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
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
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 LaGuardia'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 ears of City Council
members: "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."
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author