Speaking Up

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito ’91CC made history by becoming the first Latina elected to citywide office. Now, in her final year as Speaker, history has taken a turn.

by Paul Hond Published Spring 2017
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On a cold, slushy morning in mid-December, Melissa Mark-Viverito ’91CC, the Speaker of the New York City Council, entered a school auditorium on the Lower East Side. It was a Saturday, and Mark-Viverito was dressed casually in jeans and a red sweater. She headed past the rows of bolted-down wooden chairs to the front of the room, where people from city agencies and legal-aid groups sat at long tables stacked with pamphlets covering topics urgent to immigrants: what to do if a federal immigration agent knocks at your door, your legal rights, and where to turn for help.

This information fair, a hastily scheduled addition to a monthly program, was sponsored by the New York Immigration Coalition, a nonprofit that has seen its budget triple since Mark-Viverito became council Speaker in 2014. Mark-Viverito, whose district includes the South Bronx and East Harlem, was alarmed by Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, and sought to address the fear and anxiety that she saw spreading among the city’s estimated half million undocumented immigrants.

“We provide these services as a way to demonstrate our commitment to our immigrant communities here in New York City,” she told the few dozen attendees, most of them lined up at the lawyers’ tables. “We’re here to defend our values as a city against what is coming: an administration that does not share our values.”

Ever since Trump announced his candidacy with incendiary comments about undocumented Mexican immigrants, Mark-Viverito has been speaking up. She took immediately to the editorial pages — and to Twitter — to condemn Trump’s statements and his intention to cut off federal funding to “sanctuary cities” — jurisdictions like New York that restrict their compliance with federal deportation efforts and extend services to undocumented residents.

In the election’s aftermath, Mark-Viverito had no time for the dazed incapacitation that gripped many New Yorkers. “President-elect Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric regarding immigrants is an affront to New Yorkers and does not reflect our values, including our commitment to inclusion, compassion, and the rule of law,” she said in mid-November, as Trump’s victory was still seeping into the mental topsoil of the heavily Democratic city. “To our undocumented community, we are with you, we will stand by you, and we will protect you. You are New Yorkers, and we will not abandon you.”

As the second most powerful official in New York after Mayor Bill de Blasio ’87SIPA, Mark-Viverito has been making herself heard — not with a bullhorn on the street, as in her activist days, but with a bully pulpit: the Speaker’s lectern in City Hall.

“We are in a state of emergency, and I’m not joking,” Mark-Viverito told Columbia Magazine shortly before Trump’s inauguration. “As a city we have to defend what we’ve achieved. This mayor and I — what we’ve done in terms of initiatives, public policy, the budget — have demonstrated our values: we embrace diversity, we’re an immigrant city, we welcome everyone who comes here to contribute positively. And those values are under attack. So we’ve got to be prepared. We’ve got to coalesce and push back, and there is no time to waste. We’re going to fight.”

The Road to Speakership

The New York City Council is the city’s lawmaking body. It consists of fifty-one elected council members representing fifty-one districts, and is an equal governing partner with the mayor. The council monitors the functioning of city agencies, makes land-use decisions, establishes spending priorities, and has final approval of the city’s budget.

The Speaker is elected by a majority vote of the council. The duties include appointing the leadership of the body’s thirty-five oversight committees, setting the council agenda, chairing meetings, and gaining consensus on legislation. Twice a month, council members from the five boroughs convene in the red-carpeted, mahogany-paneled, high-ceilinged council chambers of City Hall in Lower Manhattan, where they pass laws that affect all New Yorkers.

Mark-Viverito, forty-seven, was first elected to the council in 2005, and swiftly built a voting record consistent with her activist bent. She fought against the closing of senior centers and churches. She fought for paid sick days and for the rights of tenants to sue landlords for harassment. She fought to protect community gardens and public parks from private interests. She fought “Uptown New York” — a development project for East Harlem, backed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which was drawn up without community input — and prevailed.

She was self-possessed, determined, and wasn’t afraid to take on unpopular causes. In 2010, she asked the council to support the parole hearing of Oscar López Rivera, a member of the militant Puerto Rican group FALN, which carried out bombings in New York in the 1970s and ’80s in the name of Puerto Rican independence. López Rivera had been convicted in 1981 of “seditious conspiracy” and was sentenced to fifty-five years in prison (he received another fifteen years in 1987 for conspiracy to escape). His supporters — including ten Nobel Peace Prize winners — considered him a political prisoner. Mark-Viverito, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, had long been calling for López Rivera’s release. Her appeal to the council elicited an e-mail blast from Republican council member Dan Halloran of Queens, who wrote, “This terrorist, like all terrorists, should rot in jail forever.”

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