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||In 1996, Gifford Miller was elected to the New York City Council. In 2002, at the age of thirty-three, he became its speaker by a unanimous vote. An Upper East Side native and Princeton grad, Miller looks the preppie part, but he's a pragmatic, canny politician who has allied himself with Council members from Inwood to Queens Village.
INDEX: Since winning your Council seat from the Fifth District, you've become known for campaigning for your fellow Democratic Council members. That hadn't been done before.
GIFFORD: I decided to go out and support people. I knew that I wasn't going to get elected speaker unless I changed the existing dynamic.
INDEX: In the past, candidates for speaker would promise committee appointments or support for legislation in exchange for votes. By supporting your colleagues at election time, you changed that whole process.
GIFFORD: And as a result, I have a much better feeling for the entire city. Most New Yorkers really only know the areas where they live and work. If you have a job like mine, talking to people in every community gives you an enormous advantage.
INDEX: The city was facing a terrible fiscal crisis when you became speaker in 2002. You supported the property-tax increase that year as an alternative to big cuts in city services.
GIFFORD: Voting for a property-tax increase was a very difficult thing to do. But we've been able to close the biggest budget gap in the city's history in a way that was respectful of people's burdens and needs. When Mayor Bloomberg arrived in office, he said that we were going to cut everything proportionally, across the board. Instead, the City Council said, ñThat's not our job our job is to create priorities for budget decisions.î We averted hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts in education, library services, and day-care.
INDEX: And the city is required to balance its budget.
GIFFORD: Yes. We don't have the luxury of running up seven-hundred-billion-dollar deficits. It's unconscionable the way President Bush, in three short years, has essentially mortgaged the future of this country in order to finance tax cuts for a very small group of people. And while I think Bush is the worst president in the history of the United States, he is very effective. He's getting things done including a lot of things that shouldn't be done. He's been terrible for the city of New York.
INDEX: Bush's policies have shifted the responsibility for funding basic services away from the federal government and towards cities and states.
GIFFORD: And that's a big problem, particularly since September 11th. For example, we don't have the money to provide our firefighters with the new training that they deserve. Today we have only one hazardous-material unit instead of the two that we had before September 11th. We send about six and a half billion dollars a year to Washington. If we got our fair share of that back, we would be able to lower taxes, provide better services, and be more competitive as a business environment. Instead, we are subsidizing our national defense by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on antiterrorism measures because the federal government isn't protecting us.
INDEX: Do you think Mayor Bloomberg has been effective in representing New York's interests in D.C.?
GIFFORD: We don't get anything out of Washington or Albany unless we're forceful. Just being a nice guy tends to result in the city finishing last.
INDEX: How did you get your start in politics?
GIFFORD: I finished college in 1992, the year that Clinton was elected. I had always been interested in politics, so I decided to move to Washington and get involved. I had the good fortune to get a job working for Carolyn Maloney, who had just been elected to Congress. Before that, she had been my local City Council member. I answered her phone and her mail. When I moved back to New York to run her office for her, I discovered my love for city government. I love how practical it is. I love the opportunity to do real things for real people.
INDEX: You just got reelected to your Fifth District Council seat from the Upper East Side. But there's already talk that you'll run for mayor in 2005.
GIFFORD: Certainly that job represents a phenomenal opportunity to do the sort of things that I like to do. I haven't made any decision, but to my mind the best way to move up is to do a good job with the opportunities I have right now.
INDEX: You and twenty-two other Democratic Council members just endorsed Howard Dean for president.
GIFFORD: I've been very impressed by his campaign. He's articulated a strong case against the president, and he's found a way to bring people into politics who have felt disaffected for a long time. That could represent a watershed in American politics.
INDEX: Some people say that Dean won't be an effective candidate because his public remarks are too off-the-cuff.
GIFFORD: In this context, that's a strength it's who he is. Voters like politicians to be themselves. People have a pretty good sense of who Bush is, and they like that I don't, but a lot of people do. I think Howard Dean has to be Howard Dean. He's done a terrific job of communicating what he's all about.