“We have to hope for the best but prepare for the worst”
Jumaane Williams talking to media at the Fourth Speakers Forum in SoHo. Photo: Vannessa Alvarez
He joined the race a bit late, but Brooklyn has a contender for the coveted spot of New York City Council speaker—the city government’s second most powerful position next to that of mayor. And he is running as a strong progressive.
City Councilman Jumaane Williams, 37, represents the 45th district, which encompasses Flatbush, East Flatbush, Flatlands, and parts of Midwood and Canarsie. He chose the second Speakers Forum, held at Brooklyn Borough Hall on November 19, to announce that he is a candidate for the position, and has been campaigning nonstop since. He’s the only council member from Brooklyn seeking to be speaker.
Williams is a first-generation Brooklynite who earned an undergraduate degree in political science and a master’s degree in urban policy and administration from Brooklyn College. A first-term councilman—he was elected in 2009—Williams is known for proposing successful legislation to curb Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s controversial stop-and-frisk policy, and for his work in education and public housing. He chairs the council’s Oversight & Investigations committee and co-chairs the council’s Gun Violence Task Force, as well as the Black, Latino, and Asian Caucus, and is a founding member of the council’s growing Progressive Caucus.
District 3’s Christine C. Quinn will hold the speaker’s position until her term expires on December 31st, leaving room for new leadership. According to the seven candidates seeking to replace her, there’s been widespread discontent with Quinn’s leadership and the council is calling for the new speaker to be neutral and to “take the politics out of it,” said councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito during the taping of the first ever-televised Speakers Forum on November 21.
Mark-Viverito, a favorite for the position among labor groups, has strong ties to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and represents the 8th district, which includes East Harlem and Manhattan Valley in Manhattan and Mott Haven in the Bronx. She is also running on a progressive agenda. “After 20 years of Republican economic policy in this city that has left too many behind, we have arrived in New York City at a progressive moment,” she said at the Speakers Forum, “and that is something that we cannot have deaf ears to.”
The council speaker is responsible for building consensus on major issues. The speaker has control over member committee assignments, floor debates, and the flow of legislation. And while generally working with the mayor, his or her primary job is to act as check-and-balances on the mayor’s administration.
Come Jan. 8, when the speaker is chosen by members of the 51 districts, Williams is up against Mark-Viverito; Annabel Palma of District 18; and Mark Weprin of the 23rd District in Queens; James Vacca of District 13 in the Bronx; and Dan Garodnick of District 4 and Harlem’s Inez Dickens of District 9, both in Manhattan.
This is the first time the process of choosing the speaker has been open to the public, and the first time elements of the contest have ever been televised. NY1 chose to broadcast the fourth Forum live from the Talking Transition Tent on 6th Avenue and Canal Street on November 21. Williams arrived late to that one, and was unable to partake in the event.
Some voters seem to appreciate the open process. Anna Gago, 49, a resident of the Upper West Side who works in multimedia, said she had attended all four forums.
Flatbush resident Michael Schulkin, 64, a retiree who worked for the New York State Department of Health, attended two of the forums and knows Williams from his involvement in the community. Schulkin, too, said he appreciated the opportunity to be a part of the process. “You know, it’s a civic thing,” he said. “I wanted to hear what their positions are going to be and gauge who would possibly be the best candidate for speaker.
“And they all have very good, strong points. Melissa Mark-Viverito seems to have taken a strong stand; she seems to be well coached. Actually, I think she’s the only one who has a coach,” he said. “With Jumaane, well he’s a person with a lot of courage. He’s a person with physical problems and yet he overcomes them and doesn’t give up,” added Schulkin—referring to the councilman’s Tourette’s Syndrome, which sometimes causes involuntary movements and vocal sounds. “You have to admire a man like that.”