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City Council Members Fear Budget Revenge if They Don't Endorse Quinn

By Jill Colvin | February 19, 2013 7:00am

CITY HALL — Many City Council members are wary of endorsing candidates in the 2013 mayoral race until after budget season because they're afraid a vengeful Speaker Christine Quinn will cut their share of $50 million in discretionary funds, DNAinfo.com New York has learned.

The funds, which are controlled by the speaker, are dished out to members each summer to fund constituent-pleasing services, such as community centers and seniors programs. While Quinn’s office has long insisted that the money is allocated based on districts' needs, it’s no secret that members on Quinn’s good side tend to profit — while those who cross her get their budgets slashed.

And many Council members now worry that endorsing a rival in the mayor's race, where Quinn is widely perceived as the front-runner, will result in the same fate.

“I definitely think that discretionary funds will be wielded as a weapon in the fight for endorsements,” said one Democratic Council member, who, like nearly a dozen others who spoke to DNAinfo.com New York, asked for anonymity to avoid angering Quinn.

“Certainly, that is the elephant in the room,” another member said.

“It’s a legal form of blackmail," still another member said.

To avoid retribution, some Council members are weighing postponing their endorsements until July, after the budget is adopted and Quinn no longer has sway over the money.

“I think it would be politically unwise for somebody to endorse somebody other than the speaker earlier than after the budget,” said another Democratic council member, who added concerns about funding would play a role in their endorsement timing.

"That’s clearly a factor," the member said.

Quinn spokesman Jamie McShane dismissed the concerns.

"Campaign politics play no role whatsoever in funding allocations," he said in a statement.

Quinn's staff has maintained that funding decisions are based wholly on needs. But a report by the good-government group Citizens Union last year found no such connection.

“The process is largely political, with no correlation between funding and the relative status of districts as determined by certain commonly used indicators,” the report found.

In interviews, members frequently pointed to Queens Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., whose funds were slashed after he vocally opposed Quinn’s plan to rename the Queensboro Bridge after former Mayor Ed Koch.

Vallone’s earmarks dropped from $1.4 million in fiscal year 2011 to $840,000 in 2012 and $680,000 in 2013, according to Council records and published reports.

“Elected officials have always understood that their funding could be cut for breaking the rules or embarrassing the institution. But never has a New York City speaker cut the funding to a district based on principled opposition in representing the people of Queens,” Vallone said of the cuts, which he blamed solely on his opposition.

“Council Members are clearly aware of what happened in my case and are going to take that into consideration,” he added.

Still, some worried they would be forced off the sidelines when it comes to endorsements.

Council Members from boroughs with strong county organizations, which help candidates gather signatures to run for office, could be pressured to endorse a candidate when their party boss does.

And the primary, currently scheduled for September, could be moved up to June, forcing members to endorse at the height of budget negotiations no matter what.

Still, despite the members' fears, others noted that Quinn's possible wrath will be tempered by her need to garner support in what's shaping up to be a tough election.

“The speaker is going to be interested in gaining the support of the Council and may take that into consideration of her funding of member items,” said Rachael Fauss, a policy expert at Citizens Union, which authored the group's report.

Sill, Fauss said it made sense for members to be nervous, considering how important the earmarks are to neighborhood groups that might not survive without the Council money.

“It’s certainly a lifeline for a lot of nonprofit organizations,” she said.

Council Members added the money plays a crucial role in courting constituents and cementing their legacies.

"Politically, [any major cuts] would hurt," explained one member. “You’re judged on the resources you can provide in the community."

Nonetheless, one councilwoman has cast aside her funding concerns.

Melissa Mark-Viverito is the first member to announce she will not support Quinn for mayor following a bitter public fight over the new lines of her East Harlem district, which now stretches deep into The Bronx.

Mark-Viverito repeatedly begged Quinn to intervene to reverse the changes. But Quinn refused, Mark-Viverito charged, in order to gain favor with partly leaders in The Bronx to help her mayoral bid. The issue was a deal-breaker, she said.

“There are some things you can’t compromise on,” said Mark-Viverito, who has not yet endorsed another candidate for mayor.

Asked whether she was concerned about the potential impact on her discretionary funding, as well as other issues like her legislative sway, Mark-Viverito replied, "Of course."

But she hoped it wouldn't ultimately prove a problem, and that the press would hold Quinn accountable.

“Somebody’s watching," Mark-Viverito said.