Speaker candidates try to sell their similarity to de Blasio

Melissa Mark-Viverito. (William Alatriste/NY City Council)
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At a forum in Manhattan on Wednesday night, most of the seven candidates vying to succeed Christine Quinn as City Council speaker stressed their willingness to work with the new mayor.

"I'm proud of having been the first council member to endorse Mayor-elect de Blasio," said Melissa Mark-Viverito, who is considered one of de Blasio's closest allies in the speaker's race. "I'm proud of the mandate that he has received from his election of moving this city in a new direction."

"We also need to understand that in order to move the aggressive and very ambitious agenda, which I'm sure a lot of us believe in, we have to be a co-partner," Mark-Viverito added, in response to a question about how she would work with the mayor during a candidate forum at Baruch College, moderated by public affairs professor Doug Muzzio.

The Council's 51 members will elect a new speaker in January, in a process that has historically been heavily influenced by the respective county leaders.

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But with the first Democratic mayor in 20 years, and a burgeoning Progressive Caucus eager to exert its influence, de Blasio could have a disproportionate influence on the outcome of the race.

Mark-Viverito, a co-chairwoman of the council's Progressive Caucus, is positioning herself as the most progressive candidate in the field, but did say she would put up a fight against de Blasio.

"We're probably going to be more aligned than we will be different, but there will be times when that difference will have to be understood and that we will exercise it when necessary," she said.

Councilwoman Annabel Palma, a Democrat from the Bronx, who endorsed Quinn over de Blasio in the Democratic primary, also vowed to partner with the new mayor, while promising to be a "check and balance."

"I believe in the mandate and the call for action that this mayor, that Mayor-elect de Blasio, has called for," Palma said. "I am prepared to be a partner to the mayor when we know that legislation makes sense for communities, when we know that the budget, the demand for some budget requests, makes sense for communities, and I'm also prepared to be that check and balance that the administration needs."

Mark Weprin, a Queens Democrat who also endorsed Quinn, compared himself to the incoming mayor.

"He's going to be an outer-borough mayor. Mark Weprin will be an outer-borough speaker," Weprin said.

"He's going to be the first public-school parent who's a mayor. Mark Weprin will be the first public-school parent to be a speaker," Weprin continued. "He has a progressive agenda. Mark Weprin has a 19-year progressive agenda."

Jumaane Williams, a Brooklyn Democrat who joined the race on Tuesday, spoke favorably of de Blasio too.

"I'm very excited that Mayor de Blasio is coming to office and I believe we'll be able to move forward many things that we couldn't," said Williams, another Progressive Caucus member who supported de Blasio in the primary. "I also believe that you agree when you can, and you have to disagree when you can't, and we have to move what the Council needs moved."

Dan Garodnick, a Manhattan Democrat running as the compromise candidate between Democratic county leaders and the Progressive Caucus, offered a similar response.

"When it comes to our relationship with the mayor it will be respectful, always," said Garodnick, who didn't endorse in the primary. "We're not always going to agree. But when we disagree we're going to do it in a way which recognizes the fact that the Council has powers, the mayor has even more powers, and that we are going to make sure that we are working together cooperatively but as an appropriate check."

The one candidate to hint at a more adversarial relationship was Manhattan Democrat Inez Dickens, who said she would not be a "rubber stamp" for de Blasio, who often criticized Quinn for her closeness to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"This Mayor-elect de Blasio has a very aggressive, progressive agenda," she said. "But he has also over the years argued about the City Council, if you will, rubber stamping the mayor. I do not believe that Mayor-elect de Blasio wants to make that same error. He wants an independent, strong City Council that can be a check and balance."

Dickens, who is struggling to keep her candidacy afloat, was an early and vocal supporter of Quinn. De Blasio took the rare step of endorsing Dickens' primary opponent in September.

James Vacca, a Bronx Democrat running as a more moderate alternative to his left-leaning colleagues, has said he would be the strongest counter-weight to de Blasio in a previous interview.

At the forum on Wednesday, he emphasized maintaining a strong City Council.

"I'm confident that I will also work with mayor de Blasio," Vacca said. "I know though that it's important for the speaker of the Council to always represent the body and it's important for the mayor to know that the speaker of the Council represents the body. … It's important that we not weaken this Council."

All the candidates dodged a question on whether they would eliminate stipends for committee chairs other than Dickens, who said she would maintain them. 

The bonuses are typically $10,000, though leadership posts offer an even higher stiped.

Williams and Mark-Viverito, the only members of the Progressive Caucus running for speaker, both promised to vote for the caucus's pick in January.