Jessica Lappin laughs when asked about her plans for higher office.
"Having been here for about 10 days, it’s hard to think about that," she said during an interview in her East 73rd Street district office during her second week as a City Council member representing areas of Manhattan’s East Side. But for someone who cut her teeth as an intern to the estimable late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan while still at Georgetown University, later becoming a senior aide to Council Speaker Gifford Miller and prevailing in a crowded race to fill his seat, all before she turned 30 last year, it’s hard to imagine she hasn’t given future prospects any thought.
This is the age of term limits, where the City Council (once a decades-long parking spot) is now a mere stepping stone that forces career politicos to battle it out for a limited supply or other jobs.
"My experience has allowed me to hit the ground running," says Lappin, a Democrat and one of eight freshmen who joined the Council this month. "Over time I think it will enable me to be effective. But I still have a great deal to learn."
When pressed to discuss her ambitions, Lappin mentions the committees she hopes to be assigned to by the new speaker, Christine Quinn, which include Health and General Welfare, Land Use and Sanitation. (Last week she was appointed to the subcommittee on Landmarks.) The latter two would have put her in a better position to fight the proposed reopening of 91st Street marine waste transfer station in her district, a battle that her predecessor was unable to win. Miller failed to gather enough votes to override a veto by Mayor Michael Bloomberg of legislation preventing the transfer station.
But Lappin plans to keep pushing for alternatives, such as continuing to truck Manhattan residential waste to New Jersey or upgrading existing pier space on the West Side. She concedes that much will depend on how high a priority Quinn, who has many other battles to fight, will make it. With 43 of her colleagues (including Quinn) due to be pushed out by term limits in 2009, itís bound to be a busy City Council with numerous conflicting agendas. It will test how well Lappin’s experience as a behind-the-scenes aide translates to getting things done as an elected official.
"She clearly knows her district well and the needs of her community extremely well since she was Gifford’s chief of staff," says Councilwoman Melinda Katz of Forest Hills, Queens, who sits near Lappin in the Council chamber. "That’s going to be an asset to her as she makes her way."
Lappin grew up in Gramercy Park and attended the United Nations School and Stuyvesant High School. She took bat mitzvah classes at Brotherhood Synagogue and was tutored by Rabbi Harold Swiss. Less than thrilled about the Hebrew classes while she focused on excelling in the competitive figure-skating circuit, Lappin would later come to study Jewish philosophy more closely while at Georgetown: ironic since it’s a Catholic-founded institution. Required to take courses in theology, she chose one on "The Book of Job" instructed by a rabbi.
"It’s funny," she said. "Had I gone to any other university, I would never have taken any classes taught by a rabbi … I think any religious influence has a positive impact in terms of your morals and values and faith and respect. My Jewish background and religious training has certainly had an impact on me."
After college she briefly worked in public relations and volunteered on Quinn’s initial Council campaign before becoming chief of staff of Miller’s district office. In 2003, she married Andrew Wuertele, who is chief operating officer of a Manhattan radiology practice.While politics these days has come to pit "insiders" (those with ties to local political party machines) against independent "outsiders" who decry such connections, Lappin insists such clubs are a way to be educated about the process and to encounter decision-makers.
"On the East Side the clubs here are reform clubs, and I donít see any stigma being attached to a reform club," says Lappin. "I learned how to run a local campaign and do an Election Day operation by being active in my local club, and itís also a way to meet your local elected official."
About that career future, Lappin concedes that, precluding another go at the figure-skating circuit, she plans to stick it out in the public arena. "I view it as a career in public service," she says. "That could mean a variety of different things."