Rosie Mendez is among the Council’s handful of least powerful members.
By SAM SPOKONY | Regardless of all the talk of a sea change in progressive city government, Councilmember Rosie Mendez says she’s still O.K. with being punished in the name of politics.
Even though she won re-election to her third term with more than 90 percent of the vote, Mendez — who represents the East Village and Lower East Side — has now been essentially demoted by new Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, and will likely finish out her term as one of the Council’s least powerful members.
Last month, Mendez was one of only four councilmembers who were not appointed to chair any committees — which she says is clearly retribution for the fact that she’d backed Councilmember Dan Garodnick in his race against Mark-Viverito for the speaker’s seat.
“I’m disappointed, but I know that the reason I didn’t get to chair a committee was because I didn’t support Melissa,” Mendez told The Villager in a Jan. 31 phone interview. “And I think that’s a viable reason. I don’t like it, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it.”
In her previous term, Mendez chaired the Council’s Public Housing Committee — and as a lifelong housing activist, she had set her sights last year on entering 2014 as chairperson of the Housing and Buildings Committee.
“I had made clear to [Mark-Viverito] that I wanted to chair Housing and Buildings, because that’s my life’s work, and I wanted to continue it,” she said.
But that leadership position went to Brooklyn Councilmember Jumaane Williams, who initially ran against Mark-Viverito in the speaker’s race.
A source close to the Council said that Mark-Viverito actually promised the Housing and Buildings job to Williams in mid-December — assuming she would win — after he agreed to drop out of the race and support her instead.
This all comes during a transitional period in city government that, among other things, has been presented to the public as a shift away from the strong-arm tactics of former Speaker Christine Quinn. It would appear that, for now, reforms to the Council’s internal operations can only go so far.
“If things were based solely on merit, I would think I would’ve been considered for [Housing and Buildings chair],” said Mendez, who has actually served twice as a member of that committee. “But I didn’t support the winner of the speaker’s race, so I didn’t get a good position in the Council. Is that progressive? I don’t know.
“The thing is that progressive politics are still politics,” she added.
Mark-Viverito’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
And the new speaker’s cold shoulder continued even after the committee chairperson appointments were handed out last month. In a Jan. 21 meeting with Mark-Viverito, less than two weeks after being snubbed for the Housing and Buildings committee, Mendez asked the speaker to create a subcommittee on Mitchell-Lama housing, presumably one in which the Lower East Side rep would take the lead.
“[Mark-Viverito] said, ‘No, I’m not gonna do that,’ ” according to Mendez. “She didn’t give a reason, and I didn’t ask for a reason.”
Meanwhile, a number freshman councilmembers have been awarded much more powerful positions at City Hall.
Notably, Mendez was replaced as chairperson of the Public Housing Committee by Bronx Councilmember Ritchie Torres, a 25-year-old who is just entering his first term.
And Downtown Manhattan’s newest face in the Council, Corey Johnson, was granted a key spot as chairperson of the Health Committee.
But even without the authority of a leadership position, Mendez still hopes to accomplish some housing goals, saying that she will now approach the issue from a “broader policy perspective.”
“I want to look at how we can have reforms that bring more permanent affordable housing to the city,” she said. “I want to make sure that residents have relief from construction problems and noise, and to make sure they have a right to go home and go to sleep without construction going on until 2 a.m., or starting at 6 a.m.”
With that in mind, Mendez introduced a bill on Feb. 4 aimed at putting new restrictions on the city’s ability to grant after-hours work permits for construction projects.
Under current rules, developers are often easily able to secure variances allowing them to do work before 7 a.m. or after 6 p.m. on weekdays, as well as on weekends.
Mendez’s legislation would require the Department of Buildings to have a public comment period from local residents before granting any request for an after-hours construction permit, and would ban any construction work on Sundays. Her proposal would also limit the time allowed for construction work during weekday evenings and on Saturdays.
“We can’t have the city just rubber-stamping these requests anymore,” the councilmember said. “We need to know exactly why developers are asking for an after-hours permit, and we need to know how it will exacerbate quality-of-life problems for residents.”
Mendez also has two other things going for her in the Council, even if they’re not particularly powerful posts. She leads the Council’s Gay and Lesbian Caucus — now a six-member group, which includes other openly gay representatives, like Johnson and Torres — and she co-chairs the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
And in terms of the lack of recognition or prestige that has gone along with being overlooked by the new speaker, Mendez says it simply doesn’t faze her.
“I think I got the recognition I deserved when I got 82.7 percent of the vote in last year’s primary, and then won the general election,” she said. “That let me know that I’m keeping my promise to my constituents, and that I’m doing my job. That’s the only recognition I need.”