It’s 7:30 on an ordinary morning on the campaign trail, and Gifford Miller is at the 18th Avenue F station in Borough Park doing ordinary things like handing out fliers, trying to spend a moment or two with passers-by as they rush to catch their train.
Each time he’s wished good luck, the speaker of the City Council replies "You’re my luck." An aide remarks about what a good line that is.
After a while, Miller does something out of the ordinary when he bursts into song: "Kol od balevav, pnima, nefesh yehudi homiya …"
The speaker, who often demonstrates his fondness for singing in public, is happy to display his mastery of Israel’s national anthem for a reporter who has seen him mouthing the lyrics at Jewish events. He seems to be better at it than a lot of Jews."
Od lo avda tikvatenu … Hatikvah bat shnat alpayim …"
Miller can also do "Sholom Aleichem," as well as an obscure Hebrew song with the words lech yeladim and several other ethnic anthems that can be useful in winning over diverse audiences.
That he has gone through the trouble of memorizing these songs (a one-up on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish lessons) could demonstrate the pluck and dedication that have made Miller the second most influential figure in city politics at 35.
Or it could signal the tactic of a mayoral hopeful who seriously needs to stand out in a field of four Democrats in which he has fared poorly thus far.
Despite impressive fundraising by Miller (more than $4.6 million as of his last filing, outpacing his three Democratic rivals) polls show him and Anthony Weiner as the Yankees and Mets of this political season, unable to break out of the doldrums. They are tied at 12 percent apiece in the last Quinnipiac University survey.
Two months before the Sept. 6 primary, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer leads the pack, followed by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields.
Why Is He Stuck?
Miller is second only to the mayor in daily press coverage and, whatever one thinks of his performance, has showed himself to be an energetic achiever. So why has his mayoral run failed to stir the Democratic masses?
"It’s one of the mysteries of this campaign," says Douglas Muzzio, a political science professor at Baruch College. "My gut tells me be he just looks too young."
Or maybe being a legislative leader who achieves power from his colleagues (and political bosses) sets a candidate apart from those who reach their position through public elections.
"People generally don’t know legislative leaders as well as they know people who have run citywide before," says Manny Behar, Miller’s Jewish liaison. "That will be corrected over the next two months."
At the Borough Park train station, only a handful out of dozens of passengers stop to chat with Miller or his entourage. One complains about soaring property taxes on condominiums, another about a legal case between the city and a mohel with which Miller was unfamiliar.
An Orthodox man from Borough Park quips as he walks up the stairs, "We don’t vote for Democrats here." (In the race for mayor, he’s largely right. Republicans have fared better in the last three elections.)
Miller is unfazed."We’ll fix it," he says of his poll rating. "If people don’t know now, it’s understandable. They lead busy lives."
No one is trying harder to court the Jewish vote. Miller has visited Israel three times since being elected to the City Council, and twice led delegations as speaker. He’s a consistent sponsor of resolutions against anti-Semitism in the Council and, like his rivals for mayor, has denounced the worldview of Independence Party leader Lenora Fulani.
Miller added last week that he would not favor any city aid to a youth theater project Fulani runs in Manhattan that has benefited from tax-free bonds.
On the rash of recent anti-Semitic vandalism, particularly in his home borough of Manhattan, Miller says, "We have to acknowledge that anti-Semitic incidents are on the rise in this city statistically.
"We have to make sure we respond to these kinds of incidents with speech and not allow silence to indicate a lack of concern," he adds.
Understanding The Community
Miller’s perception of the Jewish community is enhanced by close, regular contact with neighborhood-level leaders who address daily problems.
A group of them gathered for an endorsement photo op a few months back, hailing Miller’s involvement in securing city-paid nurses for yeshivas, setting back parking regulations that could hurt synagogues and allocating money for the elderly, sick and poor.
"He walked with us and personally delivered food to families who need it most," says Cyrisse Haddad of the Sephardic Community Center in Brooklyn.
Addressing those same leaders, Miller noted, "There is a perception that there are aren’t poor people in the Jewish community. But every year the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty study shows there are tremendous needs for kosher pantries to address the needs of the community."
The Met Council’s William Rapfogel, who was not at that press conference and does not make endorsements, recalled a Friday afternoon meeting with Miller shortly after he became speaker that went on twice as long as expected, until Rapfogel had to excuse himself to prepare for Shabbat.
"He was really interested in knowing how Met Council works," said Rapfogel. "He has been an ally and supporter in the fight against Jewish poverty."
It’s perhaps a function of his close ties with the communal organizational network that his liaison is the former director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, who left that job a year ago to join Miller’s staff and campaign.
"What I find in him is that he has the combination of the energy and enthusiasm of a young person with the wisdom and experience you usually only expect to find in people who have been around much longer," says Behar.
In his City Hall office recently, Miller says his time in politics has taught him to appreciate "the astonishing diversity" of the Jewish community.
"One day you could be at a bar mitzvah at [the Reform] Temple Emanuel and the next at a legislative breakfast in Williamsburg," he says. "At first blush it would seem these are very different communities, and yet at the same time the values are as common as can be."
Discussing his perception of the community’s priorities, Miller says, "The Jewish community is very concerned about education."
Noting the mayor’s veto of the bill to provide nurses in private schools, he charges "this mayor has shown hostility toward members of the Jewish community and all members of every community in the city who make the choice to send kids to yeshiva and private and parochial schools."
Bloomberg campaign spokesman Stu Loeser says Miller’s bill was unnecessary.
"Mike Bloomberg put aside $8.5 million to pay for nurses in every parochial school in the city two weeks before Giff passed his needless law," Loeser said.
The mayor’s plan trusted health-care experts to decide where the nurses were needed, while the Council bill "micromanaged" the placements, he added.
"From yeshivot in Williamsburg to Catholic schools on Staten Island, parochial schools are getting the nurses they need, no matter what any desperate candidate deep into fourth place in the polls may say," Loeser said.
A Career In Politics
Raised on the Upper East Side, Alan Gifford Miller went to work for Manhattan Rep. Carolyn Maloney in 1992 just after graduating from Princeton with his bachelor’s degree in politics. Three years later, at 26, he was elected to an open East Side seat when Charles Millard was appointed president of the city’s Economic Development Corp.
In 2001, with the help of the Queens Democratic Party organization, which has the second largest Council delegation, Miller corralled enough votes to become the second speaker of the Council (the majority leader previously ruled). He succeeded Peter Vallone, another mayoral candidate whose campaign never took off, lending credence to the theory that the job is a poor launching pad.
Miller and his wife, Pam, live in Yorkville on the East Side with their two sons, Addison, 4, and Marshall, 3.
Known for being an affable and articulate Council leader, Miller has more often wielded carrots than sticks.
When he shows his tough side, it’s rare but memorable, like when he stripped committee assignments from members who did not support his version of a property tax hike. In June, Miller declared during a meeting that there would be no vote, rules notwithstanding, on a resolution by Councilman Charles Barron in support of a fugitive Black Panther accused of shooting a cop.
And last week, Council members who declined to help Miller override Bloomberg’s veto of a garbage transfer station plan griped about funds for their districts excised from the budget at the 11th hour. In the crossfire were several Jewish organizations of the type Miller has long boasted of helping who then turned to Bloomberg for help.
Borough Park Councilman Simcha Felder was incensed that just a day after being asked to appear with him at the 18th Avenue subway stop, Miller slashed his district funding, which included more than $20,000 for Ptach, a charity for disabled children, and more than $5 million for the public library branch in Kensington.
"It was chutzpah," says Felder, who got the money back from the mayor. "If he wanted to penalize me for a vote by taking away a committee [stipend] that’s one thing, but to take away money from a charity and a library is unconscionable."
A Miller spokesman says later that Miller has provided "an enormous amount of funding" for Felder’s district and added "the speaker’s job is not to make everyone happy" but to dispense the city’s funds as widely as possible.
Eye On The PrizeThroughout his tenure as speaker, Miller has had to contend with the perception of being too young for the job. The New York Post editorial page frequently calls him Giffie.
Miller insists that "I have as much experience as anyone who has ever run for mayor," and he equates youth with energy.
"Being speaker or being mayor is a job that requires every ounce of energy you have," he says in the City Hall interview, in which he frequently mentions his two children. "There is so much to do and so many things that need our attention."
Asked if he meant the current mayor has less energy, Miller says Bloomberg wasted his on the wrong priorities.
"Instead of something like a football stadium, you should focus on getting a fair share for this great city and opportunities to give back," he says.
Miller insists he remains undaunted by the poll numbers.
"We have to lay out a positive vision of how we’re going to make this a stronger, more just city," he says. "I think the one who can do that will do very well with Jewish voters and every other voter."