Mayor-Elect Bill de Blasio, whose candidacy was backed by 1199 SEIU, has been a strong supporter of Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito. (Photo by Melissa Mark-Viverito for City Council, Via Facebook)
The New York City Council Speaker’s race has reached the point where every rumor and piece of gossip regarding who are the “leading” candidates should be viewed with suspicion. With so many interest groups pushing their preferred candidate and no reliable metric to gauge the race, it is easy to get taken in by whisper campaigns and planted stories.
In a race that will largely be decided behind closed doors, the speculation about how it will ultimately turn out has centered as much on the contenders, as the insiders who could wind up playing the role of kingmaker.
In previous Speaker races, the county Democratic party leaders have decided the leadership post, leaning on their delegations to vote for whichever candidate would best serve their interests. In this year’s race, with an emerging narrative depicting the county bosses as weaker than they have been in the past, some observers speculate that labor unions such as 1199/SEIU—which played a major role in helping Bill de Blasio win the mayoralty—will cash in on their campaign success by actively encouraging Council members to vote for the candidate they want. Union officials, however, steadfastly insist they are focused on advancing the city’s legislative agenda as a whole rather than anointing any individual leader.
“For the most part unions are not directly involved in the Speaker race, and usually stay away from these types of leadership battles,” said Bob Master, political director for the Communications Workers of America District 1. “The progressive unions have been much more focused on providing support to the Progressive Caucus to make sure that it stays united in fighting for progressive leadership, progressive rules and a progressive agenda come January.”
Nonetheless, 1199 has already staked out a strong position in the Speaker’s race, openly advocating for Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, co-chair of the Council’s Progressive Caucus. Mark-Viverito was an early de Blasio supporter for mayor and a strategic organizer for the union before running for Council. The city’s other major unions have not publicly backed a candidate, though Crain’s reported that Alison Hirsh, political director for SEIU 32BJ, is negotiating on behalf of the Progressive Caucus in determining the next Speaker, a sign of the political symbiosis between the Caucus and labor, to which many of the Caucus’ new members-elect owe much of their campaign success.
“Who do you fear more if you’re a new Council member? 1199 and [political director Kevin] Finnegan, or Joe Crowley and county?” said one political insider. “Looking at this crop of new Council members, 1199 did so much this cycle that they have far more sway over a number of these members than county organizations do.”
1199 has always been one of New York City’s major political players, with the largest union membership in the five boroughs. Not since the 1989 mayoral election of David Dinkins, however, has the union enjoyed this close a relationship with an incoming mayor. Still, many have questioned what 1199 has to gain from being aligned with the mayor of New York City when so much of the legislative and policy business it conducts is in Albany. The real power the union has with de Blasio is the ability to push Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state Legislature to deliver legislation that benefits its downstate members.
“The discussion about what the mayor needs for this city takes on strong political implications on January 1,” said a source with close ties to the city’s labor unions. “If they decide to mess with this governor because he is not giving the city what they need, it’s a big political problem, and I think 1199 having the mayor is part of a leverage that they feel they have with the governor.”
To that end, crowning a Speaker would be another feather in the cap for 1199, and some view Hirsh’s involvement with the Progressive Caucus as an attempt by labor unions such as 32BJ and the Hotel Trades Council to have a voice at the table and prevent 1199 from owning the process. Others are skeptical of Hirsh’s ability to negotiate on behalf of a coalition of labor unions with widely varying interests, and believe her role in the Speaker conversation could start a war with the county leaders.
“The Alison Hirsh issue damaged her and unnecessarily provoked that kind of discussion: I can’t believe the unions are trying to do this just for a speakership,” said a source with ties to both organized labor and the county leaders. “You need long-term relationships with [the county leaders], who are largely supportive of union issues.”
Indeed the two most powerful county leaders, by all accounts, are Rep. Joe Crowley, the Queens Democratic Party chair, and Assemblyman Carl Heastie, the Democratic chair in the Bronx, both of whom can play a significant role in moving legislation and policy that benefit organized labor. Depending on how Democrats fare in the coming midterm elections, Crowley could see his role in Washington grow; the vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, the fifth-highest leadership position in the caucus, he is already a powerful ally for special interests. As for Heastie, he chairs the Assembly Labor Committee, which means all legislation dealing with labor goes through him.
While the notion that the county leaders have been defanged is mostly spin, it does have some merit. Where county organizations were formerly the main engine in selecting candidates for office and supplying manpower for campaign field operations, unions have stepped in with larger resources and huge memberships to help get candidates elected. And while Queens and the Bronx are reputed to still have a solid county infrastructure and well-liked leaders, sources say Brooklyn Democratic Party Chair Frank Seddio is trying to hold together a fractured county organization, with many fiefdoms emerging after he replaced longtime chair Vito Lopez.
There is one certainty in the process of selecting the next Council Speaker: County leaders can no longer be assured of geographic loyalty, as the emergence of the Progressive Caucus shows. The political establishment will have to contend with a fast-growing bloc of legislators who have managed to stay in ideological lockstep, making it difficult for county leaders to sway certain Council members. In advancing progressive policies, that alone is a major victory for labor—Speaker or no Speaker.
Tags: 1199 SEIU, 32bj, Alison Hirsch, Andrew Cuomo, Bill De Blasio, bob-master, Bronx, brooklyn, carl heastie, Communication Workers of America, council speaker, CWA, David Dinkins, Democrat, Frank Seddio, Hotel Trades Council, Joe Crowley, Kevin Finnegan, Melissa-Mark Viverito, New York City Council, Progressive Caucus, Queens, Vito Lopez