Mayors tend to occupy a permanent part of New York City’s physical, or mental, landscape. There’s an airport named after Fiorello La Guardia, while New York University has a graduate school that memorializes Robert Wagner. The East River crossing at 59th Street is now the Ed Koch Bridge and the hub of the city bureaucracy has been renamed the David Dinkins Municipal Building. Rudy Giuliani, Abe Beame, and John Lindsay may not have eponymous physical monuments—yet—but their names, for better or worse, define eras.
History has not been as gracious to the mayor’s counterpart in government, the City Council, which passes the laws he gets to sign and the budget that funds the programs and projects that flesh out his legacy. Three consecutive City Council speakers have run for mayor—Peter Vallone in 2001, Gifford Miller in 2005, and Christine Quinn in 2013—and all have fallen well short. The current speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, will leave public life at year’s end with no clear political future. When the Quinnipiac Poll asked New Yorkers in July whether or not they approved of the job she was doing, two in five respondents didn’t know enough about her to answer.
That’s too bad, because there’s a lot to know. While the New York City of the future will remember Bill de Blasio—with fondness, with regret, with his name on a Staten Island ferry or a certain Park Slope gym—a large share of the credit for his deeds during his first term will belong to Mark-Viverito and the council.
To be sure, de Blasio’s own words and deeds have been vitally important to creating a new era after 20 years of Republican rule. And yes, the mayor’s signature policy achievement—the creation of a universal pre-kindergarten program—was made possible by a budget decision in Albany, not City Hall.
But virtually every other feature of the de Blasio administration’s first term has been shaped by or reflected in the mayor’s interaction with the council. Its members have approved and funded critical elements of his agenda and pushed him to take up other issues that became points of pride in his program. By many accounts, it has been the most progressive council in recent memory, perhaps far longer—although it stopped short precisely in the areas where progressive advocates believe de Blasio failed to meet expectations.
In a few weeks’ time, the mayor will be inaugurated again. The council is likely to be as important to his second term as it was to his first—but, for a lot of reasons, it will be a very different body from the one de Blasio has been used to dealing with. Whether we’re looking backward or ahead, understanding the council’s role in de Blasio’s New York is essential to grasping whether and how, in an urban environment, progressive ideals get translated into concrete policy.
New York’s City Council has 51 members elected from districts with populations of 160,000 or so—each the size of a small city. They’re usually elected in the same quadrennial elections that put the mayor, public advocate, and other municipal officials in office (though sometimes when new Census numbers lead to redistricting there are midterm elections). Each member makes a base salary of $148,500, has a staff of seven or so people, sits on a few committees and dispenses several million dollars in discretionary funds to community groups or for capital improvements to their districts. Under current law, members are limited to being elected to two full terms, but several current members are covered by the Bloomberg-engineered term-limit relaxation, and so are either wrapping up a third and final term now or will start one come January 1.