Two Harlem Councilwomen Vie to Be Next Speaker

By Jeff Mays on September 12, 2013 12:46pm 

 Dickens, speaking to Comptroller John Liu, cruised to victory in Tuesday's Democratic Primary and now has her eyes set on becoming Council Speaker.
Dickens, speaking to Comptroller John Liu, cruised to victory in Tuesday's Democratic Primary and now has her eyes set on becoming Council Speaker.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Both city councilwomen who represent East and Central Harlem cruised to victory in Tuesday's Democratic Primary, and are now set to battle for the Council speaker's chair in January.

Both Inez Dickens and Melissa Mark-Viverito won handily on primary night, with Dickens besting Vincent Morgan with 69.3 percent of the vote compared to 30.7 percent, and Mark-Viverito beating Ralina Cardona with 35.9 percent of the vote compared to her opponents' 18.5 percent.

Both Dickens and Mark-Viverito have spoken publicly of their interest in replacing Christine Quinn, who failed in her mayoral bid, as speaker in January.

But who will become the next speaker depends heavily on who the next mayor is, said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College.

If Public Advocate Bill de Blasio wins, the county Democratic organizations and new Council members may try to gain his favor, giving him a tremendous amount of influence, said Sherrill.

Since de Blasio is likely to want to unify the Democratic Party after a divisive primary, he may want someone as speaker who knows how to play inside baseball.

If Republican nominee Joe Lhota were to win, Democrats might be looking for a fiery, politically left speaker ready to go to war.

"The council speaker will be from a different borough than the mayor and of a different ethnic background," Sherrill said. "So the possibility of a woman from Manhattan who is African-American or Latino is very, very high."

Both Lhota and de Blasio are white and live in Brooklyn.

While initial primary results say de Blasio claimed the 40 percent of the vote required to avoid an Oct. 1 run-off, second place finisher Bill Thompson has refused to concede pending a recount.

For Dickens, being the first black person as speaker would be a "historic moment," but one that she believes she is well qualified for because of her time as Majority Whip.

"I have learned the art of negotiating with the mayor's office," said Dickens. "It's important to choose someone who has that understanding because we will immediately start a budget and we don't have time for someone who has never sat in leadership to learn what that means."

 East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is considered a leading candidate for City Council Speaker. She won Tuesday's Democratic Primary with almost 36 percent of the vote.
East Harlem Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is considered a leading candidate for City Council Speaker. She won Tuesday's Democratic Primary with almost 36 percent of the vote.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

Mark-Viverito also cited her eight years of experience on the City Council as one of her major qualifications for the job. If she gets the post, she said she wants to work on City Council reforms and setting an agenda.

"We want to have a vision for New York City as a whole and the Council has a role in that," said Mark-Viverito who has already begun having conversations with her colleagues about being the speaker.

Other potential speaker candidates include Dan Garodnick, Annabel Palma, Mark Weprin and  Jimmy Vacca.

Political consultant Basil Smikle said Dickens' campaign versus Morgan may have hurt her chances for speaker by "calling attention to her negatives."

Morgan's closest supporters called Dickens a "slumlord millionaire" because of fines and citations against the buildings owned by her family's real estate company.

The campaign turned nastier when the political action committee Jobs for New York went after Morgan with mailers calling him an "empty suit" and unflatteringly comparing him to Sarah Palin.

"The question is will Dickens' negatives be a hindrance and concern enough to be prohibitive. Mark-Viverito doesn't have those negatives," Smikle said.

Mark-Viverito, who is Puerto Rican, also supported de Blasio for mayor and they both have a link with the powerful 1199 SEIU.

The union was one of de Blasio's big backers and Mark-Viverito was once an organizer for the group which represents healthcare workers.

Dickens supported Quinn, the long-time front-runner who came in third in the primary.

But Mark-Viverito also faces some negatives. For some, Mark-Viverito, a member of the Council's Progressive Caucus, might be too far left. She said she will resist being pigeonholed.

"As people have gotten to know me they see that I'm serious and dedicated and can sit at the table and listen to all sides and let that inform the process," she said. "I don't do decision-making in a vacuum, and that's the sign of a leader."

On top of all those issues, almost half of the City Council's 51 members will be new to the job due to term limits, adding unpredictability.

"It's way too early," said Sherrill. "There may be other candidates coming forward that we don't yet know about."

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