Eight-Man Race for Speaker of City Council Heats Up



It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

SEE ALSO: Power Politicians: The Movers and Shakers of Real Estate Policy

Until a couple of months ago, it seemed like Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, the Corona, Queens, councilwoman, could waltz her way into succeeding City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, whose term runs out next year.

Ferreras-Copeland had, after all, the necessary bona fides: She had the backing of the most progressive members of the city council and was an important ally of Mayor Bill de Blasio.

But before the coronation could be finalized, her chief rival, Democratic Chelsea Councilman Corey Johnson, began laying the groundwork for his own shot at the council catbird seat. Johnson has been in regular contact with not only his peers but also council candidates, party bosses, labor unions and, of course, real estate developers about why he was a better choice.

So on June 1, the day before the city reached a budget deal, Ferreras-Copeland revealed that she would not seek re-election and abandon her speaker candidacy.

Leaving politics was a “very personal decision,” and her constant trips out of state to see her husband, who works in Maryland, took its toll, she explained to Politico. 

The news rocked City Hall, surprising even the mayor. The next day, lawmakers gathered in the members’ lounge to hear Ferreras-Copeland summarize the budget agreement and to thank her for her work.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. It was a deeply emotional moment for everyone there, and she received an extended standing ovation,” one member there told the Commercial Observer. (Johnson was conspicuously absent, but he had called several members that weekend to check in, members said.)

The news left one of the most important positions when it comes to some of the issues nearest and dearest to the real estate industry’s heart wide open.

Six weeks later, another veteran council member chose to step away from politics.

Boro Park Councilman David Greenfield announced he was leaving his job to run the Met Council, the largest Jewish charity in the city. Greenfield ran the council’s other top committee, land use, which controls a broad range of planning, zoning and landmark requests citywide. 

It’s a seat the real estate industry is also keeping a close watch on.

Greenfield shepherded the laborious East Midtown rezoning that took nearly five years to cobble together. Half a dozen other neighborhood rezoning plans are coming up the pike including East Harlem, Gowanus, Bushwick, Jerome Avenue in the South Bronx and Staten Island’s north shore.

It would be difficult to overstate just how important the land use chair is to Gotham’s real estate community. Now there is a wide open race to succeed Mark-Viverito (the mayor will almost certainly win re-election), so the city council race just got really interesting.

The Path to the Speakership

This year there are at least eight candidates for speaker who have been politicking their peers, county leaders and the city’s ruling class with varying degrees of intensity.

Aside from Johnson, Harlem Councilman Mark Levine and Far Rockaway Councilman Donovan Richards have nudged ahead of the other hopefuls into the top tier, according to interviews with more than a dozen political consultants, lawmakers and lobbyists. All three are members of the council’s 19-member progressive caucus.

The second tier includes Inwood Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, Long Island City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, Bedford Stuyvesant Councilman Robert Cornegy, Flatbush Councilman Jumaane Williams and Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres, although the race remains volatile.

“This is three-dimensional chess where the pawns get to make their own deals,” said Ken Fisher, a Cozen O’Connor attorney and former councilman.

Moreover, the City Council will welcome at least 10 new members next year thanks to term-limited departures, retirements and a corruption conviction.

Dozens of candidates are battling for 10 open seats across the city. Another four incumbents—Crown Heights Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, Sunset Park Councilman Carlos Menchaca, Maspeth Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley and Bronx Councilman Fernando Cabrera—face highly competitive challenges.

Turnout for the September primary is expected to be dismal, increasing the chances an incumbent could be knocked off or a surprise insurgent could claim an open seat. 

Democratic bosses will look to corral enough votes in exchange for doling out plum leadership posts to members and jobs among the vast council staff. 

The speaker gets to pick who will lead each council committee, although the slots for finance and land use are a key part of any deal with county bosses or coalition leaders for the speakership.

Council members from each borough would vote as a bloc, and when two bosses make a deal to pool their votes while picking up stragglers, such as a Republican or two, they can secure enough votes to win the speakership.

Outside interests, such as real estate developers, business leaders and unions, will also look to ensure candidates friendly to their cause are well funded and in a position to win.

Developers have met with leading candidates but have not picked a favorite. The Real Estate Board of New York’s campaign committee has so far been unwilling to open its coffers on council races after spending on 22 candidates four years ago.  

“My fervent prayer is that the Real Estate Board will endorse the candidate that understands that trickle-down economics works, that development and commerce are so important to the city, and if you ever want affordable housing and universal pre-K, that comes from for-profit projects,” said Meridian Capital Group broker David Schechtman.

But many of the other real estate pros Commercial Observer contacted chose to play their cards close to the vest.

Democratic county chairmen have the most influential role in the process, and no county leader in modern history has played this game better than House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley, the county’s powerful party leader, who formed alliances with other leaders in past City Council elections to whip enough votes for Manhattanites Gifford Miller and Christine Quinn to each be named speaker. In exchange, Crowley ensured that Queens council members would run land use and majority of the committee chairmanships in those deals.

Crowley thought he had another arrangement in place in 2013, but de Blasio and the progressive caucus, a citywide bloc of left-leaning members independent of county leadership, joined Brooklyn Democratic Chairman Frank Seddio and outmaneuvered Crowley to pick Mark-Viverito as speaker in 2014. (It helps explain Crowley’s lack of enthusiasm for Ferreras-Copeland who bucked his choice for speaker, Dan Garodnick.)

“The mayor got what he wanted last time,” Fisher said. “I think the mayor took a lot of people by surprise with how aggressive he was getting into the mix.”

Many observers believe the easiest path to winning the speakership is securing support from Crowley, Bronx Democratic leader Marcos Crespo and Carl Heastie, who has become even more powerful in his role as Assembly speaker. Both Queens and the Bronx are more unified than Brooklyn and Manhattan and more likely to hold onto a group of votes, sources said. 

Of course, there is another path to securing the speakership that is similar to the one Mark-Viverito took—assembling a coalition of progressive votes in Brooklyn and Manhattan with a push from the mayor.

But the idea that a coalition of progressives could name a speaker also has its share of flaws.

Several members of the progressive caucus are actively seeking the speakership, diminishing their power as a bloc. And their relationship with Brooklyn leaders, whom they made a deal in 2013, has been strained. Plus, the fact that the most visible progressive in local politics—de Blasio—no longer has his preferred candidate in the running makes him a lot less relevant.

“The mayor is a lame duck after he wins; he doesn’t have as much clout as he had four years ago,” said George Artz, a political consultant who advises Brooklyn Democratic Party leader Frank Seddio. “He could dangle any number of goodies—maybe it’s funding for projects that someone urgently needs or maybe it’s something council person wants to kill.”

“The weird coalition of the Brooklyn organization and progressives is hard to sustain,” one Queens political insider close to Crowley said. “Progressives got their start opposing the Brooklyn organization specifically.”

A third approach is some type of consensus between the two camps, but no one yet knows what that would look like. 

“It is hard to see a scenario where Queens and Brooklyn are aligned, but Crowley is a pragmatist at heart,” said one real estate consultant who works with county leaders. “If he takes his share of the spoils is he better off doing that with a combination of Bronx and Manhattan or some combination of Brooklyn with or without Manhattan?”

Council members may also want a speaker who will challenge de Blasio—especially if his poll numbers begin to sink. Some members viewed Mark-Viverito as too close to the mayor in the first two years of her term, but at the same time, she earned praise for pushing him to ease penalties on low-level offenses, close Rikers and increase legal aid funding for immigrants accused of violent crimes.

The Eligibles

The unpredictability of the contest has led the city’s kingmakers to scope out the candidates for speaker this summer.

Johnson, Levine and Richards have already met with REBNY to make their case, sources said. REBNY’s campaign committee spent nearly $5 million on nearly two dozen races in 2013, although some candidates, including Levine, denounced the industry’s attempt to sway council races with their hefty donations.  

A REBNY spokesman declined to comment, only offering, “We like everybody.”

But this might just be a dodge: Some real estate insiders think Johnson holds a slight edge over the others.

“Corey Johnson is a guy that REBNY is going to push for,” said one Manhattan real estate developer connected to Democratic politics. “Johnson’s district has a lot of development such as areas near the High Line, West Midtown, Hudson Yards and several new hotels.”

But developers may defer to Crowley with whom the industry has had a close relationship and who may have the best shot at naming the next land use committee leader. 

“I think they want the organizations to be able to control it with the idea that whoever the organizations pick has to be friendly to the business community,” the Queens source said.

Crowley and Bronx leaders are likely to throw in their support for one of the three, multiple sources said, but they have not revealed who they favor.

One political source asserts one deal has already been struck between Crowley and Rep. Nydia Velazquez. Two progressive council members would pledge their votes to Crowley in exchange for his support in their primary contests, according to the source, who is familiar with the Queens county leader’s decision. 

“Nydia and Crowley cut a deal with Menchaca and Reynoso,” the source said. “They’ll support who Crowley wants in exchange for Crowley making phone calls to unions and helping the two guys to raise money.” The source refused to say who they would support.

A Velazquez spokesman said the two council members “are their own men and more than capable of making their own political decisions.”

Johnson has been campaigning for the speakership the longest and is viewed by political insiders as someone Queens and Bronx leaders favor despite being a progressive caucus member. He called the council a “force for tremendous good in the world” and promised to continue its work in a statement to the Commercial Observer.

But his enthusiasm for the post could turn off his peers, insiders say.

“Corey is working harder than everybody, and there are people who wonder whether he is working too hard,” said one former council member, pointing to an episode where Johnson visited council candidate Bronx Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. in the hospital last year while Diaz Sr. was recovering from surgery. Diaz Sr., a Democrat, is opposed to abortion and gay marriage but is heavily favored to win an open Bronx council seat.

“The perception is that Johnson will do anything to get elected,” the former member said. “Some find that a good quality, and others think that’s a turn off.”

Levine and Richards have tried to appeal to their colleagues and county leaders as consensus choices. 

Levine is enormously well liked by his colleagues and has been making inroads with labor unions, but some question whether he will stand up to the mayor as aggressively as Johnson would. Levine said he would ensure the council remains “strong, united and independent” but would not pick unnecessary fights with the mayor.

“I am not the person who is going to be throwing verbal bombs from the steps of City Hall,” Levine told the Commercial Observer. “I am going to build coalitions because I think that’s the most effective form of leadership.”

Richards is also popular with other members and has seen his support grow not just among progressives but also union leaders and minority- and women-owned businesses.

Council members may push for the speaker to be a person of color, giving Richards, who is African-American, an advantage. Richards also touted his knowledge of land use matters and said he would strongly engage on planning matters before the City Council if he wins.

“I am someone who understands the diversity of the city, and we have to make sure that all interests and constituencies have a seat at the table,” he told CO. “How do you build more sustainable communities and foster civil rights? Planningthis is where it’s done.”

Richards may also emerge as a mayoral favorite. He was one of seven council members who endorsed de Blasio’s re-election last year—but that could hurt Richards among other colleagues and county leaders.

“Richards tries to play well in the sandbox but people know who he is,” said one source close to the Bronx leaders. “He tries to dance in between all the camps.”

Perhaps the key question is whether the city’s still-powerful county leaders can trust any of the top-tier candidates to build a coalition around them.

“It doesn’t have to be someone they love to hang out with, but it has to be somebody they can work with and trust,” Fisher said.