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27th January
2005

First Published in The New York Sun, January 27, 2005

By Andrew Wolf

City Council Speaker Gifford Miller wants to become mayor, an aspiration shared by scores of others who have worked in the east wing of New York’s City Hall. He may have lots of money, may be smart, goodlooking, and a helluva guy. But history tells us that he may well be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mr. Miller may find that the greatest distance in local politics is the one between his office and that of the mayor in City Hall’s west wing. Those who toil in the city’s legislative branch rarely move up to mayor’s office. You can call this the Council Curse.

Indeed, only one of our elected mayors since the consolidation of the greater city in 1898 was able to move directly from the council (or Board of Aldermen) chamber to the mayor’s office. That was John Purroy Mitchel, a politician similar in some respects to Mr. Miller.
Mayor Mitchel was president of the Board of Aldermen — I guess today they’d be called Alderpersons — and became mayor at age 35, just about the same age as Mr. Miller. Indeed, Mitchel was known as the “Boy Mayor” and ran on an anti-Tammany, good-government platform.

But lest Mr. Miller begin rejoicing, things did not end well for Mitchel. As mayor, his reforms were often criticized as “sharpening the pencil from both ends” — petty economies that did not make a real difference. He was credited with establishing the city’s (and the nation’s) first municipal zoning ordinance and other reforms. While that kind of accomplishment might delight policy wonks, the public at large was less than impressed and Mitchel was defeated for re-election.

Shortly after leaving office, Mitchel volunteered for duty in the Great War with the nascent Army Air Corps. He was training to become a pilot when he tragically perished in a plane crash at Louisiana. He was just 39. Mitchel Field was named for him (and not, as generally supposed, for Billy Mitchell, the great World War I aviation hero).

New York’s greatest mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, also served a stint as president of the Board of Aldermen, but he failed to win re-election.He returned to a seat in Congress, ran for mayor unsuccessfully against the ethically challenged James Walker in 1929, and lost his congressional seat in the Roosevelt landslide in 1932. Only in 1933, with Tammany in disarray, was La Guardia, blessed by Gotham’s most respected citizen, Judge Samuel Seabury, finally elected mayor.

Even the two men who headed the council and became mayor by filling the unexpired term of a chief executive who resigned were unable to hold on.

Joseph McKee was a highly regarded ally of the urbane Democratic boss of the Bronx, Edward Flynn, a key backer of Franklin D. Roosevelt. As president of the Board of Aldermen in 1932, McKee became mayor when Mayor Walker resigned in disgrace. He served just more than three months. However, he failed to garner enough write-in votes to win the special election held that year to keep his post.The Tammany choice, the hapless John O’Brien, was chosen to serve the final year of the unexpired Walker term.The following year McKee tried again and outpolled Mayor O’Brien but ran a distant second to La Guardia.

Vincent Impellitteri was president of the council when Mayor William O’Dwyer resigned to become ambassador to Mexico in 1950.With a name too long for newspaper headlines, “Impy” became a popular favorite who challenged the party bosses and won the special election to complete O’Dwyer’s term on his own as an independent. But his popularity faded quickly, and he was thrashed in his re-election bid by the president of the borough of Manhattan, Robert Wagner Jr., in 1953.

Before C.Virginia Fields gets too excited, it should be pointed out that Wagner and later David Dinkins were the only borough presidents to become mayor.

No City Council member has ever made the jump directly to the mayor’s office, and only Mayor Koch ever served as a council member. But he then went to Congress before succeeding in his second try for the big prize in 1977.

If Mayor Bloomberg was to lose, it could well mean the end of the Council Curse. Since the Boston Red Sox are baseball’s world champions, I guess that this is not out of the realm of possibility.

Of the Democratic hopefuls, every single one has served at some point in the City Council. Anthony Weiner was a councilman when he was elected to succeed Senator Schumer in Congress, Fernando Ferrer was a member of the council when he became president of the Bronx, as was Ms. Fields when she became Manhattan’s chief executive. Mr.Miller and Charles Barron are council members now.

On the Republican side,Thomas Ognibene was minority leader of the council until erased by term limits. Only Mr. Bloomberg and investment banker Steven Shaw, who is the longest of long shots, do not have a council stint on their résumés.

One last point for Mr. Miller to consider is the lack of success of his predecessor as speaker, Peter Vallone, in attempts to win higher office.The well-regarded Mr.Vallone was soundly defeated in a bid to become governor by George Pataki in 1998 and finished third of four candidates in the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary.

So dogging the council speaker this year is a powerful force, impossible to control. History marches on, and only a select few get to alter its course. Is A. Gifford Miller such a man? Stay tuned.

© 2005 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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