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How New York Will Find Its Next City Council Speaker

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Outgoing City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. Dec. 11, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The votes are in for who will make up the next City Council class. But who will lead them?

We’ll have an official answer in about a month: At the Council’s first stated meeting, in early January, the overhauled city legislature — featuring 34 new members out of a total of 51 — will vote to select its “speaker.”

But the actual decision could wrap up well ahead of the New Year. Seven members are jockeying to round up enough votes to get the gig. Typically, the body reaches some kind of consensus around Christmas, or just after, experts say.

Since the decision doesn’t rest with voters, it takes place out of view of many New Yorkers. But that doesn’t mean you should tune out: The job involves finalizing the annual city budget — which has now surpassed $100 billion — wrangling votes on legislation and land use decisions, and setting the agenda for big ideas and policy for New York’s future.

You can also hear directly from those vying for the job. On Dec. 9, NY1 will host a forum with them all, set to air at 7 p.m.

Here’s what you need to know about the speaker race, and why you should care — especially as a new mayoral administration readies to move in to City Hall:

What is a City Council speaker, and what do they do?

The speaker is the leader of the 51-member City Council. In that role, he or she leads all aspects of legislation in the chamber, including hammering out the annual city budget (typically commemorated with a handshake between the speaker and mayor) and steering votes on bills and land-use decisions.

The speaker also manages hundreds of staffers who work for the Council, in addition to maintaining personnel in their own district office. The speaker also hands out committee memberships and sets the budget for each member’s office.

The speaker can exert a big influence on shaping the city.

For example, Melissa Mark-Viverito, who served as speaker from 2014 through 2017, pushed hard from the beginning of her tenure to close Rikers Island jails, convening a commission on the issue and eventually getting Mayor Bill de Blasio on board.

City Council members hold a hearing, Nov. 13, 2019.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The speaker can also use their platform to shed light on an issue, or dig into a topic through public hearings.

Outgoing City Council Speaker Corey Johnson chose that route when he convened a series of hearings on the city’s plan to lure an Amazon headquarters to Queens.

But first, the winning candidate must secure a simple majority vote, garnering official support from their colleagues — and any unofficial backing from allies outside the Council.

“I think it is the ultimate game of relationship-building,” said former Speaker Christine Quinn, who held the post from 2006 through 2013.

How does the race for speaker work?

There’s no set path and no official process for the king- or queen-making — just old-school, backroom politics that takes place between Election Day and Jan. 1.

But early birds often start laying the groundwork months before that, experts say, as would-be speakers kickoff their unofficial campaigns by shoring up support from their future colleagues — before they’ve even won their seats.

That means campaigning in far-flung districts, especially for new members, who offer key votes to elect the speaker. 

This year, the usual calculus for new members to vote for who campaigned on their behalf isn’t so simple, according to Evan Roth Smith, a founder of political consulting firm Slingshot Strategies.

“The candidates are expecting a grueling couple of weeks as far as bringing this home,” Smith said. “It’s hard conversation time.”

The race ratcheted up last month when most politicos jetted off to the Somos Conference in Puerto Rico, a post-election schmooze-fest where discussions about the speaker — and other political slots — take place.

Then comes a sprint through November and December in which candidates meet with county party leaders, community organizations and city union bosses to coalesce support “from people and entities that are compelling to the voters,” Quinn said.

“You’ve got to play every angle if you’re running for speaker. You’ve got to get unions — rank and file union leaders — policy leaders, currying favor with the mayor, with the county leaders. You’ve got to be doing all of it,” she said.

Even just a few years ago, the county political machine bosses played a bigger role in tipping the scales for the Council leader, insiders say. But in 2021, as those big-wigs’ power has diminished — and a majority of Council members are new and less tied to existing political factions — the race is much more fluid.

This year, the Republican bloc in the Council — still small, but expanded by two members from three to five — may have more influence than in years past. In response, some progressive groups are asking speaker candidates, all of them Democrats, to reject the GOP caucus as they campaign.

Who’s running for speaker?

Seven current and incoming Council members have a major shot at the speaker title this year. Here they are, in alphabetical order:

Adrienne Adams

Adams, who was elected to the Council in 2017, represents southeast Queens neighborhoods including Jamaica, Rochdale Village and Richmond Hill.

Councilmember Adrienne Adams.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She previously served two terms as the chair of Community Board 12 — an experience she says will help her lead as speaker, having dealt with the “intricacies of transportation, land-use — including ULURP [the city’s land use review process] and rezoning, and education.” 

For the returning members, they “know me as the ultimate leader for the body,” she said. 

She also noted the last three Council speakers have been from Manhattan. 

“We know that the outer boroughs are left behind, and it’s time that the focus and the spotlight is put on our outer boroughs,” Adams said. 

Diana Ayala

Ayala is the only Council member in the running who represents parts of two boroughs: East Harlem in Manhattan and areas of the South Bronx including Mott Haven. She replaced term-limited Mark-Viverito in 2018.

City Councilmember Diana Ayala.

Jeff Reed/New York City Council

She said experiencing homelessness, food insecurity and childhood sexual abuse — as well as relying on public assistance for housing — showed her how difficult accessing government services and resources can be. 

“I don’t feel like the powers that be really understand the nuances in government and how that impacts Black and brown communities,” she said. “Oftentimes in government, we tend to throw money at problems without actually ensuring that those public dollars are working in the best interest of the people that we’re intending to help.”

If picked as speaker, Ayala said she’d champion those who feel “unseen and unheard by government.” 

Yet Ayala believes “it would be irresponsible for me to have a bigger picture agenda without having consulted with the body,” and looks forward to becoming more familiar with the idiosyncrasies of her colleagues’ districts.

Justin Brannan

Brannan has represented Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, since 2018. But he had to fight hard for his seat in the November, winning by just over 600 votes after absentee ballots were counted. As speaker, he said, he’d strive to be a manager rather than a “star” — working behind-the-scenes to craft the Council’s collective agenda.

City Councilmember Justin Brannan.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“After COVID there’s a lot we need to do just to get back to basics, delivering those basic city services, and really making sure that we’re delivering for our most vulnerable,” Brannan said. 

“I consider myself a get-sh-t-done Democrat,” he added.

His priorities include creating a municipal broadband network and establishing a universal afterschool program — along with ensuring the garbage gets picked up and parks are fully funded. 

Gale Brewer

Few Council members can claim more experience in the Council than Brewer, the current Manhattan borough president, who is returning to the Upper West Side’s 6th District after holding the seat from 2002 until term limits forced her out in 2013.

Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.

Hiram Alejandro Durán/THE CITY

She’s also spent years in municipal government, serving as a Council chief of staff for more than a decade and later working in the Dinkins administration. She believes her knowledge of the system is a selling point.

“There are lots of great ideas out there, but I know how to implement them,” Brewer told THE CITY. “If you’re going to give me an idea, I can say, ‘Well, these six people need to be consulted — maybe this academic, maybe this nonprofit, maybe this business — and let’s get it done.’”

She said in the shortened, two-year term the Council has before redistricting kicks in, she wants to focus on “basic services” — including addressing garbage, rats and miles of construction scaffolding, while working toward long-term goals on public safety and climate resiliency.

Francisco Moya

Moya was elected to represent Queens neighborhoods, including Corona and Elmhurst, in 2017 after serving in the Assembly for seven years. He believes his time in Albany and City Hall makes him best equipped to lead the Council.

Councilmember Francisco Moya.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“I have that experience of being able to work on not only the city budgets, but the state budgets,” he told THE CITY. 

Moya notes he was the first of the speaker candidates to endorse Mayor-elect Eric Adams, way back in May. 

“We have a new administration coming in, we have this sense of hope now — we have to have someone who is ready to lead,” he said. 

Adams seems to be returning the favor, with his inner circle working behind the scenes to push Moya for the speaker’s chair, the Daily News reported.

Keith Powers

Powers, who has represented the Upper East Side and Midtown since 2018, was one of the few Council members who ran uncontested for his reelection this year. Without a tough campaign of his own to run, he got started in his bid for the speaker role early, putting in legwork for first-time candidates across the city, he said.

Councilmember Keith Powers.

John McCarten/New York City Council

“My team and I were out there knocking doors from Rockaway to Riverdale helping a lot of these folks be able to be competitive,” he said. 

Social media posts show he campaigned in the spring and summer for at least 18 candidates who later won their seats, including Pierina Sánchez in The Bronx, Crystal Hudson in Brooklyn and Sandra Ung in Queens.

He’s betting those ties will lead him to the speakership, where he’s hoping to balance a previous working relationship with the mayor-elect and a diverse, new legislative body.

“I think you always want to have a good partnership with the mayor so that you can actually get things done. But in this next Council, there’s going to be a lot of new voices coming in, and we have to empower those voices,” he said.

Carlina Rivera

Rivera, who represents Manhattan from the Lower East Side up to Murray Hill, took office in 2018. 

Councilmember Carlina Rivera.

Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

She points to her work on developing the city’s first “busway” on 14th Street, creating a workforce development center to train people in digital skills and pushing for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project. That controversial endeavor is mired in legal fights, but Rivera hopes it will set the tone for other large resiliency projects in the future.

“I think what the city is really craving is, they’re ready for leaders who look like and share experiences with them to make bold decisions, to lead our city into a just future,” Rivera said. “I’m that candidate. I have my own lived experiences growing up in a low-income community in subsidized housing with a single mother as a Latina. And I’ve taken those experiences and turned it into effective policy, [and created] this larger vision for a fairer city.”

If elected speaker, she said she would lead a “proactive, results-driven body” that would take aim at addressing the disparities within the city that the pandemic has laid bare.

Rivera also said she’d increase transparency in the Council to demystify land use decisions by requiring public statements that explain why the body voted, how the project evolved and citywide benefits.

When will we know who will be the next speaker?

In speaker races in the recent past, a consensus on a winner emerged in mid- or late December, experts on the process say. But we can’t know for sure who gets the top job until the new Council is sworn in and takes a vote at their first stated meeting in January.

It remains to be seen whether our next mayor will try to influence the outcome. Mayors have varied in their strategy on the speaker’s race over the years. 

Mike Bloomberg was mostly hands-off in the three speaker races with which he overlapped, while de Blasio went to bat to help Mark-Viverito seal her win in 2013. He was less involved in Johnson’s campaign in 2017.

Adams has stayed fairly quiet about the process so far, and whether he’ll put his thumb on the scale remains to be seen. 

But you can be sure that nothing’s for sure — until the January vote is done.

“There will be a million rumors,” said Quinn. “The one thing about this race, more than any race: It ain’t over til it’s over.”

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