Rarely is the question asked: Is New York ready for a white male political leader?
But with a white man widely expected to be re-elected as mayor (Bill de Blasio), a white man as governor (Andrew M. Cuomo), a white man as attorney general (Eric T. Schneiderman), and white men as city and state comptroller (Scott M. Stringer and Thomas P. DiNapoli), race has emerged as a flash point in the elbows-out battle to lead the City Council for the next four years.
The speakership contest, for arguably the second most powerful elected post in city government, has raged behind the scenes for months, with eight men competing to replace the current speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito. Early conventional wisdom congealed over the summer that two councilmen from Manhattan, Corey Johnson and Mark Levine, had emerged as the front-runners.
Both are white — prompting a backlash among some influential black and Latino city leaders.
“New York advertises one thing. When you buy the product, you’re buying a rainbow,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, the longtime African-American political activist. “And when you get home you find out you have a white, vanilla ice cream cone and there is no rainbow inside.”
Mr. Sharpton called the lack of diversity among the elected leaders in a majority-minority city “a glaring example of the hypocrisy of liberal New York,” and called for it to be an issue in the speaker’s race.
Some members of the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus gathered at City Hall last Tuesday to discuss the possibility of forming a compact to call for a candidate of color as speaker. The caucus’s two co-chairmen, Councilmen Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of Brooklyn and Ritchie Torres of the Bronx, are seen as among the other leading speaker candidates. Mr. Cornegy was in the room for last week’s closed-door discussion; Mr. Torres was not.
“We cannot walk past this question, the question of diversity,” said Councilman Donovan Richards Jr. of Queens, an African-American candidate for speaker who was not at that meeting.
In many ways, the speakership race is New York politics at its unfiltered purest: a stew of ethnic and geographic alliances and grievances, a throwback to powerful party bosses cutting back-room deals and special interest lobbying, all with billions of dollars of decisions at stake.
Technically, the next speaker must simply secure a majority of the 51-member council, or 26 votes. The reality is far more complex, with party leaders in the Bronx and Queens effectively controlling 20-plus ballots. The choice of those bosses, in turn, is shaped by concentric circles of influence that include union leaders, members of Congress, the mayor and ethnic politicking.
Four years ago, Mr. de Blasio threw his weight behind Ms. Mark-Viverito, in part because she was a Latina, according to two advisers involved in the decision. This time around, the mayor has notably not weighed in yet on the contest.
“For us to try to act like race doesn’t matter would be us ignoring reality,” said Michael Blake, an African-American assemblyman from the Bronx and a vice-chair of the national Democratic Party.
Mr. Blake said he is opposed to doing “things to check boxes,” but said the ideal pick would either represent “sizable blocks of communities of color” or be a member of such a community themselves.
One box that has yet to be checked in New York is having an African-American council speaker. Ms. Mark-Viverito is a woman and the first Hispanic person to hold the post; her predecessor was the first woman and the first openly gay speaker.
The chance to make history again has led to a fascinating dynamic in which the candidates have engaged in a sometimes comical arms race to brandish their diversity qualifications.
Councilman Jumaane Williams of Brooklyn, in his closing statement at a speakership forum last week, noted his battle with Tourette’s and ADHD and, tongue-in-cheek, added, “I also have been black for most of my life.”
Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer of Queens talked about his time as a homeless youth and quipped, “I have been gay my entire life, and that’s why I should be speaker.”
Mr. Torres topped them both. “For the record, I’m black, gay and Latino,” he said. “So on identity politics alone …”
He didn’t have to finish the sentence. Everyone laughed. Then the parade of first-ness marched on.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan, an immigrant born in the Dominican Republic, said, “I want to be the speaker with the accent.” Mr. Cornegy, who is black, opened with the fact that he is a father of six. Mr. Johnson highlighted that he is not only gay but HIV positive. (It went unmentioned on stage, but Mr. Johnson’s grandmother was Korean.)
Mr. Levine, the only straight white man of the eight, joked he was the only left-handed person on stage: “I believe that should be a qualification!”
In an interview, and in private conversations with his colleagues, Mr. Levine has emphasized that he represents a district “that is overwhelmingly Latino and African-American” in Upper Manhattan, and that he lives in a “Spanish-speaking home, and my kids learned English not until they went to school.”
“If I don’t win, I don’t think it will be because of my race. And if one of the candidates of color does win, I don’t think it will be because of their race,” said Mr. Levine. “I think it will be a much more nuanced, and even complicated, decision.”
Mr. Rodriguez said his Latino heritage was central to his candidacy. Unless a Latino is selected as speaker, he said, when Ms. Mark-Viverito departs, “there’s not going to be another voice of the second-largest community in our city” in any citywide post.
Among the other complexities is the ongoing leadership tussle in Albany.
There, the Assembly speaker, Carl E. Heastie of the Bronx, is African-American, but the Senate Democratic leader, Andrea Stewart-Cousins, an African-American woman from Westchester, has been denied the post of majority leader in large part because a breakaway faction of Democrats has sided with Republicans. Race has been a dynamic in that fight.
“Let me just say, we have always had white men in power,” Letitia James, New York City’s public advocate and only black citywide official, said at a rally in Harlem for Ms. Stewart-Cousins over the summer.
That argument, made with a bit more subtlety, may not prove decisive, but it has fundamentally shaped the landscape of the speaker’s race.
“Race is the central challenge of American life, so it’s inevitably in the background of American politics,” Mr. Torres said.
Added Mr. Richards, “There’s no doubt that identity politics does play out in politics.”