Written by Jeff Mays
HARLEM — The evening Melissa Mark-Viverito was chosen as Speaker of the New York City Council, members of East Harlem’s Community Board 11 celebrated the news.
“We have a Council Speaker who resides in this community,” said LaShawn Henry, chair of the Land Use committee. “There will be a lightbulb on this community.”
But celebration of the city’s first Latina Speaker soon turned to worry as others expressed concern that Mark-Viverito’s new role as the second most powerful politician in New York City may actually overshadow the neighborhood that first sent her to City Hall eight years ago.
“We have to hold her feet to the fire to make sure she continues to represent this community,” said CB 11 chair Matthew Washington. “Without this community supporting her she wouldn’t have been elected Speaker.”
As she embarks on her new role, Mark-Viverito faces myriad challenges, one of the biggest being how to handle her citywide duties while still being attentive to the needs of her district.
“All politics is local and Mark-Viverito now has two constituencies: People in her district and the other city council members that she represents,” said Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “It’s a juggling act that comes with the office.”
In an interview, Mark-Viverito asked for patience as she adjusts to her new role. On a practical level she already has plans to open a second full-time district office in the Bronx because of the expansion of her district’s boundaries.
“It’s a learning curve. They have to give us room to grow and understand how to fulfill those roles,” said Mark-Viverito in noting that she’s been Speaker for less than a week.
But it’s a challenge that she says she is equal to.
“My trajectory has demonstrated that I’m more than capable of fulfilling these responsibilities,” said Mark-Viverito, who added that the city will benefit from her perspective of representing East Harlem and the South Bronx, communities that have been “left behind” when it comes to resources and support.
“The value to me being in this position is that I can look at public policy and budget and make sure it is fair and reflective of this city,” said Mark-Viverito. “That will benefit East Harlem and the South Bronx.”
The balancing act is also something that Mark-Viverito’s predecessor Christine Quinn had to deal with. During her eight years as Speaker, Quinn faced blowback from her neighborhood for both political and policy decisions such as backing a third term for former Mayor Michael Bloomberg and for supporting a controversial expansion of Chelsea Market.
There were grumblings before the primary that Quinn might not win the support of the Chelsea Reform Democratic Club, her home club which launched her political career.
“Christine had to work very hard and be conscientious enough to handle citywide and district duties. I think she ultimately succeeded,” said longtime club president Steven Skyles-Mulligan.
But there were times when “we didn’t see as much of Chris as we wanted,” he added.
“There were certain positions she took that we didn’t agree on,” he said. “[Mark-Viverito’s constituents] are going to have to realize sometimes she’s taking a position as the Speaker and not as their council person.”
An East Harlem community organizer, who asked for anonymity for fear of retribution, said there is grave concern that’s exactly what will happen.
The neighborhood is facing development pressure and major decisions on issues such as the controversial NYCHA infill development proposal.
“She’s not going to give us as much attention as a local councilwoman could,” the organizer said. And some in the neighborhood fear that with more power comes more ability to quash dissent.
“People are scared,” said the organizer. “Anyone who may have been viewed as being against her candidacy or her Speaker candidacy is worried they will suffer.”
Mark-Viverito dismissed that line of thinking.
“I don’t operate that way. I’m not out to hurt people or organizations that may have a different point of view for a position that I arrive at,” she said.
Not everyone is as worried about Mark-Viverito’s balancing act.
Richard Berlin, executive director of youth development and educational programHarlem RBI said Mark-Viverito would be a “critical advocate for the most vulnerable children and families” and “leverage the power and influence of her new role” to benefit her district.
David Nocenti, executive director of Union Settlement Association, agreed.
“The issues that exist in East Harlem are very similar to those that exist in other under-served neighborhoods throughout the City, and it is great that we now have a Speaker who is very familiar with these issues, and is in a position to address them,” said Nocenti.
In many ways, Mark-Viverito is in a better position than Quinn to pull off the balancing act, said political observers. After winning election to her third term, Mark-Viverito is term-limited, meaning she won’t have to worry about running for her council seat or the speakership again.
Chelsea is also a very activist district that came down to the left of many positions advocated by Bloomberg and Quinn.
Even so, Skyles-Mulligan advised Mark-Viverito’s constituents to get to know her district staff well.
“Even if they have this great one-on-one relationship with Melissa … she has 49 constituents who are facing demands from their constituents,” said Skyles-Mulligan. “She will be getting pulled in a million different directions.”