Corey Johnson takes the oath of office (photo: The City Council)
City Council Member Corey Johnson is expected to be elected the next speaker of the New York City Council on Wednesday, January 3, and will take the powerful office with a busy first-term legislative record and having made a slew of public promises during the speaker race that are likely to be watched closely by supporters, detractors, and others.
Johnson, a Democrat re-elected for a second term in November, was one of eight Council members running for speaker, but he became the presumptive next speaker when Democratic county party leaders from Queens and the Bronx coalesced around his bid. Johnson was subsequently endorsed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and many other elected officials, while most of the other speaker candidates conceded and congratulated him.
Two of the eight candidates, Council Members Robert Cornegy and Jumaane Williams, remained in the race, until Cornegy conceded on December 29. A ninth candidate, Council Member Inez Barron, announced her late-game and long-shot candidacy, however. All three are black and have expressed concern that the next speaker may not be a person of color and that Johnson would be yet another white man in a major city or state position of power.
Johnson, who has promised a diverse leadership team and argued his own demographics -- he is openly gay and HIV positive -- indicate he will lead inclusively, represents District 3 in Manhattan, which covers a large swathe of the west side from the Holland Tunnel to Columbus Circle. When he was took office in 2014, he replaced outgoing Council Speaker Christine Quinn who, like Johnson, chaired the Committee on Health in her first term. Johnson will become the second openly gay speaker of the Council, after Quinn, and its first openly HIV-positive one.
In his first term, Johnson has seen numerous bills he sponsored passed through the Council. Over four years, he introduced 59 bills, of which 29 have already become law while another 4 were approved by the Council but await action from the mayor as of December 24 (If the mayor fails to sign or veto the bills within 30 days of passage, they automatically become law.)
Serving as chair of the health committee, Johnson sponsored many bills related to public health measures, such as to further regulate the sale of tobacco and electronic cigarettes, requiring the city to conduct air quality surveys, and allowing individuals to choose their sex designation on birth certificates, among other bills. He backed measures regulating shift scheduling for retail and fast food workers and to mandate Department of Education reports on student health services, and he supported the successful extension of the city’s rent stabilization laws.
Johnson headed a high-profile legislative effort, in conjunction with de Blasio, to reduce the number of smokers in the city by 160,000 by the end of 2020. He sponsored two bills, part of a larger package, that increased the minimum price of a pack of cigarettes or cigars, set a price-floor on tobacco products, and doubled the fee to obtain or renew a tobacco retail dealer license. Johnson has spoken passionately about his own battles with alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. He has said he has not had an alcoholic drink in more than eight years.
While Johnson has had a focus on public health, he has not made particularly clear any other areas of deep interest that may inform a policy agenda as speaker of the Council. Outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito put a great deal of focus on legislation related to helping immigrants and reforming the criminal justice system.
In running for speaker, Johnson has addressed a broad range of issues at numerous community forums and debates, and expressed policy priorities that may form his agenda both for the city and for the Council as an institution. He was one of 33 returning and newly elected Council members to sign on to a rules reform package that aims to improve the Council’s budget and legislative processes while also reforming and enhancing internal culture and workplace conditions. That package could move forward early in the new term at the behest of Johnson, whomever he names to chair the Council’s rules committee, and a majority of members overall.
Separately, Johnson has discussed ways in which he would run the Council and proposed several policies related to government transparency, elections reform, mass transit, land use, public housing, women’s rights, and other issues. At a series of speaker candidate forums, Johnson made clear his stances on a number of policy issues, sometimes in support, as with congestion pricing, at times in opposition, as with reforming the city Board of Elections.
One of the City Council’s principle responsibilities is negotiating the city’s now-$86 billion budget with the mayoral administration. Johnson has insisted that, as speaker, he will only allow a vote on the budget after it has been fully posted online for 48 hours, including the Council’s discretionary funding awards, in an easily searchable format.
“When we adopt our budget every single year, we should adopt it in a way so the public can easily search online and see how their taxpayer dollars are being spent by the Council and by the mayor,” he said at a speaker forum hosted by New York Law School, Citizens Union, and other good government groups in November. Johnson has also separately pledged additional support for Council members who employ participatory budgeting for capital projects in their districts.
He has also said he would regularly make public his schedules of meetings with lobbyists, as is currently the practice for the mayor’s office, and post his schedule online for people to see. And he supports automatic Council votes on bills that have a supermajority: 34 members in the 51-seat body. “I think these are common-sense, transparency-related reforms that anyone who runs for speaker and hopefully more broadly Council members would be supportive of,” he told the New York Daily News.
At the good government forum, Johnson also expressed support for certain voting and elections reforms. Although he said he is ardently opposed to non-partisan appointments at the scandal-plagued New York City Board of Elections, and does not back BOE reform in general, he came out in favor of noncitizen voting by legal permanent residents (though not undocumented residents of the five boroughs). He also said he supports rank-choice voting, also known as instant runoff voting, which would help prevent costly and labor-intensive runoff elections for the three citywide positions of mayor, public advocate, and comptroller. At a recent Council hearing, a State BOE official urged the city to immediately implement instant runoffs for future elections.
A key challenge and expectation for Johnson will be exhibiting his independence from Mayor de Blasio. Mark-Viverito is a close ally of the mayor and was elected to her post with crucial support from him, at times leading some to question her willingness to advance legislation that he opposed. Johnson, however, is viewed as someone who is likely to take a stronger stand, apparently one of the reasons that the Queens and Bronx county leaders decided to back him, after they were bested in selecting the speaker last time around by a coalition including the Council’s progressive caucus, of which Johnson is a member.
While Johnson is almost certain to take more oppositional stances to de Blasio in the new term, they are largely ideological allies, and have worked closely together on a number of initiatives, like the anti-smoking bills. Johnson has also raised money and campaigned on behalf of de Blasio reelection bid.
One key area where Johnson’s independence might be put to the test is on congestion pricing, a concept that de Blasio has insisted is “regressive” and would hurt outer borough commuters. Johnson instead supports a congestion pricing proposal that has been put forward by Move New York, a transit advocacy coalition, which would apply tolls to the East River bridges while reducing tolls elsewhere, along with variable pricing based on peak traffic hours. Revenue raised would largely go toward the MTA, but also benefit road and bridge repairs.
“I believe we should take the money that would be generated from congestion pricing, put it into a rapid bus service for the outer boroughs, invest in the underfunded capital plan for the MTA and continue to ensure that our mass transit system actually is a world class transit system,” Johnson said at a Crain’s New York Business breakfast forum in November. At the same event, Johnson also came out in favor of a new citywide waste removal plan -- “I think a zoned plan makes sense” -- and supported legislation to regulate commercial leases to help small business owners have a better chance at affording their rent. Separately, he has said the city should increase its subsidy to the state-controlled MTA, a position likely to be at odds with the mayor, who has repeatedly feuded with Governor Andrew Cuomo over MTA capital and operational funding.
Another issue where Johnson breaks from de Blasio is on funding half-priced MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, commonly known as the Fair Fares proposal that was crafted by the Community Service Society of New York and Riders Alliance. Johnson believes the city should fund Fair Fares through congestion pricing, while de Blasio has proposed a tax on high-income New Yorkers to accomplish the same goal while additionally funding mass transit.
What wasn’t lost to any observer in this speaker race was that all eight original candidates were men, following three consecutive terms of a female speaker (two for Quinn, one for Mark-Viverito). Issues related to women’s rights and opportunities and diverse representation in city government were especially prominent in several speaker forums. Johnson issued numerous pronouncements for which advocates and watchers both within government and outside of it will hold him accountable. At a December 1 debate on NY1, he committed to supporting race and gender audits of city agencies. “The city workforce needs to be representative of the city of New York,” he said. “I would do that as the speaker of the Council.”
Johnson is also said to have agreed to proposals from the Council’s women’s caucus, which did interviews with the eight male candidates and asked them to commit to funding a full-time staff position for the caucus, and to ensure gender balance in their leadership team and top committee chair positions.
At a forum hosted by a coalition of advocates for women’s rights and LGBTQ and non-gender conforming New Yorkers, Johnson promised that a majority of his leadership team would comprise women and people of color and that more than half of his staff would be women and LGBTQ people. He said he would continue to support Mark-Viverito’s Young Women’s Initiative, which has a particular focus on young women of color and young cis and trans girls. Besides reiterating his support for women’s reproductive rights and committing to strong funding for Planned Parenthood, Johnson also said he would work with the host coalition on “Solutions out of Struggle and Survival,” a slew of much-needed policies identified by trans and gender non-conforming advocates. He also spoke of implementing a less-punitive model of discipline at city schools, where current practices disproportionately affect students of colors.
Additionally, Johnson recently told The Village Voice that he thinks the city may need to again expand its police form to continue its citywide implementation of neighborhood policing. The Council pushed for and won an expansion of the NYPD by about 1,300 officers under Mark-Viverito, with the argument that the added person-power is necessary to have more cops walking the beat and positively interacting with New Yorkers.
Johnson is expected to be voted in as speaker at the first meeting of the full class of the new Council, on Wednesday, Jan. 3 at noon. He will then be able to name his leadership team of majority leader and deputy leaders, as well as the chairs of each of the Council’s more than 40 issue committees.
Grace Dixon contributed to this article.