Politics

Sleeper Speaker

The November elections were very good to New York City's Gifford Miller, who has come a long way in a short time.
by | December 2003

In all the national coverage of last month's elections, there was plenty of news about the new governors of Mississippi, Kentucky and Louisiana; a sentence or two even got thrown in about the Democratic victories in the New Jersey legislature. But only in his hometown press did you find any mention of another big winner: Gifford Miller.

In a way, this is understandable. The only ballots on which Miller's name appeared were cast in the Upper East Side district he represents on the New York City Council. There, he handily won reelection to the seat he has held since 1996. But at the tender age of 34, Miller is also the speaker of the city council, and in that role the elections turned out to be especially kind to him.

To begin with, voters in New York overwhelmingly rejected Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bid to replace party primaries with a nonpartisan election and runoff. Bloomberg, a Democrat-turned-Republican who sunk $2 million of his own fortune into the initiative, had argued that the plan would boost turnout and undercut party bosses. Miller, a Democrat, was front and center early on in opposing the move, which he saw as an effort to pre-empt the council's legislative prerogatives. It lost by more than 2 to 1. "That says something about voters' discontent" with Bloomberg, he commented later, "as well as the manner in which he went about pursuing the change."

Just as important to Miller, though, voters returned every member of the council up for reelection, including several who faced tough contests and for whom he had actively campaigned. The results cemented his place as the city's second most powerful policy maker and a clear political comer--he's widely seen as a potential mayoral candidate in 2005--even though he's now a lame duck: He must leave the council in two years because of term limits. Very few would have predicted any of this just a couple of years ago.

Known to headline writers at the tabloids as "Giff," Miller grew up on the Upper East Side, where it blends into Harlem. The child of two civically prominent parents, he went to private school and then to Princeton University. Like his comparative youth, none of this is a recipe for success in citywide politics. Nor does he stand out from the city's generally liberal crowd in terms of policy--despite New York's fiscal straits, points out Cooper Union historian Fred Siegel, "he has been more than willing to raise taxes regardless of their economic impact to make sure the public sector is held harmless in the downturn." But Miller, says fellow council member Melinda Katz, who represents a district in Queens, also has "one of the best political minds. He understands the business; he really gets it."

When Miller set out a few years ago to win the speakership--his predecessor, Peter Vallone, was forced out by term limits--he did it by visiting other council members' districts. For two years, he campaigned in all kinds of weather with candidates for open seats, visited clubhouses far from his usual haunts, established a political club to make contributions and endorsements, and got to know the city far better than even mayoral candidates do. It was a strategy that the occasional legislative leader in other states might pursue, but it was unheard of in New York City politics. "Most people didn't think I was going to be speaker of council with the existing dynamics," Miller explains, "so I decided I had to change the dynamics."

The payoff turned out to be more than the speakership. The 2001 elections produced 35 new members of the council--out of 51 in all-- and they were an extremely independent-minded bunch. But Miller's knowledge of their districts and of their needs, and his willingness to hear out their arguments on any given issue, have helped him keep the council working harmoniously.

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net  | 

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