With the election a little over a week away, it’s pretty obvious that Democrat Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York City. The polls show him ahead of Republican Joe Lhota by more than 40 percentage points. The race for public advocate is not even that close; Democrat Letitia James has no Republican opponent. So what can a political junkie focus on? No one knows who is going to be the next speaker of the City Council, the second most powerful position in the city government.
Clearly, the mayor is top dog under the city charter, and according to that venerable document (last updated in the 1990s), the public advocate would become mayor in the event the person elected to that position can’t fulfill his or her duties. But the PA really doesn’t have much power beyond shining a light on issues that the citizenry want addressed. The real power after the mayor is the speaker of the City Council.
The City Council of New York has 51 members, and they elect a speaker to preside over their meetings. It’s exactly like the speaker of the House of Representatives in Washington. The speaker not only presides over meetings but also sets the agenda for the council. That may not sound like much, but there are two things you have to do to ensure control of a body: control the agenda and write the minutes. Essentially, the speaker decides what bills get voted on. No matter how great a law might be if passed, the speaker has to sign off on it or it just sits on the shelf. Indeed, the speaker can decide whether a committee chair can even hold a hearing on a given issue.
The current speaker is Christine Quinn, who came in third in the Democratic primary for mayor. Under the city’s term limits, she’s out, and the field is wide open. The only thing I can guarantee is that the next speaker will be a Democrat — of the 51 seats, the Republicans hold four right now. I’d be surprised if they improved much on that figure. New York is simply a Democratic (but not always democratic) town.
Usually, the speaker’s job is filled by a candidate acceptable to the party bosses. New York’s five boroughs are also five counties, and each has its own county chairman. Staten Island has very few people, so it hasn’t counted for much in city politics. Manhattan customarily produces the mayor (indeed, Brooklyn’s de Blasio will be the first mayor from the outer boroughs since Abe Beame, who left office in 1977). As a result, the speaker needed the blessings of the party chairmen from the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn (two would suffice, but all three is preferable).
However, there is a new force in City Council politics, and that is the Progressive Caucus, a bloc formed in 2010. It currently has 11 members, and if the voting goes its way, it could command up to 18 seats on the next council. It takes 26 to elect a speaker, and 21 of the council members will be first termers. The issue is whether these newcomers will follow the party chairmen or whether they will be more independent minded. In addition, there is the Black, Latino and Asian caucus (BLA) — race in New York is (sadly) something that matters in politics.
I don’t have any idea who will win because we aren’t sure who the council members will be yet. I do think a strong case can be made for Annabel Palma of the Bronx (Latina, experienced and from an outer borough). Someone from Queens is plausible (but I can’t think who stands out, maybe Jimmy Van Bramer?) because 12 of its 13 members have served before, and some experience on the council does matter.
This race is to political junkies what the hot stove league is to baseball fans — it’ll get us through the cold nights ahead.