Almost immediately after Melissa Mark-Viverito was elected city council speaker yesterday, she formed the council’s rules committee, installing her progressive caucus co-leader Brad Lander as its chair. Lander, like Mark-Viverito a livable streets stalwart who has also championed overhauling many of the council’s procedures, is now in a prime position to help pick who will chair the council’s committees.
Lander’s proposals, outlined last fall, aim to give committee chairs more power over their agendas and staffs, removing some control from the speaker. If these reforms proceed under Speaker Mark-Viverito, it makes the policy goals of those who would occupy chairmanships all the more important.
Committee chairmanships, and their attendant pay raises, are often political spoils for those who backed the winning speaker candidate. In the past, many chairmanships have gone to senior supporters of the Bronx and Queens Democratic party organizations. Most recently under Speaker Christine Quinn, for example, James Vacca of the Bronx headed transportation, Leroy Comrie of Queens chaired the pivotal land use committee, and Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens led public safety.
This time around, the Queens and Bronx organizations were on the losing end after Brooklyn Democratic party chair Frank Seddio aligned with the council’s progressive caucus, top unions, and Mayor Bill de Blasio to back Mark-Viverito.
Soon after Seddio’s move, talk began flying about chairmanships for Brooklyn council members unaligned with the progressive caucus. Chief among them: David Greenfield, who is said to be a favorite to lead land use or transportation. He began publicly campaigning heavily for Mark-Viverito after Seddio’s decision to back her.
Although Greenfield has supported NYPD crash investigation reforms and is spearheading a push for lower speed limits, he’s far from progressive on most transportation issues, pushing mandatory bike helmets and relentlessly campaigning for parking.
Greenfield’s anti-bike, pro-parking positions would be troublesome not only on the transportation committee, but also on land use, which would have domain over any reforms to off-street parking requirements in the zoning code that de Blasio’s still-unnamed city planning director might pursue.
Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens, a progressive caucus member on the transportation committee, has stood up for a wide range of livable streets issues, from crash investigations to bike-share. He would be a better choice if Mark-Viverito is serious about holding de Blasio and incoming Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg to their safe streets promises. But Van Bramer, who floated himself as a speaker candidate early in the race, may have his eyes on a different prize: Reports indicate that he, like Greenfield, could be in line for the powerful finance committee.
Another possibility is that James Vacca could continue to chair the transportation committee, as he did under Quinn. Vacca, who was re-elected to the council last year, railed against plazas and bike lanes during his tenure as chair and has a soft spot for plentiful parking, but he understands the importance of critical street safety issues like crash investigations and speed cameras. It’s unclear if he will remain transportation chair or helm a different committee in the new council. “I want to continue doing something here,” Vacca said at the final committee meeting last month, “and we’ll see what that is.”
In addition to transportation and land use, street safety advocates are watching for the new chair of the public safety committee, which has an oversight role on NYPD crash investigations and traffic enforcement. One potential surprise to watch out for: Street safety foe Eric Ulrich of Queens, who suddenly flipped to support Mark-Viverito last month, has reportedly been promised a chairmanship in exchange for his support — a rumor which he denies.
Another possibility is that Mark-Viverito will offer a few chairmanships to council members who backed Dan Garodnick, her rival for speaker, in an attempt to bridge divides that threatened a floor fight until just before yesterday’s vote. In that scenario, livable streets supporter and former Garodnick backer Mark Weprin, who served as chair of the zoning subcommittee, could make the jump to a full committee chairmanship this term.
The council next meets on January 22, when it is expected to adopt rule changes and formalize committee assignments.