Meet The Most Powerful Woman In NYC

Photo: Mark Peterson/Redux.
One of the most powerful people in the largest city in the U.S. is a woman you've probably never heard of. Her name is Melissa Mark-Viverito, she's the speaker of the New York City Council and the first Latina to represent her district.

She's an outspoken progressive, she fights for reproductive rights (including talking openly about her HPV diagnosis) — and she once held the job that Amy Poehler did on Parks and Recreation. In other words, she's our kind of politician.

But, she's quick to say, it hasn't all been easy. Mark-Viverito was born in Puerto Rico and didn't come to the mainland U.S until she was 18. She arrived in New York for undergraduate studies at Columbia University — and right away, she started seeing problems.

"There was a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding as to the relationship between Puerto Rico and the United States," Mark-Viverito said when we interviewed her in her office at City Hall. "There were really negative stereotypes that were really alarming to me."

But, as the daughter of a fierce, second-wave feminist, Mark-Viverito learned to organize and fight for her beliefs at an early age. She brought that conviction with her to Columbia and now to New York City government.

We sat down with the speaker in September to talk about her role, her hopes for New York City, and how she learned to speak up. Our conversation, lightly edited and condensed, is below.

Do you recall a specific moment when you realized politics was the career for you?
“I was approached by leaders in the community and others that asked me to consider running for office, because they felt that there was a leadership vacuum. They saw potential in me in terms of being able to step up to the plate.

“Women in particular reached out to me and said, ‘You should do this.’”

We hear that from women in politics a lot — that it takes that extra push or extra ask in order to get them to consider running for office. Why is that?
“It’s structural sexism. If you look at historical movements, it’s usually women who do the work and who are really organized and committed, yet we’re not often the ones that are given the credit or being asked to assume leadership positions.

“Even today, we only have 15 women out of 51 [New York City] council members. There’s a great gender inequity in this council, in this progressive city, and that’s a problem. There are still some real structural challenges that we are facing. We’ve got to figure out how to overcome them, and it’s really difficult. There are many times when I’m the only woman in the room.”

What do you think we can do to overcome them?
“One idea is creating pipelines of opportunity. When we support candidates, it’s not just about the issues anymore — it’s about gender equity. That has to be a priority in who we support for elected office.”

If you at historical movements, it’s usually women who do the work... yet we’re not often the ones that are given the credit.

Do you feel that you’ve faced particular barriers in your career here because you are a woman of color, because you are Latina?
“Without a doubt. I’m a very forceful person and I'm not afraid to discuss my opinion, but there are many times when people don’t want to hear it. Especially as a younger woman coming into your own, having your voice heard was not very welcome — you’d have to force yourself into the conversation or really force yourself to be recognized or heard.

“I’m very visible in my role now, but I’ve also been extremely consistent and very, very vocal on issues of immigration. People are inspired that I’ve achieved this. They’re inspired because they see I fight for them, that I have a voice at the table, that someone's going to back them up.

“It’s really humbling to see that level of response. That, to me, is the importance of having Latinos in positions of power, women in positions of power, people of color in positions of power — those perspectives make a difference.”

In August of 2014, you disclosed that you had HPV. What was that like for you? And, in light of these recent attacks on Planned Parenthood, what is your feeling about today's political climate with respect to women’s health and taking care of our bodies?
“Thankfully, because of my job, I am privileged to have good health care. But there are many women who don’t have that privilege and so rely on organizations like Planned Parenthood to provide the basic care that we’re entitled to. That’s why as a private person I decided to disclose that I have HPV. I knew that I could use the platform to raise awareness about the fact that we should not neglect ourselves.

“Planned Parenthood provides many services to many women. Any attack on that is an attack on women’s bodies, literally, and our health, literally. This is not just about reproductive health, it’s beyond that.”

There is an extreme of capitalism that is very self-centered, very selfish, very egotistical... that doesn’t make us a better country."

What to you is the biggest issue that we face right now, on a national scale and also as a city?
“The affordability situation in New York City is very critical. People are having a hard time continuing to live in this city — people that are working class, people that are working poor. We’re finding limited options, and it really is dire. So we’re focused on that.

“We’re also focused on immigration matters, because we have a very diverse population. Sixty-five percent of the city residents are people of color, and we have a large immigrant base. They’re a vital part of our city.

“We also want to talk about inequality in the criminal-justice system. We need to change the way policing happens and how we penalize people.

“In New York, we want to serve as a model. We have a progressive mayor, we have a progressive council — we want to demonstrate that progressive politics and policies work. What we do here can really magnify and be magnified.”

If you had to pick one thing that you want to solve by the end of your political career, what would that one thing be?
“I’m particular to immigration reform. That’s critically important to me. But I think that the work that we’re doing and the conversation we’re having on criminal-justice-reform issues, too, are really, really important.

“[If you go to jail] and you lose your job or you lose custody of your kids, the implications aren’t just for the individual — there are societal implications. When people are penalized for nonviolent, very low-level offenses, and it affects their livelihoods, there's a problem.”

You mentioned immigration. If you could sit down in a room with Donald Trump, what would you say to him?
“‘You’re a disgrace.’

“[Donald Trump] is taking us a down a really difficult path as a country. The language he’s utilizing, his whole demeanor, it shows ugliness. It’s an ugly face. It’s not something that we should be proud of at all.

“We need to think about what this pope is talking about — I don’t know the right word in English — I guess the ‘unbridled capitalism’ that exists, which can be grotesque. You don’t have to be against capitalism, but there is an extreme of capitalism that is very self-centered, that is very selfish, that is very egotistical, that’s what [Trump is] representing, that’s what he reflects, and that doesn’t make us a better country.”

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