Web Exclusives:Features

March 13 , 2002:

Big plans for New York City

Gifford Miller '92 faces challenges as speaker of City Council

Following months of round-the-clock jockeying, Gifford Miller '92 became the second most powerful politician in New York City. A Democrat who has represented Manhattan's affluent Upper East Side in the City Council for the past six years, he was unanimously elected council speaker by his colleagues on January 9. That makes Miller, a politics major at Princeton, in charge of the legislative body which has almost equal power to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Boy-faced and full of youthful energy, Miller, who is married to Princeton sweetheart Pamela Addison '92 now has the lion's share of input as the council votes on new laws, considers land-use issues, and allocates incredibly large sums of money to city agencies and other groups. "There's a lot to do," says Miller, who worked as chief-of-staff for Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney before running for his current position.

One of Miller's most daunting challenges will be closing the more than $4-billion budget deficit, thanks in large part to the September 11 terrorist attacks and a nationwide recession. "We've lost thousands of jobs," he said. "We face the largest budget gaps since the crisis of the mid 1970's."

Miller has already started lobbying the New York State Legislature to reinstate a commuter tax, which would hit up suburban residents who travel within city limits to make their livings. And he has slashed the stipends that city council members get for participating in committees, a mostly symbolic, belt-tightening measure that reduced his own six-figure salary by $10,000. Miller also aims to redevelop the part of Lower Manhattan that was devastated by the terrorist attacks and improve the city's public education system.

When the city council gets around to social issues, Miller will push a liberal platform. He has consistently favored lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights, while openly supporting same-sex marriages, and equivalent benefits for domestic partners. He once drafted legislation that would require the city's health care providers to offer contraception services in their benefit packages.

But getting legislation passed is tricky in Gotham. With the nation's fourth-largest public budget — only California, New York State, and the federal government have larger pots of money — the 51-member city council represents a city of 8,000,000 residents who speak more than 170 languages. To get the speakership, Miller carefully built a coalition of support among Latinos and African Americans, business people and labor unions, Brooklynites and Staten Islanders, Jews and Christians, even Democrats and Republicans. Now he has to keep that group together if he wants to get anything accomplished.

As with most politicians, Miller keeps a jam-packed schedule. PAW caught up with him on an early Thursday afternoon in January, and he had already conducted a radio interview, convened with Mayor Bloomberg, held a staff meeting, met with the fire department's union chief, attended an opening of a gay and lesbian center, and taken the mayor of Paris on a tour.

As the commitments and challenges mount, time is not on Miller's side. Due to a term limit law that he helped pass, he will be forced out of office in two years. He cannot immediately seek re-election.

But a lot can happen in two years in New York City, and Miller doesn't seem too worried about his future.

"I've only been council speaker for two months now and I want to focus entirely on that during these incredible times," he says. "I love this city, and no matter what I do, I'd like to continue contributing to it."

By Rob MacKay '89

Rob MacKay '89 frequently covers New York City politics as the editor of the Times Newsweekly, a newspaper in Queens.