Volume 75, Number 27 | November 23 - 29, 2005

Seven vying for the city’s second most powerful job

By Jefferson Siegel

There is an important election coming up. However, New Yorkers won’t see televised ad blitzes, receive recorded phone solicitations or be deluged with glossy brochures in the mail. In fact, only 51 people are eligible to vote for the next speaker of the City Council, and they are all elected councilmembers.

The job of speaker has been described as the second most powerful in the city. And while the speaker is not in the direct line of succession to the mayor (the public advocate is next in line), the speaker wields considerable influence over all councilmembers, and, hence, all New Yorkers. The influential speaker’s job includes the authority to call hearings, create committees and appoint members to those committees.

Gifford Miller, who was elected speaker in 2002 and ran unsuccessfully for mayor in September’s primary, is being forced out of the Council by term limits.

For several weeks now, current councilmembers have been lobbying behind the scenes for support from fellow members. A vote of 26 of the 51 members is necessary to secure the speaker’s position. Unlike in recent years, when there was a large turnover in the Council, the election two weeks ago brought only eight new councilmembers, meaning old alliances among members only need to be firmed up.

Last week the seven members vying for the job faced off in a public debate at Baruch College. If attendance was any indication, the speaker’s job has the aura of a rock star. A standing-room-only crowd of more than 400 packed the room. Fire marshalls had to turn away more than 100 more.

Commenting on the large turnout, one of the debate’s organizers, Craig Wilson of the New York League of Conservation Voters, commented, “It’s a blockbuster event.”

Of the seven councilmembers in the running, only one, Christine Quinn, is from Manhattan. Quinn, whose Third District encompasses Greenwich Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and parts of Murray Hill, was joined onstage by Leroy Comrie Jr., Melinda Katz and David Weprin from Queens; Bill de Blasio and Lewis Fidler from Brooklyn and Joel Rivera from the Bronx. Pundits consider Quinn one of the frontrunners for the coveted position.

After a round of opening statements, the first question for candidates revealed an agenda that has surfaced every few years recently, that of supporting changes to or abolishing term limits. Twice, in 1993 and 1996, voters affirmed their support for cleaning house, limiting most city officials to two four-year terms in office.

Not surprisingly, all seven speaker candidates are in favor of some modification. De Blasio believes a four-year extension would create a balance between the mayor and Council. Comrie declared the limits no longer serve their intended purpose. “You don’t have a chance, unless you’re an insider, to touch a bureaucrat,” he said.

“I think it doesn’t allow elected officials enough time to become experts on the issues we need people to be experts on in the legislature,” Quinn suggested. “And also, it does overly empower the staff and lobbyists at City Hall.” Whether the Council can mandate an override or create the initiative for a legislative solution remains in doubt.

“I thought we had term limits,” Katz said during her comments, “which are called elections.”

Waste management was the next issue posed to the seven. Quinn wants the certainty that any plan “demonstrates a real commitment to reduction of waste, reuse of material and expansion of recycling.” Noting the concentration of too many waste plants in one area, she added, “On the West Side of Manhattan there have been as many as three sites proposed. Some of those may be exactly the right sites, but if you’re going to have more than one, you need to look at the totality of their effect, and also their effect on adjoining facilities like parks.”

Weprin noted Mayor Bloomberg’s cutbacks to recycling in 2001 actually cost the city more than the proposed savings.

The city’s $4 billion budget deficit and the need for cutting or raising taxes came under examination. Citing an ongoing problem, Rivera said, “We send about $18 billion to Washington that we do not see back,” drawing applause. Quinn decried the increases in personal property taxes and cuts to city services. She also found an overlooked area of revenue enhancement, that of having private insurance pay for services at city hospitals. “If I wanted to go to Bellevue and City Hospital, I can’t get my insurance to cover it,” she noted. “That’s a significant amount of money that’s being held out of city coffers.” On the state-controlled issue of reimposing a commuter tax, Quinn believes “It’s something I think we could achieve.”

A lengthy discussion of Council procedural issues ensued, followed by issues of campaign finance. There were immediate comparisons to Bloomberg’s unlimited funds. “Politics, like polo, is going to be a game played only by billionaires,” Fidler said, in one of his many well-received one-liners. Quinn believes the system’s complexity hinders potential candidates. She said it’s important to “figure out how to streamline the system, not limit the amount of disclosure, but make it easier so people can comply.” She was also concerned the system “creates the threat of New Yorkers who maybe aren’t billionaires but could raise the $200,000 on their own and opt out of the system.”

The next topic — easing access to health care, particularly for the uninsured and underserved — brought Quinn kudos from several of her colleagues.

Fidler prefaced his response with, “Truthfully, the first thing I’d probably do is ask Christine Quinn. She is my health-care guru.” Quinn is chairperson of the Council’s Health Committee. In her response, Quinn cut right to the heart of the matter. “The most important thing we can do to get more New Yorkers health insurance is go to the Council hand in hand with the mayor to Albany and demand that the State Department of Health change the enrollment and recertification regulations for Family Health Plus and Child Health Plus,” she said, emphasizing the importance of two programs that provide medical care to low-income New Yorkers.

Overdevelopment of neighborhoods came under the microscope. Quinn offered that, “If I was speaker, I would continue the type of land-use work I did in West Chelsea and also in the Hudson Yards proposal where we made sure, with the help of Councilmember Katz [chairperson of the Land Use Committee], that the neighborhood had a strong voice [and] input on expanding the number of affordable housing units and, in particular, the number of permanently affordable housing units.”

Quinn applauded preservation of the High Line and was active in defeating the sale of the Hudson Yards to the Jets football team.

The debate concluded with a lightning round of yes/no questions. All were against noncitizens gaining the right to vote. All agreed the business practices for a company like Wal-Mart are relevant in making land-use decisions.

In closing statements on how they would see their legacy, Quinn offered that, “I’d also like to be remembered as the speaker who helped bring the Council together to achieve even more forward motion on education and for our kids in this city.”

In addition, Quinn, who is openly lesbian, would be the city’s first gay speaker.

Afterwards speaking about what her first order of business would be if she’s elected speaker, Quinn told The Villager, “The two first things I would do are pull together all of my finance staff in developing a plan for the looming city budget. And then, I want to move forward and get a commitment from the city for them to work with the Council to develop a five-year plan for pediatric preventative health care.” Not forgetting her roots, Quinn added, “I would want to continue the work on quality of life in my district and also, as the speaker, use that platform to expand the number of police resources citywide and also in the Village to help the quality of life.”

On working with the mayor, Quinn offered, “The mayor and I have both agreed and disagreed. I would continue that kind of a model where I made a decision project by project.” As people surrounded Quinn to congratulate her, her father, Lawrence, stood nearby. Of his daughter’s performance, he beamed and concluded, “Great.”

The next debate of speaker candidates will focus on housing issues. Sponsored by the group Housing Here and Now, it will be held Wed., Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. at Washington Irving High School, at 40 Irving Pl. between 16th and 17th Sts.

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