Features

Making Her Mark

As recently as late fall 2013, Melissa Mark-Viverito ’91 was a relatively obscure member of the New York City Council. A Democrat, she cruised to reelection in her district, which largely comprises East Harlem and portions of the South Bronx, seemingly destined to serve four more years in the 51-member legislative body before term limits would force her out of office and, more than likely, back to the world of activism and nonprofits.

And then her political future changed forever.

Melissa Mark-Viverito ’91 took office as speaker of the New York City Council on January 8, 2014.

A behind-the-scenes push to elect a liberal speaker of the City Council — which included unprecedented intervention from then-Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio — propelled Mark-Viverito into arguably the second-most powerful elected post in the nation’s largest city.

Mark-Viverito, the first Latino or Latina to be elected to the role, has seized the opportunity, leading with a focus on diversity and activism that was in part forged by her experiences two decades prior as a College student. Outspoken and often unfiltered (particularly on Twitter under the handle @MMViverito), she has worked in tandem with de Blasio on a number of progressive reforms for the city, including mandating paid sick leave and creating a new municipal identification program. She also has wielded the power of her position to broaden the reach of government into the lives of its citizens, particularly those left behind by New York’s recent economic boom.

“The speaker is a fierce advocate,” says de Blasio. “A sense of social justice pervades everything she does. I respect that a lot, and I think it’s something that her colleagues in the council trust and respect as well.”

But Mark-Viverito also has broken with the mayor on several key issues, such as the size of the police force, and has used her office as a platform to become a forceful national figure on issues like immigration rights and criminal justice reform.

While largely no-nonsense in City Council chambers, she also can display a lighter side, from playfully talking trash during the annual City Council vs. Mayor’s office softball game, to live-tweeting the Latin Grammy Awards, to sipping champagne and dancing well past midnight during the city Democratic party’s yearly retreat to her native Puerto Rico.

And, with her four-year term approaching the halfway mark, she doesn’t want to squander any time.

“Eyes around the world are on this city,” says Mark-Viverito. “Everyone watches what we do.”

Mark-Viverito’s journey to New York’s corridors of power began far from City Hall.

She was born in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, but frequently spent summers visiting family in New York (the five boroughs are home to more than 720,000 Puerto Ricans — six times that of any other United States city). Feeling the pull of Manhattan, she eagerly enrolled at the College.

But her transition wasn’t easy.

Coming from a high school that had a graduating class of 40, Mark-Viverito was overwhelmed by Columbia’s size. She initially intended to follow in the footsteps of her father, a doctor, but abandoned that track after a year.

She nearly abandoned Morningside Heights altogether, feeling adrift on a campus with few other Puerto Ricans and, she felt, with little support from the administration. “I started interacting with some people who had a very negative view of who a Puerto Rican is,” says MarkViverito, who previously had never lived anywhere but her hometown. She can, decades later, still recall the sting when a Carman floormate decried Puerto Ricans as “parasites” who were “all living on welfare.” Another time, a student yelled at her to “get back on your boat and go home.”

“That challenged me,” she says. “That got me thinking about what it means to be a Puerto Rican in this new environment.”

She realized that her experience of being an outsider was far from novel at Columbia and in the city at large. “That did help shape my level of critical thinking and my place in the city,” says Mark-Viverito, adding that it spurred her to be more involved with social equity issues.

Two passions emerged during her sophomore year that kept her at Columbia.

The first was WKCR. She spent two years co-hosting a radio show that unlocked the world of Latin Jazz to her. Armed with a press credential, she frequented shows at some of the city’s most famed jazz clubs, from Blue Note to the Village Vanguard. She saw the likes of Tito Puente perform and was dazzled by their artistry and moved by the musical tradition of her native land. (Mark-Viverito’s time at WKCR would, after graduation, steer her to the New York City radio station WBAI, a listener-supported liberal station, where she was a volunteer contributor to the news department and political shows.)

The other passion was a burgeoning taste for activism, particularly for racial and cultural causes. As a sophomore, she joined Acción Boricua, a student organization founded to foster awareness of Puerto Rican culture, history and current affairs while also providing support for Latino issues at Columbia. She also became heavily involved with a campaign to diversify the Core Curriculum and another to push for more Latino and Puerto Rican professors and staff. Both met some resistance.

Her niche at Columbia grew to include a political science major and a love for Latin-American film classes. She fondly remembers late nights in Carman and Ruggles debating the issues of the day, and also visiting friends at NYU and on the Lower East Side.

But it was her time involved in political causes at Columbia that helped to shape her career and eventually the policies of New York City’s government.

Mark-Viverito’s time involved in political causes at Columbia helped to shape her career and eventually NYC government policies.

Her first steps onto the municipal political stage came a few years after graduation when she joined a local community board and then coordinated a group that protested the Navy’s use of the Puerto Rican island of Vieques as a bombing target. She later became a top organizer at a politically powerful health care workers’ union before running for council in 2003.

She lost, but captured the seat two years later.

Mark-Viverito’s focus was on bettering the lives of the less fortunate in her Upper Manhattan/South Bronx district, which contains the poorest ZIP code in the nation. She sponsored bills focused on tenant harassment and on improving parks; at times she waded onto larger stages, such as when she criticized Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)’s prior opposition to so-called “sanctuary cities” for not enforcing all immigration laws.

“When it comes to issues of fairness, of sticking up for the dispossessed, she will not compromise,” says City Councilman Corey Johnson, who represents parts of Manhattan.

Mark-Viverito won reelection in 2009 amid a swirling controversy around then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s move to overturn term limits and capture a third term. The backlash against Bloomberg’s extended tenure breathed new life into the city’s previously downtrodden political left wing, including the formation of a progressive caucus in the city council — helmed by Mark-Viverito — and the rebirth of the Working Families Party, which was founded by union and liberal community organizations.

The party formulated secret plans to rally around a progressive speaker candidate in 2013, after more than a decade of rule by moderate speakers who largely kept the body’s liberal tendencies in check. Mark-Viverito and her allies defied the county political bosses who normally hand-pick the speaker and, with de Blasio’s stunning intervention, rounded up enough councilmembers’ support to secure her victory

The vote that made her victory official turned into an impromptu fiesta within City Hall’s council chambers; some spectators waved Puerto Rican flags, and a group of drummers and maracas players broke out into a salsa-inflected song when the tally was over.

New York City’s government is set up to have a powerful mayor but a bill only becomes law if it’s passed by the 51-person council which, traditionally, is dominated by a strong speaker who can set when — or if — legislation can come to a floor vote. MarkViverito’s win moved the council, which only has three Republicans to go along with 48 Democrats, in line with de Blasio and ushered in a series of progressive reforms and programs.

Free pre-kindergarten was expanded throughout the public school system, which educates more than 1 million students a year. The NYPD tactic known as stop-and-frisk, which allowed police to question anyone they deemed suspicious, was sharply curtailed after critics decried it as discriminatory against young men of color. And the council passed living wage legislation and paid sick leave, offering a helping hand to those barely scraping by.

“The council under her leadership has been there time and again to drive things forward,” de Blaiso says.

Mark-Viverito’s political views are mostly to the left of the famously liberal de Blasio. She’s moved past the mayor on pushing for criminal justice reform, including the creation of a bail fund for minor offenders and a call for some low-level violations, such as jumping a subway turnstile, to warrant only summonses instead of jail time.

A blurry Puerto Rican flag and happy people

Mark-Viverito at the June 8, 2014, Puerto Rican Day Parade.

WILLIAM ALATRISTE FOR THE THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

She also sided with the family of Eric Garner, who was placed in a fatal chokehold by a police officer on a Staten Island street, and she wore a T-shirt in the Council chambers emblazoned with his last words — “I Can’t Breathe” — as a sign of protest. The police unions demanded an apology. She refused.

“I feel very comfortable in my role,” says Mark-Viverito, who says she has tried to balance the needs of her district with those of the entire council. “I feel really good about what we’ve accomplished. We’re really making a change in people’s lives in what we’re doing.”

Early in her term as speaker, Mark-Viverito was dogged by a pervasive belief in political circles that she would not defy the mayor because she was beholden to him for helping to install her atop the council. But that has changed.

During two consecutive city budget negotiations, she and the council advocated for hiring 1,000 more police officers to continue to keep crime low and also to provide more outreach to communities that have felt mistreated by the NYPD. The first year, de Blasio held firm and the officers weren’t hired. But in the second, relenting to pressure from the speaker and Police Commissioner William Bratton, he gave in and issued the green light to hire even more police officers (nearly 1,300) than Mark-Viverito had requested.

Mark-Viverito and Mayor Bill de Blasio confer on June 19, 2014, before announcing the budget agreement for Fiscal Year 2015.

WILLIAM ALATRISTE FOR THE NEW YORK CITY COUNCIL

She also opposed the mayor’s consideration of a plan to tear up Times Square’s popular pedestrian plazas as a means to rid the iconic attraction of costumed characters, like Elmo, and half-naked ladies who aggressively panhandle tourists. And she pushed de Blasio to declare a truce with the ridesharing company Uber and then publicly rebuked the mayor for seemingly taking the council’s support for granted.

The squabbles — and her growing national profile — have helped Mark-Viverito move out of de Blasio’s shadow and assert her political independence.

“Everything is on a case-by-case basis,” the speaker says. “It’s not like I’m calculating that I have to do this or not. Depending on the issue, if it’s something I have to break with the mayor, I’ll do it.”

Mark-Viverito’s voice has become the loudest on immigration issues. She’s made regular appearances on cable TV news as the debate in Washington heats up, and the council has established a fund for unaccompanied immigrant minors’ legal fees. She also endorsed Hillary Rodham Clinton for President and has become a key surrogate for the Democratic frontrunner in Latino communities.

The municipal ID card, introduced in early 2015, is perhaps her signature achievement. More than 500,000 New Yorkers have signed up for the card, which allows undocumented immigrants — and groups such as the elderly and the transgendered — who would otherwise have trouble obtaining legal identification a means to access vital city services.

“I think she was underestimated at first,” says Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College and pundit who has watched Mark-Viverito’s tenure carefully. “She has shown a willingness to step away from the mayor and, on immigration, she is becoming a key voice on an issue that looms large in the 2016 presidential campaign.”

Mark-Viverito, 46, has a known preference for privacy and doesn’t often discuss her life outside City Hall. She is equally as tightlipped about her political plans, though she has ruled out a 2017 mayoral primary challenge to de Blasio or a run for Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.)’s Congressional seat when he retires that same year.

But while she can be at times cagey in interviews, she speaks more freely in another venue: Twitter. She runs her own account, rarely submitting tweets to her staff for review, and she has been known to use the social media service to criticize public figures from Andrew Cuomo to Donald Trump. She also used Twitter to reveal in August 2014 that she has human papillomavirus, or HPV, and used the moment to urge her 17,000 followers to get vaccinated.

Twitter is also where she displays her lighter side. She livetweeted a Republican presidential primary debate and often uses it to tease reporters. On the night of her April 1 birthday, she posted a photo of a diamond ring with the hashtags #OMG #YES, sending reporters — and some of her staff — scrambling.

Eleven minutes later, she sent another tweet: #HappyAprilFoolsDay.

That sense of fun is also present in the privacy of her office. There, she can be colorful and loud, nonchalantly dropping an expletive to make a point. Well-liked by her staff, she moves easily between English and Spanish when talking to her aides and has decorated her office with Puerto Rican artwork.

One of those pieces is by Don Rimx, the same artist whose mural once led to Mark-Viverito being accused of — wait for it — performing voodoo. The painting, of a large and rather colorful decapitated chicken, had appeared on the side of her 2013 council opponent’s apartment building several weeks before the primary. The opponent said it was a hex; in fact the piece was commissioned by El Museo del Barrio. (Mark-Viverito, unsurprisingly, took to Twitter to address the wild claim, writing “Darn! My little secret revealed! #cantmakethisup”.)

She also says she’d be open to building a relationship with Columbia. She has spoken at a few Latino Alumni Association of Columbia University events and she credits her time on the Heights for playing a part in getting her ready for her next challenges.

“I do appreciate the academic rigor and the discipline that it helps develop,” says Mark-Viverito of her studies at Columbia. “There were tough moments, but I definitely value and appreciate that they helped mold me into the person I am.”