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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From Private to Public

By the time Mark-Viverito graduated in 1991 with a degree in political science, New York had elected its first Black mayor, David Dinkins. Over the next decade, Mark-Viverito held leadership posts at Latino-centered nonprofits, volunteered at listener-supported WBAI as a producer and host, and continued on an activist path: agitating for more Latinos in government, organizing protests of US naval munitions testing on the Puerto Rican island of Vieques, and rallying for the release of Oscar López Rivera. Her last job preCity Council was as strategic organizer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest health-care union in the US.

All of this would serve her as she entered public life. Twelve years after her first council win in 2005, she has become a leading voice not only for New York’s 720,000 Puerto Ricans and 2.5 million Latinos, but for Puerto Rico itself. (After the island’s 2015 debt default, she delivered a forceful speech on the council floor decrying Congress’s austerity-style remedies for a territory of 3.5 million US citizens.) And she has gained a national profile as a pugnacious critic of Trump and a fierce defender of immigrants.

She has also squared off with fellow progressive de Blasio, perhaps most notably over the “broken windows” crime-fighting philosophy of then NYPD chief William Bratton. Mark-Viverito argued that arrests for nonviolent offenses, such as having an open container of alcohol or being in a park after hours, took an unjust toll on people of color, and that the city, by handling such offenses in civil rather than criminal court, would save money, unclog the system, and enforce the law without ruining lives. The compromise she hammered out with de Blasio and Bratton — the Criminal Justice Reform Act of 2016 — is one of Mark-Viverito’s proudest achievements, one she said will “change trajectories for countless New Yorkers.”

Throughout her years in the tabloid glare of City Hall politics, Mark-Viverito has conscientiously guarded her privacy. Some details are known. She isn’t married. She has no children. She lives in an East Harlem townhouse.

But she doesn’t talk about that stuff. If she really wants you to know something, she’ll tweet it.

Twice during her speakership she used Twitter to make personal disclosures. In 2014, she revealed that she had human papillomavirus, a common sexually transmitted virus that can lead to cervical cancer; and last October, after the leak of a decade-old video in which Trump bragged about groping women, she was motivated to divulge that she had been sexually abused as a child. In both cases, she felt it her duty to use her platform to reduce stigma and raise awareness. “Yes, I’m an extremely private person,” she tweeted. “But this position has led me to understand I now have a bigger responsibility.”

A Reprieve

On January 18, 2017, the New York City Council convened. One might have expected a more pensive mood two days before Trump’s swearing-in, but City Hall was bubbly. Hugs, jokes, laughter among the gathering lawmakers. What was most striking about the atmosphere was the degree to which New York was eager to get down to New York business: passing laws regarding flower vendors, tax liens, arts programs, and vanpool regulations. Washington felt very far away.

The reporters filled up the pressroom for the pre-meeting news conference, and the seven council members who sponsored the bills stood in front of a backdrop of state, city, and borough flags. Then the side door opened, and Mark-Viverito entered; and as she greeted her colleagues, it became clear that the high spirits in the chambers radiated from the Speaker.

“I don't have time for fear. I want to defy, resist, stand up.”

She was still on a cloud. The day before, President Obama ’83CC, in the waning hours of his presidency and after desperate appeals from Mark-Viverito and others, made the announcement: Oscar López Rivera would go free.

When Mark-Viverito got the news in her office, she cried. She had been involved in the case for much of her life, and Obama had so clearly been the last hope.

Mark-Viverito savored the moment. She shared her joy with the council and expressed gratitude to Obama in her council-meeting remarks. No one denied her the pleasure. The hands of the pendulum clock on the wall of council chambers were moving inexorably toward the new day.

Back to the Streets

A week later, Mark-Viverito stood in front of the same flags in the same pressroom. Her anger flared visibly. President Trump had begun issuing executive orders to build a wall on the Mexican border, deny federal grant money to sanctuary cities, expand deportations, and suspend immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries. Mark-Viverito strained for composure. “It’s very hard to contain myself,” she said. “I am extremely upset. So I don’t have time for fear. I want to defy, resist, stand up. That’s what we need to do as a city.”

That night, thousands of New Yorkers of all backgrounds and religions gathered in Washington Square Park, holding candles and signs in support of immigrants and refugees. New York was “demonstrating its values,” as Mark-Viverito had said it would. Things had gotten real, and there was no telling how any of it would play out.

Mark-Viverito was in the park, by the triumphal arch, in front of the microphones, where other city leaders, including public advocate Letitia James and comptroller Scott Stringer, had given strident, defiant speeches.

The City Council Speaker stepped forward, and her voice rose over the crowd’s cheers, echoing the cadence of history. Her message was simple and direct: “I’m here to say I add my voice to the resistance.”

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