The Melissa Mark-Viverito Legacy and New York's Latino Community
By Angelo Falcón
The NiLP Report
Twelve years ago, when I was sworn in as the first Puerto Rican woman and Latina to represent District 8 in the New York City Council, I saw a real chance to be a voice for all those in our City who, for too long, had been cast aside and silenced.
I'm speaking of the poor, the undocumented, nuestros viejitos. And every single New Yorker who felt that there was more to be done to make our great city more responsive, fair, just and welcoming for all people.
As the first Latina to hold the position of Speaker of the New York City Council, Melissa Mark-Viverito, it would seem essential to assess her legacy for the 2.4 million Latinos in the city. Has her historic rise to power in the country's largest city translated into greater Latino community empowerment? As she was leaving office at the end of 2017, the media reported about her legacy in broad terms, but strangely enough, neglected to pay much attention specifically to her role in the city's large and growing Latino community, which makes up close to a third of its total population.
Having become Council Speaker in and of itself can count as a positive development for the Latino community. Until these points in the city's or even the state's history, the highest point Latinos have achieved in its political structure has been the position of Bronx Borough President. For a community that elected its first public official in the city in 1938, this inability to be represented at the citywide level for so long was finally broken by Mark-Viverito's historic ascendancy to the Speakership, although it was achieved by a vote of the Council and not the city's electorate. Does it, nonetheless, create an opening for future Latino political ascendancy in the city's political hierarchy?
To assess her legacy within the Latino community would require consideration of, at a minimum, the following seven things to review. First, was she was able to bring together Latino political leaders citywide to plan together strategies for greater community empowerment? Second, was she able to strategize and organize to hold the Democratic Party more accountable to the Latino community? Third, what was her ability to effectively promote changes in the city government's structure to promote greater Latino civic participation, especially among the poor and working class? Fourth, how much support did she lend to efforts to achieve greater Latino representation among the city government's highest policymaking positions and in its overall bureaucracy at all levels? Fifth, what was her ability to redirect comprehensively and strategically greater city government resources to Latino community institutions and organizations to build their capacities and promote their greater coordination to develop an independent, community-based policy agenda for change? Perhaps most important, sixth, did the policies she pursued result in addressing in a significant way the income inequality that the Latino community is possibly the greatest victim of in the city? Seventh, did she play an effective role in the recovery of her homeland, Puerto Rico, from the ravages of Hurricane Maria and the Island's massive debt crisis? And, finally, seventh, how effective was her elevation of previously unpopularcriminal justice reforms disproportionately affecting the city's Latinos and other communities of color?
As Speaker, Mark-Viverito had many more responsibilities beyond those concerning the Latino community. But it is clear that she had the background in this community and the resources to address these issues in significant ways.
Uniting the Latino Political Leadership
What role did Mark-Viverito play within the greater Latino political leadership of New York City? As Speaker, was she able to bring together this leadership in ways that would increase Latino political power? The unique manner in which she rose to power as Speaker worked against her ability to do so from the very beginning. Facilitated by Mayor de Blasio, who was not the choice of most of the Latino political leadership that backed Bill Thompson for Mayor in 2013, she started out outside the Latino political establishment's mainstream.
As a Councilmember elected to represent East Harlem and a small part of The Bronx, Mark-Viverito had a relatively small electoral base. When she was renominated to run for her second term in the 2013 Democratic primary, she was elected by only 35 percent. She was at the time challenged by a candidate supported by Bronx Latino politicians, alienated her politically from what is generally seen as this influential Latino political power center.
When in 2014 Mark-Viverito joined in support of the Adriano Espaillat campaign for US Congress, she was not able to deliver her district to him. This meant that she was not able to forge a stronger Dominican-Puerto Rican electoral coalition in Northern Manhattan while giving a false impression that it already existed.
Making the Democratic Party Accountable
Most of New York City's party politics is dominated by the five Democratic Party county organizations, as well as the state party. A recurring complaint within the Latino community is that the party takes the Latino vote for granted and hasn't developed Latino leaders for citywide and statewide offices. The latest example of this is what appears to be the return of a White male as Council Speaker this coming year.
Instead of developing a healthy relationship with the Democratic Party from her position as Speaker, by the end of her tenure, she has, instead, antagonized much of its leadership. Her clumsy, last-minute attempt to place one of her people on the Board of Elections, a non-Latino no less, has resulted in a revolt led by Manhattan Democratic county chair Keith Wright, which was stopped by a court order.
Promoting Greater Civic Participation
There is a general frustration with the consistently low voter turnout in the city, something shared by Latinos. There have been politicians that have pointed out that they don't have to deal much with Latinos because they don't vote. There are things, however, that the city government, with state support, can do to promote greater civic participation. But this would require comprehensive electoral reform that was not on Mark-Viverito's agenda.
Her main contribution to increasing community participation in city government was her introduction, with the Council's Progressive Caucus, of Participatory Budgeting. However, while giving the impression of promoting a greater local community voice in the budgeting process, it was not adopted in every district and really only amounted to an ultimately hollow exercise.
Another complaint one hears all the time is that one major obstacle to fuller voter participation is the nature of the city's Board of Elections as a patronage mill for the two major parties. Most recently, the Board's mismanagement resulted in over 100,000 voters in Brooklyn, mainly Latinos, being illegally purged from the rolls. As a result of a lawsuit about this, the Board has been required to make some reforms in its operations. However, there seems to be general agreement that the best solution would be to turn it into an entirely nonpartisan civil service agency. However, because it is essentially a state agency, such a change would require action by the state legislature. In addition, the people that benefit from such a party-dominated agency are party leaders, who have the most to lose from such a change.
The reform of the city's Board of Elections, one could argue, is a reform a progressive Council Speaker should have promoted. But this never came up on Mark-Viverito's agenda.
But perhaps the most important area that Mark-Viverito can take much credit for is making the city more immigrant-friendly. For all Latino groups, except ironically for Puerto Ricans, this Puerto Rican Council Speaker was a strong advocate for local immigration reform and opposing unfair federal immigration policies. Her support of the Municipal ID, providing free legal assistance to the undocumented, proposing expanding the number of street vendor carts, curbing unfair deportations and so on, greatly helped expand the civic participation of the city's Latino and other immigrant populations. An agenda driven mainly by the work of the Working Families Party and the Make the Road organization, strong Mayor e Blasio supporters, was the political connection that made Mark-Viverito's immigration work feasible. Her critics saw her work in this area as simply being politically transactional and driven mostly by these external actors.
Fair Latino Representation
The need to have appropriate levels of Latino representation in the city government's policymaking positions and its civil service work force would appear to be a no-brainer. We at NiLP have fully documented the underrepresentation of Latinos in Mayor de Blasio's appointments, finding that Latinos are the most underrepresented group in his administration. In addition, we have documented the underrepresentation of Latinos in the overall municipal workforce as well.
However, when upon taking office as Speaker and approached by NiLP and groups like the Campaign for Fair Latino Representation to support increasing such Latino presentation in city government, not only was Mark-Viverito not supportive, she sided with the Mayor in his resistance to addressing this issue. Latino advocates, who were seeking a meeting with the Mayor on this issue, which he refused to grant, were blindsided when Mark-Viverito and the Latino members of the City Council, including surprisingly the likes of Ritchie Torres and Antonio Reynoso, actually publicly argued on behalf of the Mayor that he didn't need to acknowledge this problem. The result is a thin and unstable line of Latinos in de Blasio's government, minimizing Latino voices in the policymaking process as the Latino population and its need continue to grow.
Besides revealing Mark-Viverito's willingness to support the Mayor over her own community, this also reflected her joining the Mayor in a strategy to undercut the access of the largely Puerto Rican politicians, primarily from The Bronx, who supported the Mayor's opponent, Bill Thompson, in the 2013 election. The highest-ranking Puerto Rican city official joined a White Mayor in undermining Puerto Rican participation in his administration. This raised the question, in the minds of some, is Mark-Viverito out for herself rather than her community?
Another failure regarding Latino representation was her inability to promote, despite her Young Women's Initiative, the candidacies of more Latina women in the City Council, which begins 2018 with only two. At one point, Latinas were the majority of the Council's Latino delegation, so it is particularly embarrassing that the first Latino Speaker was not able to promote better Latina representation despite her leadership position. This is more embarrassing as it occurred during the historic #MeToo national movement for women's empowerment.
Greater Resources for Community
An important aspect of being Speaker is the control this gives you in directing significant parts of the city government budget. She as able to steer substantially increased funds to some Latino community organizations like the Hispanic Federation, the Dominican Studies Institute at the City College, the Mexican American Studies Institute at Lehman College, and the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. This, along with grants to Blacks and Asians organizations, represented an important shift in Council resources to the city's long-neglected communities of color. This was clearly made directly possible through the Mark-Viverito Speakership.
But, in the Latino case, there were problems. The most controversial was Mark-Viverito surprisingly unilaterally cutting almost in half the Council's grant to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, while not touching the award to the other major Latino research center, the Dominican Studies Institute. She never gave an explanation for the draconian cut of the Centro's budget. But it became widely known in the community that she did so in retaliation for the Centro director, Edwin Melendez, refusing to publicly support a project of hers --- the honoring of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera as a national hero by the National Puerto Rican Day Parade. This was seen as a spiteful act in the community, that such a political disagreement would end in undercutting the work of a Puerto Rican institution that, until that point, had been very supportive (some say way overly solicitous) of the Speaker's agenda.
The large grants to the Hispanic Federation steered by the Speaker were seen as necessary in strengthening the community's important nonprofit sector of social and cultural agencies. But this was also seen widely in the community as self-serving on her part because of the Hispanic Federation's close ties to her political consultant, Luis Miranda and his MirRam Group. The conflict here is that Miranda is a paid consultant to the Hispanic Federation, with a good chunk of the Council grants winding up in his pocket. This Miranda connection also looped seamlessly with Mayor de Blasio, for whom Miranda also works as a consultant. As the Hispanic Federation continued to grow, the situation of the member agencies it exists to fundraise for apparently continue to be financially precarious. The close connection between the Hispanic Federation and Luis Miranda represents an unholy alliance between a nonprofit and a political operative that only serves to poison the political waters in the Latino community.
Within her East Harlem district, Mark-Viverito has come under much criticism for her handling of the management of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center. A converted public school building that was made into a cultural center, Julia de Burgos was originally managed by a Puerto Rican cultural group. But Mark-Viverito was instrumental in changing the management over to the Hispanic Federation to eventually provide technical assistance to a coalition of East Harlem cultural groups to assure that it would remain under local control. However, this never occurred, with its management remaining under the Hispanic Federation and of Mark-Viverito, who used it to repay political favors. Despite her public statements assuring the community that the Cultural Center would remain in local hands, her critics charge that she never meant it, preferring to turn it over to a politically-connected group whose offices are in Manhattan's financial district, far away from East Harlem.
Another example of the effects of her support of Latino community institutions is when the National Puerto Rican Day Parade came under investigation by the NYS Attorney General in 2013 for mismanagement and corruption; Mark-Viverito had been among Puerto Rican community leaders calling for its reform. The result was that the parade's board of directors was mostly replaced and other changes were instituted in its operations. However, while these changes were the result of grassroots community pressure led by the likes of the late Ramon Jimenez and labor organizer Lucky Rivera, Mark-Viverito orchestrated the placement of her people in its leadership and largely with people that had little to do with pushing for the cleaning up of the parade. As with her funding of the Hispanic Federation and her transfer of management of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center to them as well, Mark-Viverito essentially turned over control of the parade to the Luis Miranda political operation. She engineered the parade board chairmanship to Miranda's close ally, Lorraine Cortes-Vazquez, who went on to become Mayor de Blasio's paid top Hispanic advisor as he geared up for reelection. The political and financial crisis this past year over the parade's honoring of political prisoner Oscar Lopez Rivera a national her that resulted from Mark-Viverito's behind-the-scenes control of the parade board and her inability to reach a compromise, almost destroyed the 59-year-old community institution. This made it more of a short-term political tool for her personal use. She was successful, however, in maintaining in the process the broad support of Puerto Rican nationalists who were supporting Lopez Rivera.
Has Mark-Viverito helped to strengthen Latino community institutions and organizations in her role as Speaker? She certainly increased resources coming into the community overall, but only in ways that reinforced unhealthy political relationships and that legitimized abuses of the use of political funding as a form of bribery. As the case of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Center illustrates that besides resources, who controls these community institutions is perhaps even more critical. At the micro-level, however, there are many individual organizations that she has supported in financial and political ways that benefitted directly from her tenure as Speaker. But, overall, her critics, apparently, give her low points on strengthening Latino institutions and organizations citywide.
Addressing Latino Income Inequality
Mark-Viverito became Speaker supporting Mayor de Blasio's campaign pledge to seriously address the growing income inequality dividing the city's population. As Juan Gonzalez points out in his recent book, Reclaiming Gotham, the de Blasio administration, with the assistance of the City Council, redistributed billions of dollars downward. It his, he argued, through a series of initiatives that included his pre-K program, the rent hike freeze, the raising of the minimum wage for certain workers, his affordable housing program, providing all low-income tenants legal representation in Housing Court and so on. Whether and how these initiatives precisely impacted on the lives of the average Latino, however, is not at all clear.
According to the latest poverty figures released by the city (2015), with a poverty rate of 25 percent, Latinos had the highest of all the major racial-ethnic groups. It compares to 13 percent among Whites, 22 percent of Blacks and 24 percent for Asians. Looking beyond the official poverty level, a 2014 study of self-sufficiency standard for the city found that "The group with the highest rate of income inadequacy are Latinos, with more than three out of five households (61%)." This high Latino poverty rate has remained at this level since 2013 for Latinos, while it has declined, according to the city's poverty report, for men, working-age adults, Non-Hispanic Asians, non-citizens, and those working less than full time, but not for Latinos. This high poverty rate hits Puerto Ricans (31 percent), Dominicans (32 percent) and Mexicans (34 percent) the hardest among Latinos.
Policies of the de Blasio administration and Mark-Viverito's Speakership to address this persistent problem of income inequality were framed in general terms and certainly didn't focus attention on the problem specifically in the Latino community. One can reasonably accept that a significant impact on such a basic social problem is not achievable in the only four years of the de Blasio/Mark-Viverito regime. But was this issue raised and was the reduction of these poverty rates presented explicitly as goals? Was an overall strategy for poverty-reduction ever presented? The de Blasio/Mark-Viverito approach was a number of policy initiatives that impacted on some limited population sectors, with some promising very long-term results (pre-K). However, there was never any analysis presented on how they would benefit the Latino community specifically or a comprehensive anti-poverty strategy developed.
The reason this becomes an issue is that the general feeling in the Latino community is that despite the good intentions of most progressive policies and programs, the needs of the Latino community always seem to fall between the cracks. While this has been obvious under trickle-down economic schemes, it is also a problem under what we have called "trickle-down progressivism." Whether Mark-Viverito has, in effect, been an enabler of this "trickle-down progressivism" in the Latino community is difficult to gauge, given the lack of attention given to the specific needs of this community. This was the case when Mark-Viverito chose to support the Mayor's decision not to address the problem of Latino underrepresentation in his appointments and civil service jobs, which would have had a positive economic impact in the Latino community. In this sense, it could be argued that she has participated in the trivialization of the Latino poverty and income inequality problem in the city. And in this she, unfortunately, joins all of the city's current Latino political leaders.
The Recovery of Puerto Rico
Mark-Viverito, as Speaker, invested a lot of time and effort in promoting the recovery of her homeland, Puerto Rico, from the devastation of Hurricane Maria and the massive debt crisis that hit it before the storm. She was and continues to be a high-profile defender of Puerto Rico when its massive debt crisis hit in 2014 and as an advocate for greater disaster assistance and humanitarian aid to the hurricane-ravaged Island.
But it has been noted that, despite her leadership position, her role never transcended that of one of a chorus of voices on this issue that never rose to national prominence, given her position, as it did for San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz. In comparison to the relief support provided by Mayor de Blasio's competitor, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, Mark-Viverito's efforts to get the city to help were much more limited and mostly simply funneled through the Luis Miranda-affiliated Hispanic Federation.
There was also the charge that Mark-Viverito was more concerned with headlines than providing more concrete support. During the debt crisis, for example, she was one of the leaders who formed and co-chaired a Coalition of Puerto Rican Elected Officials as a pressure group to support Puerto Rico from the diaspora. However, this group never functioned beyond its initial announcement.
Criminal Justice Reforms
Mark-Viverito was a strong supporter of many criminal justice reforms ranging from ending stop-and-frisk, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana and a variety of lower level quality of life offenses, This included spearheading the proposal to eventually close Rikers Island, whose jailed population is one-third Latino. While her critics decried these changes as contributing to a future rise of crime in the city, Mayor de Blasio was able to announce at the end of 2017 that New York was the safest city in the country.
However, supporters of progressive criminal justice reform were critical of Mark-Viverito on at least two issues. First, there was her support of increasing the size of the police force, and the second was her siding with the Mayor to derail and eventually dilute the Right to Know Act. Her defense was that the advocates' agendas were too narrow and missed The Bigger Picture, which some found ironic given her own roots as such a community advocate.
Conclusion: Assessing Her Legacy
I always found it puzzling why, after making history as the first Latino to become Council Speaker, she had such a mixed reputation within the broader Latino community. Certainly the acrimony she received from certain sectors in her East Harlem district is longstanding, based on what some view as her heavy-handedness and prickly personality (earning her the nickname "Malicia," or the malicious one), while others view her like a carpetbagging rich kid from Puerto Rico. But, on the other hand, she was elected and reelected to the Council, her handpicked successor, Diana Ayala, was elected to replace her in the Council, and Mark-Viverito was elected to district leader. So she has had enough support from her district's voters to maintain her political position at least as a local player.
Perhaps her problem within the Latino community is that Latinos are generally more critical of their own because they expect much more from them that to some is unrealistic. This could also be reinforced by largely being outsiders to the political process, which results in perhaps a more simplistic and idealized conception of how politics and the public policy process really work. The notions of compromise and pragmatic values become suspect after so many years of getting ignored or, at best, marginalized. This could be the consequence of mostly not having political representatives that are major policy players in the city, state and federal governments.
In the latest Quinnipiac poll on New York City (October 6, 2017), when asked whether they approved of her handling or job as Council Speaker, only 51 percent of Latinos surveyed approved. Considering that she was a Latino pioneer as the first Speaker of this community, one would think her approval in her community would be higher. While she did worse with Whites (only 32 percent approved of her), she did better with Blacks (55 percent). It was also interesting that relatively large percentages (27-39 percent) responded that they didn't know about her.
There was always the suspicion that Mark-Viverito's progressive agenda was never really her own. Rather, its source was White liberals like Brooklyn Councilmember Brad Lander, the Working Families Party, Make the Road by Walking and its national offshoot, the Center for Popular Democracy. This is a network of politicians and advocates that successfully forged strong alliances with some labor unions. While, as Speaker, Mark-Viverito can take credit for supporting their agenda, it was not seen as an agenda coming primarily and authentically from communities of color. In some circles, this raised questions about who Mark-Viverito was ultimately accountable to.
In the end, however, one can argue that how Mark-Viverito's work as Speaker impacted on the Latino community is not relevant to her legacy overall given that Latinos are such marginal political players in the city's politics. Her ability to rise above a narrow tribalism, some would say, is commendable on her part in focusing on The Broader Picture. However, we should never forget that when discussing the Latino population, we are talking about close to a third of its population. That's a pretty big tribe.
As the reviews of Melissa Mark-Viverito's legacy as Council Speaker appear, they should make some reference to its impact on the community she came from as an essential part of their assessments. I presented here some aspects of her relationship with the Latino community, and interpretations that seemed to stand out. But their importance to her overall legacy will no doubt be debatable. What is not debatable is that it is an essential factor that must be considered. After all, in her farewell celebration, she closed her remarks by emotionally stating that "I came in a Puerto Rican, and I leave as a Puerto Rican."
The ultimate impact of her legacy is whether she will continue to play a leadership role within the Latino community and the city at large, or will she, as her early mentor, Bronx Assemblyman José Rivera put it, become a "has-been"? Was she able to build a viable and active alternative political base beyond her small group of East Harlem loyalists and her ties to the Luis Miranda political-Working Families Party network? Has she established herself as a credible candidate for higher political office, including future mayor? Or has her amateurish political maneuverings, especially those at the very end of her tenure, severely undercut much of her political credibility with the city's power brokers and the media? And after all is said and done, what has been her contribution to the political empowerment of the Latino community?
The purpose of this analysis of the Mark-Viverito Speakership is to point out the differences in Latino and non-Latino political perspectives. It is done with the recognition that there will be differences in assessing her record even within the Latino community and what is presented here will be open to interpretation within the community. But another complication is, because of her Speaker origin story being the politics of East Harlem, most Latinos in the city probably do not even know or care much about her and her politics despite the citywide nature of being Speaker. Is this fair and what should be the proper basis for assessing her overall legacy? I will leave that for the reader to decide.
As we move further into a new year, an interesting question becomes one of is there life after the Speakership for Melissa Mark-Viverito? It will be interesting to see what no doubt interesting things she does next.