New Speaker, New Ideas
Another page of history was written into the annals of New York City government and the City Council last week when Councilmember Christine Quinn was elected by her colleagues in the 51-member city legislature as the first woman and the first gay woman ever to occupy the powerful office of Council Speaker.
Less than two decades ago, history was made when the Speaker’s office was established by revisions to the city charter and the councilmembers elected Peter Vallone Sr. as the first person ever to serve in that post.
Vallone, who had been the Majority Leader, would go on to hold the office, the second most important job in city government after the mayor, for about a dozen years before being forced to end his council career because of term limits. He was followed by Councilmember Gifford Miller, whom Quinn succeeds. Miller also was forced out by term limits.
Vallone, of course, set the standard, using his powers to establish the independence and the vast powers of the new office. The Astoria official used them well, freely leading the council in overriding mayoral vetoes, several times enacting budgets when the council didn’t agree with the spending plans sent up by the mayor and, in effect, establishing the Speaker as the mayor’s equal.
Quinn, in her first term in office, exhibited an independent streak when she clashed with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, leading the opposition to his pet West Side Stadium plan. Her efforts led to the stadium, which would have been in her district, being soundly defeated. In contrast she supported the mayor’s extensive smoking restrictions.
In her inaugural address Quinn indicated as Speaker she would pursue the same open-minded and independent course. “Yes, we will oppose the mayor when we believe we must—I have done so in the past and I will do so in the future—but I sincerely hope and believe that we can agree more than we disagree,” she said.
In stating her legislative agenda, she indicated she agreed with positions the mayor expressed in his own inaugural address—improving schools, building more affordable housing, removing guns from city streets and addressing problems with the city’s hospitals.
We were pleased to hear Quinn embracing these positions because they are laudable plans. The Gazette was also encouraged by the new Speaker’s assertions that she plans to reach out to the five boroughs to tackle their problems. As we see it, although the Public Advocate is the city’s ombudsman, the Speaker should also embrace this role because of the office’s vast power over the public purse.
Quinn said she sees the city council as “an incubator of big ideas...the creator of innovative policies that help people across the economic spectrum and across the city.”
In his first term, the mayor pursued this policy with great success. It can only help our city if its two most powerful leaders engage in friendly competition to improve conditions in the other four boroughs, rather than being Manhattan centric.
One issue that is sure to test the relationship between Quinn and Mayor Bloomberg is the question of extending term limits. As matters stand, many of the councilmembers who are now starting second terms, including Quinn, are facing their final term under the present law.
However, Quinn is on record as favoring action by the present councilmembers to amend the law to allow incumbents to serve an additional four-year term beyond the one ending in 2009.
The mayor’s stated position is that the city’s electorate should deal with proposed changes in the law because the voters were the ones who decided the issue in the first place.
The mayor and the new Speaker seem firm in their opposing positions, and we expect this will provide the fodder for their first clash.
As with the selection of previous Speakers, Quinn depended on the support of Democratic county leaders for building the coalition of councilmembers that elected her. In the present instance, Queens, Brooklyn and The Bronx county leaders, especially Thomas Manton of Queens, assured Quinn’s election.
This aspect of Quinn’s ascension and any future fallout from it will be closely watched by political observers and good government groups. Her independence could be tested by it.
To a large extent, the political leaders following past practice are expected to have a say in the selection of councilmembers for committee chairmanships, which carry a measure of power as well as extra remuneration. Beyond that, we can only await future developments to see how these relationships will work out.