Speaker and Yapper

Gifford MillerPhoto: AP Photos

Gifford Miller seemed irritated. He was sitting cross-legged in the backseat of his official minivan, behind two bodyguards who stolidly pondered the traffic ahead on the FDR Drive. I had asked the City Council speaker about the reams of bad press coverage he’s received of late on numerous fronts, notably an ongoing council sexual-harassment investigation. He bristled a bit; I was trying to bait him into worrying aloud about his image, and he wasn’t about to do that, of course.

“You’re asking about press coverage,” Miller said, “which frankly is not something most New Yorkers pay attention to.”

But he was paying attention to it—and the negative media fusillade had to be frustrating for a young, ambitious pol looking to raise his stature citywide. Right?

“If the occupational hazard of this job is the Daily News writing an over-the-top, vitriolic editorial about you,” Miller replied, “that’s a lot better than what many New Yorkers experience in their jobs. If a firefighter has a bad day, he’s put his life on the line. If I have a bad day, I might get a ridiculous tabloid headline.”

We were on our way to Astoria, where Miller was to speak in a church basement to around three dozen locals upset about Mayor Bloomberg’s opposition to a Council plan to add city-funded nurses to private schools. When we arrived, Miller spent more than an hour with the worried residents, vowing to fight the mayor’s plan. He dropped his voice as he recounted a tale about how his 3-year-old son had fallen off monkey bars and broken his wrist, winning sustained applause.

“Miller’s problem in the election is not only his youth but the inherent weakness of the speaker position.”

After the event, Miller approached. “You see?” he said as he gestured toward his departing audience. “Not one question about what we were talking about. These people don’t care about that stuff. It just doesn’t matter to them!”

It may not matter to them, but it does matter to Miller—regardless of what he says. Because for the first time in his short, charmed political life, Gifford Miller, 34, is enduring a big-league barrage of attacks from political rivals and media foes alike. In recent weeks, Miller has been pilloried in the press for everything from his relationship with a political adviser–lobbyist to his handling of a sexual-harassment case against Queens council member Allan Jennings.

All the while, his chief rival—Mayor Bloomberg—has turned Miller into his pummeling dummy of choice, unleashing strategic blasts that are carefully timed to keep the negative stories alive. At a juncture when Miller is looking to raise his profile for 2005, he’s instead been subjected to a political hazing ritual, with reporters, editorial writers, and even Bloomberg standing in as the brothers of the strange fraternity otherwise known as City Hall.

The most truculent assaults have come on the Daily News editorial page, which has waged an astonishingly vicious campaign against him. One recent editorial snarled that Miller was “a rinky-dink pol whose judgment is so immature, it’s a wonder he doesn’t appear in the City Hall rotunda in diapers.”

It’s all been a new and unpleasant experience for Miller. Indeed, people close to him say, the speaker was so incensed by the Daily News campaign that he aired his objections to News publisher Mortimer Zuckerman during a private lunch on June 2. Miller pointed out that the tone of the missives was disproportionate to the severity of his transgressions. But Zuckerman, apparently, was unmoved. The next day, a News editorial blasted the council as “Gifford Miller and his little rascals.”

Things first started getting seriously rocky for Miller in early May, when an internal council memo surfaced at City Hall. The 2002 memo, written by a council lawyer who alleged she had been sexually harassed by Jennings, indicated that she had told Miller of Jennings’s lewd behavior far earlier than Miller has said he learned of it.

Of course, there was a problem with the story: Nobody knew whether what the memo said was true. Miller said it wasn’t, but no matter: The revelation drove the press into a frenzy. News editorials, with characteristic restraint, have described the whole saga as a “scandal.”

Bloomberg, meanwhile, went out of his way to stoke the ongoing stories. He and the tabloids sometimes seemed to be double-teaming Miller. At one point, for instance, the mayor told reporters: “Sometimes it is not harassment, it is just a misunderstanding. But that’s what management is all about, and you shouldn’t just worry about this when there is a big blowup in the newspapers.” Miller tried to lob a few counterattacks at the mayor, but they were lost in the din. Other stories followed, and insiders muttered that Miller’s mayoral hopes were dead.

But Miller moved to turn things around. He hired new communications aides and a new chief of staff. “The attacks have been a political rite of passage, no question,” says Robert Zimmerman, a major fund-raiser for Miller. “But he’s weathering the storm, and emerging stronger for it.”Indeed, if recent polls are any indication, the attacks on Miller have yet to register with the public at large. A June 9 Quinnipiac survey shows Bloomberg beating Miller 40 to 38 percent among New York City voters—virtually unchanged from two months ago.

Still, Miller’s current travails point to a broader problem he faces as he ramps up for 2005. It’s a problem rooted in the inherent weaknesses of the post of speaker. On the one hand, a speaker enjoys the trappings of influence—a security detail, a city-funded minivan, a lavish City Hall spread—and these perks, naturally, encourage him to think bigger. Yet it’s hard for speakers to earn promotion to a higher office. When Peter Vallone, a speaker for fifteen years, ran for mayor in 2001, he came in third in the Democratic primary.

That’s because a speaker starts with a huge built-in disadvantage. He’s won election only in a single council district; his colleagues elect him to the council’s top post. The result is that a speaker’s power flows from his control over his council members; he hasn’t forged a bond with the public. In short, nobody knows who the heck he is.

The mayor’s power, by contrast, is rooted in his daily interaction with New Yorkers, and in their sense of his record. This tactical imbalance makes it easier for the mayor—and the tabs—to define the speaker in the public mind before he can craft a citywide image for himself. Which is exactly what’s happening right now—Bloomberg, in tandem with the press, is pigeonholing Miller, right out of the gate, as a youthful, inexperienced pol who lacks the management savvy to be mayor.

What can Miller do? The only way the speaker can raise his profile is to criticize the mayor as much as possible, on as many issues as possible. But that carries risks, too: It allows the mayor to paint Miller as a puppy yapping at his heels. If that’s been easy for Bloomberg to do, it doesn’t only have to do with Miller’s youth. It’s inherent in his job. And it’s a problem that Miller will be extremely hard-pressed to solve.

Speaker and Yapper