1,600 miles away, New York’s power brokers shape a political race
By Emma G. Fitzsimmons
The candidates openly courted allies by lavish hotel pools. They held can’t-miss parties, sometimes at the exact same time.
Party insiders updated spreadsheets to keep track of fresh commitments from supporters.
The fevered battle to become the next New York City Council speaker will not be formally decided until January, when the 51-member Council takes a vote. But it was in full bloom last week at the tropical political gathering known as Somos.
The winner will take on the second most powerful job in city government, a critical companion role to the mayor-elect, Eric Adams, who takes office in January. Adams, a centrist Democrat, has said that he wants to be a “get stuff done” mayor, and the next speaker could help him enact his agenda, put up roadblocks or try to push him to the left.
With seven known candidates for speaker, the race has already begun to secure alliances and votes, and that work was on display in Puerto Rico, where discussions of possible endorsements are known to hinge on committee assignments and even office space.
Keith Powers, a Council member from Manhattan who is running for speaker, posted a selfie on Twitter from the beach with Joe Borelli, a Republican member from Staten Island whose party is likely to control four seats. Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president and former Council member who was just elected again to the Council, held meeting after meeting at a table outside the Sonesta Hotel.
“It’s organized chaos,” said Justin Brannan, a Brooklyn Council member who is also seeking the post. “You have the entire New York political class together, so it’s a lot of gossip and a lot of conversations, and it’s economical because we’re all in the same place.”
Brannan, a former punk rock guitarist, had been viewed as a front-runner. Then came a surprise on election night: He trailed his Republican opponent by 255 votes. He spent most of the trip reassuring attendees that he would win once mail-in ballots were counted.
At a hotel lobby Thursday, Brannan spotted Henry Garrido, leader of District Council 37, New York City’s largest public workers union, and Mark Levine, incoming Manhattan borough president. They were discussing the speaker race, and Brannan quickly intervened.
“We have the votes,” he told them. “Everything is fine.”
At a labor event with the mayor-elect two days later, Garrido said Brannan might survive but that his tight race in southwest Brooklyn had shifted the “plate tectonics” of the race.
“There’s been a renewed sentiment of electing a woman and a woman of color,” Garrido said.
Indeed, at a crowded speak-easy inside a beachfront hotel, Carlina Rivera celebrated being reelected to her lower Manhattan seat, noting that she won “overwhelmingly in a landslide” — a phrase that some in attendance saw as a knock against Brannan.
Less than a mile away, Diana Ayala, a Council member from East Harlem, held an outdoor soiree surrounded by palm trees and highlighted her story as a single mother who once lived in the shelter system.
“I hope you brought your dancing shoes!” Ayala said as the crowd headed upstairs to hear live music.
New members of the City Council made sure to attend both parties — to weigh their options and to not antagonize a possible front-runner by not showing up.
The competitive speaker race was the main topic of gossip at the annual Somos conference, where elected officials, lobbyists and union leaders meet to socialize and strike deals. Adams told reporters that he was not getting involved in the race — although it might be hard for him to resist.
The City Council will have its first ever female majority — with women expected to take 31 out of 51 seats — and it is decidedly young and diverse. Members are expected to pick the next speaker by late December, and few are publicly supporting anyone at this point.
“The big open question is will Mayor-elect Adams get involved, and if he does, I believe that would be determinative in many ways,” said Corey Johnson, the current Council speaker, who will be leaving office because of term limits. “But I think he’s keeping his powder dry and letting the race play out and seeing if the outside players are going to make their move. It feels like a bit of a waiting game right now.”
Rivera, a former community organizer who has focused on issues like sexual harassment, has had to counter the perception that Adams does not favor her for the job. She did not endorse Adams during the Democratic primary for mayor, unlike Brannan and Francisco Moya, a member from Queens who is also running for speaker.
“¡Bienvenido a Puerto Rico Mr. Mayor!” Rivera posted on Twitter from Somos with a photo of her smiling with Adams.
A coalition of five unions, including those representing nurses and hotel workers, also holds sway over the race, after spending generously to help get many members elected. The coalition, known as Labor Strong 2021, has not yet settled on a candidate.
Several power brokers have indicated their preferences: Rivera is backed by Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez; Ayala has support from Rep. Adriano Espaillat; Rep. Gregory Meeks, the Queens party leader, favors Adrienne Adams, a Council member from Queens who is close with Eric Adams and wants to be the city’s first Black speaker.
Johnson won the job in 2018 in large part because of support from Meeks’ predecessor in Queens, Joseph Crowley, the high-powered congress member who was unseated in the Democratic primary by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez later that year.
The setting in Puerto Rico also drew attention to a recent push for a speaker of Latino descent. Ayala was born in Puerto Rico, Rivera is of Puerto Rican descent and Moya is of Ecuadorean descent.
The race centers less on ideology and more on the relationships the candidates have built with colleagues and the support they offered new members in their bids to get elected. Many of the candidates are not far apart politically: Adrienne Adams, Ayala, Brannan, Powers and Rivera are all part of the Council’s progressive caucus.
Borelli, who is likely to be the next Republican minority leader in the Council, said that he gets along well with several speaker candidates even if they have different politics.
“I disagree with all of them tremendously on many things, but it’s nice having the luxury to tell them to their face how I feel,” he said.
Moya, who played soccer with Borelli when they worked together in Albany, kept a relentless schedule at Somos, highlighting his ties to Adams and arguing that he was the only candidate with a “track record of working across the political spectrum.”
“I didn’t even see the beach, to be honest with you,” he said.