The Nation-City Limits Blog: Why the Speakerstakes Matter

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Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito

Photo by: Taleen Derdespanian

Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito

The most important election that the voters don’t get to vote on—the selection of New York’s next City Council Speaker—was the consuming buzz in New York’s political world on Wednesday. The reason is simple: It’s vital to Bill de Blasio’s agenda that he get a speaker he can work with.

While New York has a strong mayor system, the Council has a huge role to play on the budget and decisions about zoning and other land-use policies. The speaker has the ability to tightly control that role, by naming committee chairs, deciding which bills get hearings and which can come up for votes and apportioning discretionary funding for the members to spend, with favored colleagues getting lots of dough and squeaky wheels getting little. In fact, one of the top items on the Progressive Caucus wish list is to reform the Council rules and reduce the power of the speaker—but that probably won’t happen unless one of their own gets the chair.

Because the speaker can dish out goodies and discipline and set the agenda, almost all Council measures pass unanimously. Even notable gadflies vote with the speaker 90 percent of the time, simply because the speaker rarely brings a bill to a vote if passage is not assured. What’s more, the last three speakers have run, albeit unsuccessfully, for mayor, so whoever gets the post is by default the person best positioned to succeed or even challenge de Blasio.

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