Born on April 1, 1969 in San Juan, Puerto Rico (where she was raised), Melissa Mark-Viverito earned a BA from Columbia University in 1991 and a master’s degree from Baruch College in 1995. She subsequently spent time as coordinator of Todo Nueva York con Vieques (a coalition that campaigned to stop the U.S. Navy from conducting military exercises on the island of Vieques); president of Mujeres del Barrio (which promoted the economic and political advancement of Hispanic women in New York); director of the Hispanic Education and Legal Fund; deputy director of ASPIRA of New York; and strategic organizer for Local 1199 of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). She also worked for the Census Bureau in 2000 and volunteered for the presidential campaigns of Howard Dean and John Kerry in 2004. After an unsuccessful run for a New York City Council seat in 2003, Mark-Viverito was elected to consecutive terms on the Council in 2005, 2009, and 2013. Moreover, she founded the Council’s progressive caucus in early 2010.
In January 1998 Mark-Viverito’s wealthy father filed his will, which ultimately would bequeath more than $6.7 million in holdings to his daughter and a few other relatives. Eleven months later, Melissa—knowing that she would soon inherit much of this windfall—closed on a government-subsidized, tenant-occupied town house in East Harlem, which, at a sale price of $240,000, was earmarked solely for low- and moderate-income New Yorkers earning $30,000 to $70,000 per year. On an application filed with the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development in April 1997, Mark-Viverito listed her $50,000 salary with ASPIRA as her sole source of income, making her eligible to purchase the property. She later failed to divulge—on a city financial-disclosure form which all public officials in New York are required to file—$92,600 in rental income which she received from the town house between 2009 and 2012. According to her spokesman, this was an “unintentional mistake.’’ By 2013, the value of the building had risen to more than $1.2 million.
Mark-Viverito also owns real estate in Puerto Rico—a four-bedroom home, two condominiums, and some land— whose aggregate value is somewhere between $950,000 and $1.5 million.
In 2008 Mark-Viverito traveled to Bolivia to show support for that country’s socialist president, Evo Morales, during a recall election that ultimately failed to unseat him. Closely allied with the late Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Morales once said that Bolivia and Iran “have [an] identical revolutionary conscience,” which “accounts for the closeness of the two states.” The $5,000 airfare and hotel costs of Mark-Viverito’s Bolivian trip were paid by SEIU Local 1199.
In 2009 Mark-Viverito wrote a letter to the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, saying that the so-called “Cuban Five’’ were “unjustly imprisoned in the United States for trying to prevent terrorist attacks against Cuba.’’ The five individuals in question had been convicted by a U.S. court in 2001 for their participation in a brutal Castro spy ring that had infiltrated an American naval base in Florida. In her letter, Mark-Viverito asked that the prisoners be given more family visitation rights.
In 2010 Mark-Viverito urged her fellow NYC councilmembers to sign a petition demanding parole for Oscar Lopez Rivera, a convicted leader of the Armed Forces of National Liberation, or FALN. This violent Marxist-Leninist terror group demanded complete Puerto Rican independence from the United States and was responsible for more than 120 bomb attacks on U.S. targets between 1974 and 1983. In 1999, Lopez Rivera, who was serving a 70-year prison sentence for his crimes, had rejected a clemency deal offered by President Bill Clinton—mainly because he refused to renounce violence and terminate his associations with FALN comrades and other felons. (When outgoing President Barack Obama granted Lopez Rivera unconditional clemency in January 2017, Mark-Viverito cried tears of joy. “It’s very emotional,” she told reporters. “It’s been a long road emotionally and personally and I have been very invested in this case, and I visit him, and it’s just personal — it’s overwhelming…. I sent him an email, and I just told him I can’t wait to just give him a hug knowing that his freedom is coming.”)
During her first eight years on the New York City Council, Mark-Viverito—because of her opposition to U.S. control of Puerto Rico—stood in silence whenever her fellow Council members recited the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of each session. Then, in the fall of 2013, when Mark-Viverito set her sights on the position of City Council speaker, she suddenly changed her behavior and began reciting the Pledge along with her colleagues.
At a 2010 May Day rally in New York, Mark-Viverito condemned, as “abominable,” a recently enacted Arizona immigration law that deputized state police to check with federal authorities on the immigration status of criminal suspects. She also called for NYC officials to “look at ways we can disinvest our money, our pension money, from corporations in Arizona to send a very strong message about where we stand.” In yet another matter related to immigration law, Mark-Viverito believes that resident non-citizens should have the right to vote in local elections.
At a November 5, 2011 Occupy rally in New York’s Zuccotti Park, Mark-Viverito said: “We really want to thank Occupy Wall Street [OWS] for what it has done to really move the discourse, to demand justice and equity for the majority in this country and speaking out against the one percent that continues to dominate the discourse and dominate our government. We want our government back.” Twelve days later, Mark-Viverito participated in an OWS demonstration and was arrested, along with many others, for intentionally blocking vehicular access to the Brooklyn Bridge. For her role in this act of civil disobedience, Mark-Viverito spent approximately five hours in jail.
On January 8, 2014, Mark-Viverito’s peers elected her (in a 51-0 vote) to serve as speaker of the New York City Council—the second-most-powerful position in the city behind that of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who strongly supported Mark-Viverito for the post.
During an immigration panel discussion at a National Action Network convention in April 2014, Mark-Viverito advocated the implementation of a municipal ID-card program for “all New York City residents, regardless of their immigration status.” Such cards would allow New Yorkers—including the estmated 500,000 illegal immigrants residing in the city—to access public services requiring identification, and would require all city agencies to accept the cards as a valid form of ID. Further, the cards would permit their bearers to open bank accounts and rent apartments. When Mayor Bill de Blasio signed a law enacting the municipal ID program in July 2014, Mark-Viverito called it an “historic” moment and said: “Today we’re living up to our highest ideals, and today we’re saying that no one should be left out.”
In July 2014—in the midst of a sudden, massive influx across America’s southern border by more than 50,000 unaccompanied, illegal-immigrant minors hailing from Central America—Mark-Viverito spoke to the fact that some U.S. cities, including Syracuse, had already offered locations to shelter those youngsters who could not be placed with relatives or sponsors, and she suggested that New York City should follow suit:
“It’s good to hear that mayors like the mayor of Syracuse have said that Syracuse would have an open door and be helpful in the name of housing some of these children, and I think that we should do the same thing, and I think that we should be humane about the way that we deal with situations like this…. Not only are they facing a horrific situation leaving home, a horrific situation right now, but are also then being vilified – the way they’re being vilified at the border breaks my heart, to be honest. And I think it’s something we need to stand up against. I think by being supportive to that we’d be sending a very strong message.”