City Council Speaker: The Rules of the Game

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The recent rumblings over Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio’s choice for City Council Speaker, District 8 Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito, have unearthed some of the gnarly underbelly of East Harlem political strife, and raised difficult questions about progressive politics.

De Blasio’s involvement in “pushing” Mark-Viverito’s candidacy is being questioned because it apparently doesn’t have a recent precedent. Some are claiming there were patronage jobs involved in a back-room deal de Blasio made with Brooklyn Democratic “boss” Frank Seddio, who seems to have flipped his support (and effectively that of his followers) toward Mark-Viverito. The New York Times‘s Jim Dwyer also points out that de Blasio had frequently criticized outgoing Mayor Bloomberg for having a close ally in Council Speaker Christine Quinn, yet now seems fine with anointing a close progressive ally in Mark-Viverito.

The ideals of democracy would have us believe that a City Council Speaker who could act as an adversary to the Mayor would be desirable, so as to not allow too much concentration of power in the form of runaway rubber-stamping of the executive branch’s policies. Yet we remain in a deep economic crisis that has eviscerated the support network for the city’s middle class, working poor, and disenfranchised, and perhaps we could use a little tag-team strong-arming of Wall Street and the Real Estate Mob to compensate for the damage done. Also not a small point: New York City politics has long been bereft of significant Latino leadership, and the ascension of Mark Viverito to the second-most powerful post in the city would ameliorate that to some extent.

But yet there are these nagging questions, and even in raising these questions, some strange editorial rhetoric. While pointing out that Mark-Viverito was hardly being humble when she (again unprecedentedly) claimed victory two weeks before the election that would seal the deal, Dwyer resorts to using the George W. Bush “Mission Accomplished” analogy to describe MMV’s hasty announcement. He may or may not have cribbed the remark from Queens Democratic leader Joe Crowley. This false equivalence–often employed by seasoned, “objective” pundits–between “extremes” of the right and left is one of the biggest “common sense” errors of today’s political discourse. How can you compare someone provoking a pointless and borderline genocidal war against Iraq with an ambitious City Councilwoman perhaps prepping us with a dose of the inevitability game Bloomberg played so well?

Still, the wreckage left from the process of city politics that form the basis of our “democracy” leaves us wondering what exactly we’re fighting for. The story Dwyer elicits from NILP leader Angelo Falcón is very real and disturbing. So is the one about the mishandling of the Julia de Burgos Center’s community space, which lead to the unfortunate dressing-down of the late Yolanda Sánchez. While I don’t get the joke about East Harlem being like North Korea (does contentiousness = kissing up to Dennis Rodman?), there are important questions here about exactly how MMV is representing Latinos in New York City.

Recently, a Bronx activist fretted that one of our local nonprofits fell into disarray when its leader marginalized everyone with dissenting opinions and associated closely only with persons who did not challenge them. I think we can see that there is some evidence of this already in progressive politics both nationwide and locally, and perhaps it’s because it seems to be expedient in the process of electoral politics. But when does “closing ranks” mean “suppression of opposing ideas”? When does party or even ideological loyalty become pragmatic self-censorship?

We need to figure out how to get our heads around problems like this. While it is possible to feel pride and want to celebrate the accession of “one of our own” to a powerful position, we can’t just be satisfied with that. The councilwoman’s record is filled with a litany of progressive achievements, and for that we are grateful. But we reserve the right to question the political process as it moves forward, and remain vigilant of the glaring imperfections of the way power is wielded in this city.

We may not hate the player, but we have to question the game.

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