Public forums seek influence on closed-door City Council speaker contest

A boisterous crowd clapped and cheered and whistled in delight for most of the night at the spectacle of City Council speaker hopefuls crossing swords Monday at a debate in the Bronx.

Save for one brief moment, which suddenly brought an ominous silence to the room. Moderator Gary Axelbank was laying down the rules of the game.

“The concept is that none of these people apart from half a dozen have any say in actually who’s going to become the next speaker,” he said. “We’re still working on that.”

With this second debate among City Council speaker hopefuls, the progressive organizations behind the initiative and the sponsoring council members are succeeding at shedding light on a process so opaque that it is routinely compared to a papal conclave. But just how much democracy the experiment this actually generates is a question that remains open-ended.

City Council Speaker candidates make the case for their election to a public that cannot vote in the contest. Photo: Sebastien Malo

City Council Speaker candidates make the case for their election to a public that cannot vote in the contest. Photo: Sebastien Malo

That is not for lack of trying. Members of the public were given ample opportunity to grill speaker candidates at Monday’s debate, a sign plastered to a wall reading: “Do you have a question you want asked? Ask for a card.”

Nor is it for a lack of high stakes. The City Council speakership, a role currently occupied by councilmember Christine Quinn, is often touted as the city’s second most powerful position in city government, after the mayor. The speaker’s powers are extensive, ranging from deciding which bills are brought to a vote in the council, to appointing committee members and deciding how much in discretionary funds council members can receive.

But in contrast with other citywide offices – that of the mayor, the public advocate and the city comptroller – the choice of the speaker is not the result of a popular ballot. Rather, when the new council meets for the first time this January, its 51 members will be alone in casting their vote.

And even that exercise, experts say, has traditionally been driven by horse-trading behind closed doors, during which votes are promised in exchange for choice committee chairmanships and other favors.

That is a system organizers behind Monday’s debate say they hope to erode.

“When people make a statement to the community about what they’ll do as council speaker, once that person gets elected then we as a community have more power to hold them accountable because they’ve been put on the record about their positions,” said Susanna Blankley, the director of housing organizing at home affordable housing nonprofit New Settlement Apartments, the group hosting the meeting.

“I think it’s a new era, to be honest,” she said.

Some members of the audience Monday, many standing for the hour and a half –long debate in a packed room, shared that vision.

“When these candidate see that people are watching them, they’re going to be more careful in what they do in assuming such a powerful position as council speaker,” said Bronx Park East resident Raphael Schweizer, 28, a community activist.

Speaker candidate and Bronx councilmember James Vacca, whose call to bring non-mayoral agencies such as NYCHA and the MTA to account under a new council sent the audience in a near frenzy on Monday, said that the debate had brought light to his constituents’ appetite for his proposal.

“I think that was the most responsive call that I heard,” Vacca said. “Sometimes my policy positions are based on what’s supported by the general public.”

But others credit the exercise with much more modest achievements.

After the debate, as she posed for pictures with supporters and shook a scrum of hands coming her way, Harlem councilmember and speaker candidate Inez Dickens said the forum was “more informative than anything else.”

“It shouldn’t affect what we say because we’re supposed to answer honestly,” she said.

Hunter College political science professor emeritus Kenneth Sherrill echoed that view.

“There seems to be an unusual number of public processes, like this Transition Tent, and you have to wonder if these are real or if there’s some kind of symbolic politics going on in which there’s the illusion of public participation while in fact things are going on behind close doors,” Sherrill said.

“But even if it is a veneer, it’s innovative and it represents at the very least a bow in the direction of more open politics.”

Bronx councilmember-elect Ritchie Torres, who will assume his office at the young age of 25 come January, explained at the outset of Monday’s debate how the idea of the speakership debates had been hatched as he and newly elected colleagues Carlos Menchaca, Antonio Reynoso and Helen Rosenthal lounged in the NY1 green room before going on air. All are likely Progressive Caucus members-to-be.

“We are making history,” he then declared triumphantly.

On the sidelines of the forum, Torres dismissed the notion of a disconnect between the speaker’s selection process and a public dialogue. “You know REBNY had plenty of opportunities to meet the speaker candidates, but the constituents that I represent, who pay more than 50 percent of their income for rent, rarely have a chance to speak to their leaders in government, and we came for that.”

The next speaker debates takes place Tuesday night in Brooklyn Borough Hall.

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