NYC Speaker Holds Final Roundtable with Ethnic Press

Melissa Mark-Viverito (Photo by Karen Pennar for Voices of NY)

New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito says that she has not yet decided exactly what she will do after she leaves office at the end of the year, but said that “most immediately, because the situation in Puerto Rico is so dire and so difficult, I feel that that’s really where I want to put some of my capacity and my leadership.” But she also stressed that “being helpful in figuring out how we take over the House” in 2018 was also a key concern for her, and she noted that even in New York state there are Republicans who are prospects for being unseated.

Rather than run for governor of Puerto Rico, she said that she would focus on how she can be effective, from here, in being a voice for her birthplace in developing an agenda for recovery from the ravages of Hurricane Maria and the financial straightjacket in which it has been placed.

Mark-Viverito spoke at the final ethnic roundtable of her tenure as speaker, held in the Committee Room at City Hall, and answered wide-ranging questions from reporters in attendance. The roundtable was jointly organized by Juana Ponce de León, director of Media Diversity Relations at the speaker’s office, and the Center for Community and Ethnic Media at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

Mark-Viverito demonstrated her interest in reaching out to the ethnic media soon after she became speaker, and in prepared remarks before answering questions, she noted that since 2014 she has made extending outreach to ethnic press “a council-wide standard.” She said the council had taken many moves to “meet you where you are,” and pointed to an interactive district language map, a glossary of terms in the 10 top languages used in the city, and a new pilot project to translate messaging and press releases as just some of the examples of that effort.

She also observed that ad buys by the city in community and ethnic media today account for 32 percent of total ad buys by the city, or $3.3 million. This represents a 302 percent increase in spending in ethnic publications and a 156 percent increase in community publications since 2013, “something to be proud of,” noted Mark-Viverito. She expressed the hope that the future speaker, whoever he may be (only male candidates are in the running) would continue to engage with the community and ethnic press of the city.

The speaker has declined to endorse any of the candidates, but did aver, in response to a question, that she did not believe that it was necessary for the next speaker to be a Latino or a member of the LGBTQ community to be an effective speaker in pursuing social justice for all New York City residents.

On other subjects, Mark-Viverito applauded the community-based process by which the recently approved rezoning of East Harlem evolved over a year and a half, and she said that activists that remain opposed to the plan are opposed to any development. She said that “gentrification is happening, whether you like it or not.” Rezoning allows the city to leverage density for  community benefit, and that the city’s only influence over developers was to insist on allocation of housing units toward affordable housing as a quid pro quo for permitting greater density. She said that she did believe it was important to involve nonprofits in land use projects as equity partners in the projects, not as token participants.

On the subject of homelessness she said that the problem was complex and a national crisis, with no commitment from the federal government to address the issue. In New York, she said, the problem was multifaceted, with the city having to build affordable housing and waiting for it to happen, and preserving housing by protecting tenants from eviction, and keeping shelters safe. Finally she said the other reality is “homeless families are our neighbors” and some people in neighborhoods are fighting the city being able to house people – but the city’s mandate is to house people. And she observed that the majority of people in shelters are children.

In a long answer to a question about New York’s role as a sanctuary city, Mark-Viverito noted that while the city could not protect everyone at risk of deportation, it had done as much as possible to advocate for immigrant rights, to provide legal representation to immigrants, and to limit information shared with federal agents. “We are the safest city in the country,” Mark-Viverito said, “and that demonstrates that being the city that we are, which is being a welcoming city and a sanctuary city, is not detrimental to our public safety, despite what Sessions and Trump are trying to say.”

The outgoing speaker observed that the daily news items emanating from Washington were “horrific” and she suggested that people had to mobilize and be engaged to keep fighting against bad policies and legislation such as the tax bill. “We have to fight, and fight for our lives,” she said.

Following the roundtable, Mark-Viverito lingered at the exit of the committee room to answer more questions from reporters.

Rong Xiaoqing of Sing Tao Press asked her about the Chinese name she was given by the paper:

When the speaker took the leadership of the city council, Sing Tao Daily gave her a Chinese name  “馬麗桃.”It means “beautiful peach blossom,” and pronounces “Mar-Lee-To,” a shortened phonetic imitation of the speaker’s name Melissa Mark-Viverito. “Mar Lee To” said she likes the name very much, and if she runs for public office again, the name will surely be on the ballot. “I’ll keep using it at future events,” she said.

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