The speaker’s race—the Council’s own internal contest for electing its leadership—comes at a turbulent time, as the city attempts to rebound from the impact of the still-mutating COVID-19 virus. Each speaker sets the legislative agenda for the incoming Council and liaises between the lawmaking body and the administration.
In just under a month, an (almost) brand new New York City Council will be sworn in. It will be the most racially diverse Council ever, and feature a historic number of women, including the first Muslim councilmember, Brooklyn’s Shahana Hanif, and the first openly gay Black women, Kristin Richardson Jordan in Manhattan and Crystal Hudson of Brooklyn.
READ MORE: How Small-Dollar Public Financing Helped NYC Elect Its Most Diverse City Council Ever
Many of the freshman members lean further to the left than their predecessors, several propelled by ideas like “budget justice” which includes, for some, diverting public funds from the police department toward urgent housing and health care needs.
They will work alongside new members who represent more moderate parts of the five boroughs, of course, including those who hope mayor-elect Eric Adams keeps repeated campaign pledges to strengthen the N.Y.P.D. and to further encourage businesses to operate here. The body’s Republican representation is set to grow, from three current GOP members to five.
The speaker’s race—the Council’s own, internal contest for electing its leadership—has emerged as a bellwether for the priorities of the incoming members at a turbulent time, as the city attempts to rebound from the impact of the still-mutating COVID-19 virus. Each speaker sets the legislative agenda with the incoming Council and regularly liaises between the lawmaking body and the mayoral administration.
For speaker hopefuls, years of carefully cultivated political relationships matter. Several of those running, including returning Councilmembers Adrienne Adams, Diana Ayala, Justin Brannan and Francisco Moya, endorsed mayor-elect Eric Adams, a figure they will certainly work closely with if elected speaker. Some, like Queens Councilmember and public safety committee chair Adrienne Adams (no relation to the current Brooklyn BP) have known him for years—the two went to high school together.
Incoming Councilmember and current Manhattan BP Gale Brewer is also running, as are Councilmembers Keith Powers and Carlina Rivera.
Optics increasingly matter, too, particularly as the ongoing pandemic has magnified how deeply entrenched racial and socioeconomic inequity is in New York City: In the more than 30 years since the post was created, the Council has never elected a Black speaker, and has never had a speaker from Brooklyn or Staten Island. The last four—current Speaker Corey Johnson, Melissa Mark-Viverito, Christine Quinn, and Gifford Miller—represented Manhattan districts. (Mark-Viverito’s district, which initially included East Harlem, was redrawn after the 2010 Census to include part of the South Bronx.)
Adding to the stakes: All councilmembers in each of the city’s 51 districts will run for their seats again soon, in 2023, after New York’s districts are redrawn because of the 2020 census, shrinking their usual four-year terms to just two years.
Most of the speaker candidates—perhaps taxed by the recent string of Zoom panels and forums aimed at teasing out their positions around immigration, the economy, and transit—announced Wednesday in a statement to City & State that they would be limiting their participation in such events. Brewer did not sign on to the letter, telling City & State that it referred to councilmembers. She will not be participating in further forums, either, she said Wednesday, beyond the remaining two the other speaker candidates have agreed to.
“As much as we would like to participate in all forums, our schedules are overwhelmed with Council responsibilities to both our respective district(s) and the city as a whole as well as with meeting with the incoming members and others about priorities to get NYC back on its feet,” the statement read. “It’s why, as a group, we have agreed to participate in two upcoming forums that provide an opportunity to speak to incoming members and the public about the important issues facing our city.” One will be held by City & State, the other televised on NY 1.
Below, the speaker candidates, featured in alphabetical order by last name, told City Limits about their legislative priorities for the coming term, as well as what they’d focus on if elected to the post. Most said they looked forward to collaboratively building a legislative agenda with the incoming Council; some offered detail on specific problems they’d like to work to fix.
Councilmember-elect Brewer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Council District 28: Jamaica, Richmond Hill, Rochdale Village, South Ozone Park
In an interview with City Limits, Adams said she hopes to address deeply entrenched problems within the police department and the Department of Education.
“As chair of the public safety committee, I’m really, really interested in making sure that we have reform across the NYPD,” Adams said.
“We’ve done some great work in my committee. But there’s still a lot to do. We’ve got a lot of good reform legislation that we have on the books right now—we were able to pass qualified immunity,” she added, referring to legislation approved this past spring limiting the NYPD’s use of a legal doctrine that previously protected officers accused of misconduct from getting sued. “The only jurisdiction in the country that passed qualified immunity is New York City—President Biden hasn’t even been able to do that yet.”
Adams is also an ally of Mayor-elect Adams, a relationship that might prove valuable if she is elected speaker. “It’s going to be important for our mayor to have a partner in City Hall and not an adversary,” she said.
“We’re not besties,” she added, rebuffing potential criticism that the relationship could compromise her independence as a member of the Council. “But we do know and respect each other’s work. I know when to partner with him. And I also know what to push back on him. And I think that’s the balance that’s needed as a speaker.”
Council District 8: El Barrio/East Harlem, Mott Haven, Highbridge, Concourse, Longwood, Port Morris
Ayala, who represents a district that includes East Harlem and part of the South Bronx, is very concerned with “budget equity,” or ensuring that each district receives funding and city services, like sanitation, in an equitable way, she told City Limits. She would also prioritize mental health initiatives and meaningfully addressing the city’s substance abuse and overdose crises.
Many communities, including hers, do not have residents who can afford to supplement public garbage pickups with private carters, she said. This means reductions or changes to suchcity services are often hardest felt by residents of lower income districts, she added. The next speaker, she said, should ensure these New Yorkers are not left behind as the city hurtles toward recovery.
“We have a lot of unfinished business that we need to get back to,” Ayala said.
“In communities like mine, I have people that are living with mold, with rats, with no food, people who are still unemployed—those things require our immediate attention,” she added. “The nice, fancy stuff, the new, and innovative, will come. But I think that for me, it’s important that we not step forward without actually taking a couple of steps back, and trying to really help address some of the existing conditions.”
Council District 43: Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst, Bath Beach
For Brannan, who weathered a bruising general election contest last month for his South Brooklyn seat, working to address many of the inequities exposed by COVID-19 that are “really hidden in plain sight,” will be key in the coming term.
Specifically, he told City Limits that he is interested in working to mend the digital divide, which describes the gulf between those with access to high-speed internet and those without, and creating a universal after-school program. Those services are essential to public life, he added, and should be treated as such.
“It would now be malpractice for us not to fix what has only been exacerbated by the pandemic,’ he said. “”The same way you turn on a faucet and get water, people need to have Wi-Fi. It’s not a luxury, it’s a utility, it’s a necessity.”
Council District 21: East Elmhurst, Jackson Heights, LeFrak City and Corona
In a statement to City Limits, Moya, a Corona, Queens native, said “New York City is just emerging from the worst crisis in history. We need experienced and thoughtful leaders to deal with the economic, public safety, affordable housing and health care challenges that we are facing in a way that sets us on a path to become the city we want to be. Solving this many crises at once will require a unified effort by city and state government leaders, labor leaders and the business community.”
A former state Assemblymember whose district was one of the worst battered by the pandemic, Moya added that he is “an experienced leader with the pragmatic solutions needed to get our great city back on track.”
“I am the only candidate for speaker who has had a long, successful career in Albany and City Hall and who has a track record of working across the political spectrum,” he said. “I look forward to collaborating with the new Mayor and Governor to solve our complex problems.”
Council District 4: Upper East Side, Carnegie Hill, Yorkville, Central Park South, Midtown East, Times Square, Koreatown, Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, Waterside Plaza, Tudor City, Turtle Bay, Murray Hill, Sutton Place
Powers, the chair of the criminal justice committee, once represented one of the most bustling districts in the Council—home to Times Square and a large swath of Midtown. The COVID-19 pandemic, which virtually flattened tourism and economic activity in the area, has clarified his upcoming priorities.
“As a speaker, I think the next few years is going to be really about creating an economic recovery that includes every single New Yorker and creating stability for a lot of New Yorkers who have struggled in the last two years during the COVID pandemic,” Powers told City Limits.
He expects that he and his Council colleagues will have to “focus a lot on making sure that every community participates in recovery, that we are investing heavily in resources, whether it’s playing catch up on the learning gap in our public school system, or addressing the public safety inequities.”
On whether the next Council speaker should hail from outside Manhattan, breaking the borough’s nearly two-decade hold on the post: “I think everybody should be looking for a speaker that is going to be fair, democratic, and ready to roll up their sleeves to make sure that our city and our communities get every single thing, every single resource that they deserve in the next few years. And I feel like that’s who I am.”
Council District 2: East Village, Gramercy Park, Kips Bay, Lower East Side, Murray Hill, Rose Hill
Rivera, who chaired the Hospitals committee, is set on improving the quality of care in the city’s public hospital network.
“A lot of the work that I am doing—of course, with my colleagues and other people and advocates across the city—is really around public health care, because of the disparities that COVID-19 laid bare,” especially around availability and access to care, she said.
“As chair of the committee on hospitals, it was certainly something that I devoted a lot of my time and capacity to,” Rivera told City Limits. In 2019, she introduced legislation that would create a New York City patient advocate office, aimed at helping New Yorkers better navigate healthcare and hospitals.
Regardless of the outcome of the speaker’s race, Rivera is excited about the incoming Council class, and the potential to make the budgetary and legislative processes more transparent.
“Essentially, the majority of the class will be brand new,” she said. “Some of them have experience in government, some of them do not, but they are bringing a diverse set of experiences, and identities, and perspectives.”
“We have primary caregivers, and nonprofit executives, and innovators, and change makers, and people who know their districts very, very well,” Rivera added. “And will have to come in hitting the ground running with a brand new mayoral administration as well.”