in Washington heats up, and the council has established a fund for illegal immigrant minor’s legal fees.

The municipal ID card is likely her signature achievement. As of last week, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have signed up for the card, which will allow undocumented immigrants to access vital city services.