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Union Meddling in Speaker's Race Is Unwelcome, Council Members Say

By Colby Hamilton | November 19, 2013 7:17am
 Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is considered a front-runner in the race to become the next speaker of the New York City Council.
Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito is considered a front-runner in the race to become the next speaker of the New York City Council.
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CIVIC CENTER — Efforts by one of the city's top labor unions and their allies to back City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito in the race to be the next council speaker are chafing other council members who say unions should steer clear until a frontrunner is chosen from within.

“There's a lot of members that are really upset that outside bodies are trying to dictate who the next speaker's going to be,” said one Democratic council member who asked to remain anonymous. “There are unions telling [other speaker] candidates to drop out. Who are they to tell that to other members?"

The healthcare workers union 1199 SEIU — which has been publicly vocal and active in its support for Mark-Viverito, who represents East Harlem, Manhattan Valley and Mott Haven — tried to pressure Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma to drop out of the speaker's race, according to the New York Post.

Palma denounced the "aggression" by the union, saying she wanted “all labor leaders to allow us as council members, as elected officials, as leaders, to let us go through our process,” the Post reported.

“It's not very progressive of the union leadership to be putting pressure on councilmembers before they've gone through their own process of deciding who they want to be speaker,” added another council member. “And certain council members are beginning to resent that."

In a conversation late Monday, 1199's political director Kevin Finnegan said he had "been texting with Annabel since" the Post story broke. He said the suggestion the union has pressured her to get out of the race has been overblown.

"It's not coming from the political office. It's coming from someone she knows [in the union]," Finnegan said. He noted that Palma had once worked for 1199 and said that the union "consider[s] her a political ally."

"We would never ask her to get out of the race," he said.

While 1199 might not be trying to winnowing the field, Finnegan made it clear the union is doing all it can to help Mark-Viverito, even if that means ruffling some members' plumage.

"I am very much cognizant of the fact that the City Council members are going to decide who the speaker is, but they don't do that in a vacuum," Finnegan said. "They do that as part of the political world and I think it's help to people — and I think most council members feel it's helpful — to know what our opinion is."

Insiders say 1199 isn't the only union involving itself in the speakers race.

Alison Hirsh, the political director and a registered lobbyist for the building workers union 32BJ, is now the lead negotiator in the speaker's race for the council's Progressive Caucus, which Mark-Viverito co-chairs — and which is expected to emerge as a power broker in the speaker's race.

“The Progressive Caucus is attempting what we would refer to as a bum rush,” said a council member. “They're trying to create a perception that doesn't actually exist, which is that Melissa Mark-Viverito will be the next speaker.”

A spokeswoman at 32BJ said the union was not actively backing any single candidate in the speaker's race.

In a statement, Brooklyn Councilman Brad Lander, who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus with Mark-Viverito, indicated that the group wasn’t openly working on her behalf, saying, “We will have a process to decide who to support for speaker, but it has not started yet."

The caucus, which is expected to have about 20 members once the new council is sworn in at the beginning of January, is amassing influence that could oppose the reigning power of the Democratic county committees, which have traditionally been the power brokers in the speaker's race, sources say.

“This process may actually take a little bit longer than in years past because of this new entity called the Progressive Caucus,” noted one labor leader.

Political observers said they believe the chairs of the Democratic county committees still play the most crucial role in picking the speaker.

“The county organizations play a long game,” observed one council member, adding that the committees continue to demand and receive the loyalties of many, if not most, of the council members in their borough delegations.

Even if she continues to be the front-runner, Mark-Viverito is just one among a number of candidates who members say they see as viable.

Manhattan Councilman Dan Garodnick remains a leading contender. His work on the recently spiked Midtown East rezoning is seen as working to raise his profile. Bronx Councilwoman Palma and Queens Councilman Mark Weprin are also among those being considered, along with Bronx Councilman Jimmy Vacca, insiders said.

A request for comment from Mark-Viverito was not returned.