The permanent government in New York is unelected. Deals are made and votes are traded, not on the floor of the City Council but far away in the club houses of Brooklyn and Queens.
This week, one of New York City government’s most powerful officials – the speaker of the City Council – was elected in a council vote without opposition. Initially, there was a crowded and competitive field, but just days before the final vote was scheduled, all the other candidates miraculously dropped out to leave only Manhattan’s Christine Quinn standing.
When elections results are determined before the election itself is held,it is bad sign.Unanimity is antithetical to democracy. For all the proud talk of diversity, the City Council functions as a one-party state,with 47 out of 51 members representing the Democrats. It is perhaps no surprise then that in the past four years not one bill has been defeated on the floor of the council. Because of redistricting, few of the elected officials in that body faced the discomfort of general election opposition. The local power brokers and party bosses determine the line of succession. All this might give the appearance of order and consensus. But it is the absence of real competitive democracy.
The selection – rather than election – of Christine Quinn to serve as the Speaker of the City Council is not without hope. She is, by most accounts, an energetic and capable woman known for her warmth to friends and toughness to critics.While she has been a leader of the liberal coalition that reflexively opposed commercial developments that would have benefited her district such as the West Side stadium and collateral Hudson Yards neighborhood, nonetheless in her opening remarks to the Council she pledged to work with the mayor, saying “I am committed to putting progress ahead of partisanship.” Still, few people would enter office promising the opposite.
Our city can take some justified pride in the series of “firsts” that accompany the move: Ms. Quinn is the first woman and the first openly gay council person to hold the post. It is tempting to call this a milestone for civil rights, but it is more a measure of the fact that being a woman or gay in this town is no longer a disqualifying factor for succeeding in high public office. Influential party bosses like Tom Manton in Queens and Vito Lopez in Brooklyn care far more about exerting control over their selected leaders, rather than what demographic box their candidate might check off in a civic census.
If this is progress, it deserves to be taken with a side shot of skepticism. It marks less a change than a continuation of influence by the unelected. The fact that Ms. Quinn has retained outgoing City Council Speaker Gifford Miller’s chief of staff indicates what is occurring.
The issue of the permanent government will be pushed to the foreground in the coming months, with the Council’s expected attempt to overturn term limits. This would be an act of civic betrayal and monumental bad faith, but it will no doubt make Speaker Quinn popular with her most immediate constituents, the other 50 members of the City Council.
There are several ironies at work: This comparatively fresh-faced City Council directly benefited from New Yorkers’ vote to impose term limits on their local elected officials on two separate occasions in the 1990s. Now that this crew has gotten a seat at the table of power, not surprisingly they want to stick around a bit longer. Self-interest is always at the root of resistance to reform.
The issue is not whether a limit of two or three terms would be beneficial to the institution of City Council – that can be democratically decided through a public Charter revision vote. The real issue is that City Council feels so safe in their seats that they feel free to enact a legislative coup d’etat against the people’s will.
Another ironic effect of term limits has been the increased influence of party bosses who even more than in the past have the ability to block careers as folks attempt to move up the political ladder.The machine is alive and well, and that is an important reason why local elections still get decided in a way that smacks more of Tammany Hall than Fiorello La Guardia’s vision of New York.
Speaker Quinn can increase public respect for the City Council by using her newfound power to pursue an agenda of local political reform in partnership with the mayor. Certainly, this may infuriate the power brokers she made promises to in the process of reaching office, but the larger and more binding promise is to the people of New York, who have a right to expect open, honest, and good government.
In the long run, questions about the compromised selection process for Council Speaker might be resolved by combining the office of speaker and public advocate, creating a new updated version of the City Council president, who, until the Charter revision in 1989, was freely elected by the people of New York to serve as a balance of power to the mayor.
In the meantime, let’s hope that the uncharacteristically sensible words of Councilman Charles Barron – the lone abstention in the coronation of Ms. Quinn this week – continue to ring in the City Council: “I want to challenge you to be independent. Be free from giving your vote to a county leader, a union, a business leader or corporation – or any other outside force trying to control you.The people voted for you, not your county leader. You owe it to the people to be strong, independent and principled in making decisions that affect their lives.”