CITY COUNCIL 101: At Incoming Council Members’ Retreat, Speaker Rivals Give Media Relations Advice

Written by Nick Powell on . Posted in Blog, Daily, Features, Latest, News, Other News, Video.

At Baruch College last month, several City Council members, including Speaker rivals Melissa Mark-Viverito and Daniel Garodnick, participated in a forum hosted by City & State and the Partnership for New York City giving advice to some of their freshmen colleagues.

Council members Julissa Ferreras, Mark Weprin, and James Vacca joined Garodnick and Mark-Viverito on the panel, which, despite having the appearance of yet another Speaker’s race forum (Weprin and Vacca were speaker candidates at one time, while Ferreras was rumored to be), focused primarily on how the incoming Council members should handle talking to the press. New Council members in attendance included Robert Cornegy, Vanessa Gibson, Corey Johnson and Helen Rosenthal.

Mark-Viverito stressed the importance of staying true to one’s core principles and values in the face of outside pressure. Without getting into specifics, Mark-Viverito noted that there were times where she was proactive in taking positions opposing the Speaker or the mayor on high-profile legislation, which gave her an opportunity to stand her ground when they tried to change her mind.

“I don’t wait for [the mayor and Speaker] to come and start pressuring me to try to go into one direction or another,” Mark-Viverito said. “I’m very clear about what is important to me, and in some cases you can be proactive and say, ‘You know what, on this issue you’re not going to get my support,’ and that goes a long way in gaining respect.”

Garodnick remembered being in a similar situation to his freshmen colleagues in the audience as an incoming member in 2005, listening to then-Council Speaker Gifford Miller assure the group that no matter what “Don’t worry, you will be re-elected.” Garodnick said that he would tweak Miller’s advice, which he did not find to be one hundred percent accurate.

“I actually think that what [Miller] should have said, and that what my advice to you is, don’t worry about taking a strong position on an issue based on your core beliefs because you fear that it will cost you a re-election,” Garodnick said. “Take the position, be true to yourself. The thing that will cost you a re-election is if you are not responsive to your constituents, if you are not dealing with them respectfully, if you are not there for them when they call.”

Weprin noted that the scrutiny of being an elected official in the fishbowl that is New York City politics has its pitfalls. Reflecting on his experience as a former assemblyman, Weprin said that in Albany “You couldn’t get in the paper if you tried,” but added that the additional attention from the City Hall press corps is a double-edged sword in cases where he “makes a stupid quip or something and I’m gonna end up in the newspaper.”

Ferreras touched on her experience as chief of staff for former state senator Hiram Monserrate, in emphasizing the need for new Council members to hire a communications staff. Ferreras said that hiring a communications director helped her break out from Monserrate’s unseemly shadow when she succeeded him in the Council.

“I had to show people and prove that I was not [Monserrate], even though sometimes the press wanted to make me him,” Ferreras said. “So I needed to have somebody tell my story through my eyes, with my voice.”

When the panel was asked how long it took them to feel comfortable dealing with the media, Garodnick delivered an amusing anecdote about his nervousness when doing interviews. He recalled a brief phone interview he did as a new Council member about an issue in his district at the High School of Art & Design in which he said, “The High School of Art and Design is important because of its emphasis on art and design.”

“When I was first elected, I was so nervous about talking to the press and so nervous about being misquoted that I would talk so slowly that I would forget what I was talking about by the end of the sentence, where it had started,” Garodnick said.

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