(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

New York City’s Second-Most Powerful Politician Isn’t Waiting in the Wings

Melissa Mark-Viverito has a vision for progressive cities, and she’s on a mission to spread it, with or without ally Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Story by Henry Grabar

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The worst of New York City’s latest fight with Uber lasted just a week, but featured all the best in political stagecraft.

Up at Sylvia’s in Harlem, there was app flack (and ex-Obama campaign guru) David Plouffe, flanked by an all-black cast, declaring that Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration’s attempt to cap the number of black and livery cars on city streets and limit Uber’s expansion would not only kill jobs but harm communities of color that relied on the ride giant for travel to outer borough neighborhoods. Swimsuit model Kate Upton made a cameo with a tweet in defense of Uptown Uber riders. Governor Andrew Cuomo, otherwise reluctant to discuss municipal transportation issues, charged to the company’s defense. And Uber debuted a “de Blasio” setting that envisioned a future of fewer on-demand rides.

In a bid to close a deal while the Mayor was out of town on a high-profile visit to the Vatican, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito drew up a compromise to replace de Blasio’s black car cap. All seemed to be moving forward as planned until the media framed the compromise as de Blasio’s work, and the Mayor warned he might revive the first, fallen proposal. Suddenly, it wasn’t only Uber acolytes angry with de Blasio. Mark-Viverito entered the scrum.

“I’m not going to allow anyone to attempt to save face at the expense of this Council,” Mark-Viverito said at a July press conference in City Hall. “This Council decides what we discuss, what debates we will have, what will be taken off the table, what will be on the table.” Though the Council had the numbers to pass a cap, the publicity blitz had evidently spread some unease in the chamber.

“The Mayor could have his opinion, but he doesn’t decide which legislation is heard, what is debated,” she added. In the politics and press coverage that minimized her role, she tweeted, sexism was alive and well. The Governor came out swinging on behalf of Mark-Viverito. The Speaker, Cuomo said, was intelligent, deliberative and responsive in negotiating a compromise. Several of her fellow council members publicly agreed.

It was a glimpse at the complex political position of Melissa Mark-Viverito, the second-most powerful elected official in New York City. De Blasio has fashioned himself into a national spokesman for progressive urban policy; Mark-Viverito, who has deftly steered that policy into law, remains largely unknown even to New Yorkers beyond the political class. In contrast to the Mayor, her job performance continues to poll favorably. But, as numerous as those people are who approve of her work, there are many who simply have no opinion at all.

A de Blasio ally of long standing who endorsed his candidacy when he was still a long shot, Mark-Viverito has worked in the Mayor’s shadow since he corralled the votes for her speakership in 2013, and seems more and more reluctant to appear his subordinate. Therein lies a kind of tension for the Speaker, who finds herself in broad ideological agreement with the Mayor even as, at the head of the city’s countervailing legislative power, she seeks to distinguish herself.

Unlike her predecessor, Christine Quinn, who spent her second term as speaker preparing for a mayoral run, Mark-Viverito has allies in the Mayor’s and comptroller’s office who have said they will run again in 2017, when she will be ousted from the City Council by term limits.

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, right, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, walking in Harlem last March (AP Photo/The Daily News, Marcus Santos, Pool)

In politics, where ambitions tend to dictate views and not the other way around, that means that the 46-year-old speaker enjoys a kind of lame-duck freedom amid the left-wing, an opportunity to build a progressive political model for New York that she can call her own — and export for national influence.

Already, she has begun pitching her ideas beyond the five boroughs, in Arizona and Puerto Rico, as well as abroad, in Iceland and Portugal. “All eyes are on New York. We want New York City to be a model of what could happen across the country,” she said in a recent interview. “If those policies that are inclusive succeed, it could motivate and generate momentum to try and shift things in the national sphere.”

New York’s Political “Sea Change”

Working largely in concert with a newly elected de Blasio, New York City Council under Mark-Viverito had a busy 2014. In the winter, the Council voted to expand a paid sick leave bill, which had passed over former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto the previous summer, to cover 500,000 more New York workers. In June, the Council passed a law to create a municipal identification card 400,000 New Yorkers signed up between January 2015 and last month, including U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, making it the biggest such initiative in the nation. In October, the Speaker’s legislation to curtail the city’s cooperation with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials passed the City Council. De Blasio signed it into law the next month.

After 20 years without a Democratic mayor, this was a sea change. “It’s night and day,” said Bill Lipton, the New York State director for the Working Families Party. “It’s a huge difference from the Bloomberg and Giuliani years, and having a City Council with a muscular progressive caucus and a leader like Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito has been a big part of that.”

“We are trying to right the ship,” the Speaker told me when I met her this June in her office. Mark-Viverito, who had been speaking Spanish, asked me to sit down before switching to English. Raised in Puerto Rico, representing New York’s majority-Latino Eighth District, which includes East Harlem and parts of the South Bronx, the Speaker spends her political life between languages. Her press conferences, like Bloomberg and de Blasio’s, are conducted in English and Spanish. Unlike the mayors, she is a glib speaker in both languages, lightly varies her content between them and spikes her English with Spanish phrases.

She and the Mayor make for an interesting contrast. He is a cautious, polished speaker whose verbal tics — everything is “transcendent” and “historic” — have become laugh lines for the press. His family played a key role in his campaign, and his wife has been a familiar, polarizing presence in City Hall. One observer described his political behavior as oleaginous.

Mark-Viverito has sharper edges. She is unmarried and does not make political theater of her life. It is difficult, she said, to unplug from a job that stretches from meetings and announcements into restaurants and theaters. But on Twitter, where she disclosed last year that she had HPV, she projects a string of unfiltered thoughts and commentary. In person, she conveys a similar sense of prickly authenticity — of the kind that sometimes gets politicians in trouble.

The biggest issue in New York politics, over the last year, has been the city’s police and jails. The story of Kalief Browder, the Bronx teen imprisoned for three years without trial on charges of stealing a backpack, put a human face on the ghastly reports from the city’s Rikers Island jail. Browder committed suicide in his family’s apartment in June. In August, Eric Garner’s death in NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo’s chokehold set off weeks of nationwide protests. Mark-Viverito had decried the injustice of Garner’s death, leading the City Council in a recitation of his dying words, repeated 11 times: “I can’t breathe.” In December, two weeks after a grand jury opted not to indict the officer, a Maryland man shot and killed two NYPD police officers as they sat in their patrol car in Brooklyn in an apparent revenge killing. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, one of the city’s police unions, distributed a form to officers asking de Blasio and Mark-Viverito not to attend their funerals should they be killed in the line of duty, and images of thousands of officers at the officers’ funerals with their backs turned to the Mayor ran on national television for days.

It seemed to upset the Mayor, and as conservatives crowed about a return to the “bad old days,” he backed away from addressing policing practice, an issue that had defined his campaign.

Mark-Viverito took up the issue. In February, in her first State of the City address, she outlined a program for criminal justice reform, which she later summed up to me like this: “We should be minimizing people’s interaction with the criminal justice system.” Broken windows policing, she believes, still needs to be reformed. She has never been shy about speaking critically of the NYPD’s methods; during her first term in the Council, she wrote to then-NYPD chief Ray Kelly that the temporary police towers erected in perceived trouble spots were “eerily reminiscent of a jailhouse turret.”

“If I align with the Mayor on certain things, great, but if I don’t, it’s going to be known too. I am my own person.”

One of the Speaker’s February proposals — that the city hire more than 1,000 new police officers — was adopted in the budget this June despite the Mayor’s initial objections. Another, the creation of a $1.4 million citywide fund to bail out low-risk offenders, was incorporated alongside de Blasio’s own bail reform plan. A third, to reduce penalties for low-level offenses like open containers, transit fare evasion and public urination, drew opposition from NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and set her at odds with the three Democrats in citywide office, the Mayor, Comptroller Scott Stringer, and Public Advocate Letitia James, but remains a public talking point and one of her primary goals.

Wherever these colleagues are, whatever policy they support, you can generally find Mark-Viverito a step to the left. Unlike de Blasio, she supports the full legalization of marijuana in the city. Unlike the Mayor, she has been a steadfast supporter of congestion pricing in Manhattan. And unlike the Mayor, she was a supporter of legislation (which her predecessor, Christine Quinn, did not allow to come to a vote) to make New York City the largest jurisdiction in the nation where non-citizens can vote.

You could argue her small constituency — she was elected on 13,700 votes in 2013 — liberates her from the political caution that impedes holders of citywide office. But she isn’t on the fringe of her city’s deliberative body; she’s its leader.

A Leader for a Changing New York

Politically, Melissa Mark-Viverito represents the meeting point of two of the New York Left’s great bastions. Prior to her first, unsuccessful council run in 2003, she was an organizer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, which many political observers credit for delivering the Democratic primary to Bill de Blasio in 2013. (The city’s largest union, SEIU was the only one to endorse de Blasio, four months before the primary, when he was languishing in last place.) In 2005, when Mark-Viverito narrowly won her council seat in a five-candidate race, her opponents accused her of having an unfair advantage derived from her labor strength.

Then, of course, she is also Hispanic, a member of the city’s 780,000-strong Puerto Rican community, and the first minority to hold the title of City Council Speaker. She was president of Mujeres del Barrio, an advocacy group, director of the Hispanic Education and Legal Fund, and remains outspoken on Puerto Rican political issues. Years ago she was coordinator of a group that advocated against U.S. Navy testing in Vieques; today she sends out press releases on the island’s dire financial situation and visits often.

In the Quinn-led council, Mark-Viverito sparred with Bloomberg over marijuana laws, teacher layoffs, stop and frisk, the soda ban, and cuts to after-school programs. In 2009, as Michael Bloomberg spent $102 million ($175 per vote) to secure a third term, Mark-Viverito met with like-minded members of the rank-and-file to form a progressive caucus, led by her and Brooklyn Council Member Brad Lander.

It was anticipated to be a big year of turnover, since City Hall’s class of 2001, which included Quinn, had reached the city’s two-term limit. But Bloomberg, citing the exceptional test of the recession, succeeded in getting the Council to extend the limits to three terms. He won easily, but in the Council, the move delivered an unusually large group of competitive races. By the end of it, the Council had 13 new members, and its first non-white majority. Five incumbents lost, the largest number in at least two decades. Four of them had voted to extend term limits; three of their replacements joined Lander and Mark-Viverito in the caucus.

“The newly nominated got together off of that shared solidarity of the 2009 election,” said Lander, who succeeded de Blasio in Brooklyn’s 39th District. “We had common interests in progressive public policy and started talking about how we could advance those goals.” There were 10 of them in the 2010-2013 term; in this session, there are 19 — more than a third of the body.

That gave the caucus significantly more votes in the Council than any one borough, and after the 2013 election, they bucked New York’s county-centric tradition and put their votes behind Mark-Viverito for speaker. She had been one of the first council members to endorse de Blasio for mayor; now he returned the favor and engineered a deal for her speakership, lobbying the Brooklyn Democrats to back her, which they did — despite Governor Cuomo’s rumored attempts to sink the bargain.

The mayoral meddling did not sit well with observers; the New York Times op-ed board called it “unseemly” that de Blasio had gotten his own “hand-picked candidate.” Maureen Dowd disparaged Mark-Viverito as de Blasio’s “mini-me.” The impression, Marc Tracy wrote in The New Republic, was that the Speaker had been selected as a “rubber stamp” for mayoral policy. The perception has never quite gone away: Earlier this month, the conservative political writer Seth Barron referred to the speaker as the Mayor’s “handmaid.”

Several weeks before the Speaker’s Uber outburst, I asked her if insinuations about her independence got to her. “I don’t let that stuff bother me,” she responded. “I know who I am in terms of my leadership style and what I believe in. If I align with the Mayor on certain things, great, but if I don’t, it’s going to be known too. I am my own person.”

City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito listens as she meets with council members. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

To attribute her rise to de Blasio’s deal-making alone is to miss a crucial point: New York is not the same city it was two decades ago. The foreign-born population grew by a million people between 1990 and 2011, rising from 28 percent of the city to 37 percent — the highest level since 1910. The city’s non-Hispanic white (and traditionally more conservative) population dropped 10 points during that time period, from 43 to 33 percent.

“There’s been an enormous demographic change,” said Fred Siegel, a historian at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “The electorate that came out for Rudy Giuliani in 1993 doesn’t live here anymore. They live in Florida or they passed away. Demographically it’s a very different city, and that shift has already taken place on the City Council.” (Or rather, it continues to happen: The Council remains whiter and more male than the city at large.)

Conservative critics of de Blasio have two reasons to be upset. The first is political: They see him frittering away decades of hard-won victories, especially vis-à-vis tough, controversial policing, and moving forward with untested progressive ideas. The second is structural: The City Council, it’s thought, ought to function as a check on strong mayoral power.

Liberals tend to find the second contention odd. “The idea that there’s some problem in a broad ideological alignment when it reflects the views of New Yorkers is a little strange,” said Lander. “It’s more about politics than what’s required for good government.”

Particularly in contrast to City Hall, whose missteps have been well documented, the Council has run smoothly. Once described by critics as headstrong, aloof and combative — “not well-liked,” per the New York Times — the Speaker has by most accounts run a more open council than her predecessor. She dispensed of some of her own power, ending the practice of the speaker distributing discretionary funds. (Quinn had been accused of using discretionary funds to reward loyalty and punish opposition, with district allocations varying by as much as four times.) Under Mark-Viverito, districts received more or less the same amount of funding, with an additional outlay based on poverty levels. She also democratized the bill drafting process.

A participatory budgeting initiative, which she and Lander championed, has spread from four districts in 2011 to 24 today (including eight beyond Mark-Viverito’s progressive coalition). In a model imported from Porto Alegre, Brazil, residents of those areas ages 16 and up caucus and vote on how they would like to see money spent. This year, residents dealt with some $30 million in city money, a pittance in the context of the overall budget, but not much less money than their council members get in discretionary funding.

It’s one of those achievements that Mark-Viverito would file under “New York as model,” a subject that came up again and again when we spoke. This idea — that solutions and policies can be traded between cities like baseball cards — is a popular one among urban theorists in the U.S. and abroad. Bloomberg Associates, Michael Bloomberg’s urban consulting service, offers this kind of expertise to cities worldwide. It took Bill de Blasio fewer than 18 months in office to forge a national platform with his “Progressive Agenda,” a set of policies endorsed by a handful of big-city mayors, national politicians, academics and public figures.

How much can the rest of the country learn from what works in New York, which bears so little resemblance to even the biggest U.S. cities?

“Most cities look to New York to be one of the main innovators,” noted Bruce Katz, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of The Metropolitan Revolution. “But there needs to be some humility, when you venture outside what is one of the great global cities in the world.” (Katz is on the board of Next City.) An affordable housing strategy in New York won’t work in Youngstown. The press treated de Blasio’s national ventures, coming so early in his term, as slightly ridiculous.

Like de Blasio, Mark-Viverito has begun to represent the city and its policies to peers. Earlier this year, she traveled to Phoenix to pitch New York’s municipal ID card program; in July, she was back there to talk urban progressivism at Netroots Nation and the Latino Victory Project reception. She briefed Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton on New York’s program to provide every unaccompanied minor (many of whom are undocumented immigrants from Central America) with lawyers. “It’s obviously a different political climate, but people there look to New York as a model,” her spokesman Eric Koch said. “They can see you fixed this.”

Those efforts, together with the prospect of the Speaker’s exit in 2017, have naturally led to questions about her political future. She has said she does not have plans to run mayor in 2017, or vacate her seat early to run to replace retiring Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel. She is considered a potential mayoral candidate in 2021, and has spoken in private about seeking the governorship of Puerto Rico, according to the New York Times.

Or she may not seek election at all. As a two-term veteran in the 2013 Democratic primary, she got only 35 percent of the vote — a smaller share than any other incumbent council member. Mark-Viverito may be better at running the office than running for it.

In 2017, the Speaker told me, she will see what private civic life has to offer. But, she insists, she’s not done with politics.

Our features are made possible with generous support from The Ford Foundation.

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Henry Grabar is a senior editor at Urban Omnibus, the magazine of The Architectural League of New York. His work has also appeared in Cultural Geographies, the Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. You can read more of his writing here.

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