Veteran Harlem politician Inez Dickens has her heart set on becoming speaker of the City Council early next year, but a number of new challenges stand in her way.
Dickens, who retained her current council seat after defeating challenger Vince Morgan by an overwhelming 40 percent in September, will be entering her third and last term as District 9's representative.
Dickens is one of about a half dozen council members in the running for what many have called the city's second-most-powerful position. However, the results from last month's primaries could change the race dramatically before January, when the new City Council will convene to elect a speaker.
During her eight years in office, Dickens has made plenty of connections that will boost her prospects for the speakership. But mayoral politics, unseemly headlines about her real estate business, and the growing power of the council's progressives will make Dickens' road to the speakership a challenging one.
An insiders' game'
The council speaker is not directly elected by voters but is instead chosen from among the members in what has been a historically closed-door process involving negotiations between Democratic county leaders, individual council members, interest groups, and the mayor.
“It's an insiders' game. It's done by the City Council members,” Dickens said in a telephone interview Tuesday, adding that the council members look at “who's going to be more fair and who's going to be more willing to negotiate.”
Dickens has “firmly made a lot of friends in the council during her tenure. I think she definitely has the opportunity,” said Basil Smikle, a Harlem-based political analyst and professor at the School of International and Public Affairs.
Because of term limits, 22 of the 51 council members will also be new to office, adding a lot of unpredictability to the speaker race.
Ester Fuchs, a SIPA professor who previously served as an adviser to Bloomberg's administration, said that with Democrats filling 49 out of 51 council seats, the vote would also be influenced by race, ethnicity, and ideology.
With heavy representation from Brooklyn and Manhattan between the candidates who are expected to be the next mayor, comptroller, and public advocate, Smikle said there could be pressure for the speaker to come from another borough.
“What works against both [Dickens and East Harlem City Council member Mark-Viverito] is that they're from Manhattan,” he said. “And there is a lot of pressure for the speaker to come from an outer borough.”
That would put Council Members Mark Weprin of Queens and Annabel Palma and James Vacca of the Bronx at an advantage.
Fuchs, however, doesn't think geography will necessarily be an important factor.
“It depends on how cohesive the votes are by borough,” she said. “I don't see them particularly as strong candidates in this pool, either.”
De Blasio and Quinn
The new mayor will also influence who gets the speaker position, especially if that mayor is a Democrat—and Democratic nominee Bill de Blasio is more than 40 points above Republican nominee Joseph Lhota in the latest polls.
“As soon as de Blasio is elected he's going to have a lot to say in the choice,” Kenneth Sherrill, a political science professor emeritus at Hunter College, said. “He's going to look for someone who adds diversity and balance to the leadership.”
De Blasio is not seen as favoring Dickens in the speakership race. In the District 9 primary, de Blasio endorsed Morgan—the only council candidate he backed who was challenging an incumbent.
In the mayoral primary, meanwhile, Dickens backed current Speaker Christine Quinn, who came in third after de Blasio and former Comptroller Bill Thompson. Long the frontrunner, Quinn's poll numbers fell this summer after a long assault from critics who portrayed her as running the council with an iron fist and cozying up to real estate developers, among other charges.
Throughout her campaign, Quinn was accused of using the city's $50 million in discretionary funds—which the speaker controls—to reward council members who supported her and to punish those who didn't.
Dickens, who endorsed Quinn and stood next to her at her first public appearance the day after the primary, vigorously defended Quinn in the interview, arguing that she had distributed the funding fairly.
“What's different is the capital, and that's based upon each member district's needs—who has put in for what,” Dickens said. “I don't care who's speaker, but it's always going to be based on numbers.”
The member item system was based on data, she said.
“Now, is it perfect? Absolutely not,” Dickens said. However, “it makes it more fair than any system anyone else comes up with.”
A 2012 report released by good government group Citizens Union, however, said that “most discretionary funds are not distributed using an objective formula, but rather based on political relationships, which contributes to wide variances in funding among council districts.”
Real estate troubles
Dickens isn't a stranger to election controversy. Over the summer, a New York Post article called attention to her hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and building code fines, in addition to nine-year-old maintenance requests unfilled in rental buildings that she and her sister own in Harlem.
The buildings became a campaign issue during the City Council race, as Morgan argued that they showed Dickens lacked the character to serve her district. Dickens has said that she had no day-to-day role in the real estate business and that the problems are being addressed.
Although the issue has made her unpopular among tenants' rights groups, she appears to have support from real estate groups. During her council primary campaign, the developer-backed Jobs For New York PAC distributed flyers on Dickens' behalf, and several Harlem real estate executives donated large sums of money to her campaign.
“Real estate always plays a major role. They have power, and they have power because they have money,” said Mike McKee of Tenants PAC, a tenants advocacy group. He said he thinks Dickens “is pretty much out of the running” after the building revelations.
Putting the blocs together
One factor that could play in Dickens' favor is her political ties with Manhattan Democratic Party leader Keith Wright. Wright and Dickens are both members of the old Harlem political guard.
In past speaker votes, the borough party leaders have often delivered most or all of their members as a bloc. They also have a role in negotiating prized committee positions on the Council.
Rep. Charles Rangel, who has called Dickens his “political wife” and has endorsed her for speaker, said Wright would have influence over the speaker race.
“As it relates to the City Council, I always check with my county leader,” he said, referring to Wright. “I am also in close contact with the Bronx county leader, Carl Heastie, the Queens county leader who works with me every day, Joe Crowley. I listen to them because ultimately the different boroughs are going to have to bring some balance to the leadership in the City Council.”
But some observers say the influence of the county leaders is declining, while the council's Progressive Caucus could be a powerful new force in the speaker race. Founded in 2010, the caucus has 11 members in the 51-member council and is expected to grow when new members take office. Mark-Viverito is the co-chair, while Dickens is not a member.
“The significant presence of a progressive caucus in the council, of which Mark-Viverito is the chair of, could also prove a challenge to Dickens,” Fuchs said.
“It's not obvious at this point that anybody can even deliver the Progressive Caucus,” she added. “Is the Progressive Caucus committed to voting as a bloc? It's not clear.”
If the caucus did vote in a bloc, it would be a bloc that cut across borough lines. And many of its members are looking for a speaker who would not centralize power as much as Quinn did.
Upper Manhattan City Council candidate Mark Levine, who said he supports the Progressive Caucus, said he wants a speaker who “is committed to progressive policy and democratizing the City Council.”
Fuchs, however, said a strong speaker is needed to balance the mayor.
“They think by weakening the speaker, they can strengthen the council,” she said. “But by weakening the speaker, they're weakening the council.”
Overall, much will change between now and January. But a number of roadblocks remain for Dickens.
“It's highly unlikely Inez Dickens will prevail as speaker of the City Council,” Fuchs said. “Part of it is some background on how choices get made and how things work.”
“In it of itself, the new members aren't going to have a preference,” Smikle said. But progressive members, he said, will “see who represents them and I'm not sure that's Inez.”
Casey Tolan contributed reporting.
firstname.lastname@example.org | @ChristiZhang