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In First Year as Council Speaker, Johnson Establishes Countervailing Force

Corey Johnson Mayor de Blasio

Corey Johnson (photo: William Alatriste)

One year ago, New York City Council Member Corey Johnson was near-unanimously elected speaker of the 51-member legislative body, becoming the city’s second-most powerful elected official behind the mayor. In an emotional inaugural speech, he spoke of the heavy burden the Council bears in tackling the issues that face everyday New Yorkers. “There has never been a more important time to ensure that our City has a strong, unified and independent Council to take on these challenges,” he said.

In the year since, Johnson has indeed led a chamber that has drawn a stronger line between itself and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s administration, while Johnson has established himself as a new force in New York, operating with an obsession for politics, an enthusiasm for his job, and a wear-it-on-your-sleeve penchant for empathizing with the plights of New Yorkers. Johnson’s style and instincts have drawn a clear counter-figure to de Blasio, though the speaker and the mayor have appeared on good terms throughout Johnson’s first year in the new job, even as he has publicly disagreed with the mayor on numerous occasions and taken a harsh tone with several de Blasio administration officials.

Johnson’s chosen a few areas of legislative focus, but has yet to put forth a clear policy agenda that signals his true priorities, though he said upon taking the speakership that strengthening the “social safety net” was of utmost importance to him. He has made transit a major focus, riding the subway daily, voicing his displeasure with the system's reliability, and even calling for municipal control of the trains and buses.

The City Council was particularly active in 2018, passing nearly three times as much legislation in the first year of this new four-year session as the previous Council class did in 2014. Though there are mitigating factors at play -- like the fact that most of the current Council is holdovers from the past session -- legislative productivity is an apt defining feature for the body under the stewardship of Johnson, the outgoing, outspoken speaker who has quickly established himself as a formidable opposite — not oppositional, he says — force to de Blasio and who has injected a different energy into the city’s political landscape, even shaking up discussions around the next mayoral race.

“One of the things that’s just sort of in my DNA is, I like to work...I get bored if I don’t,” Johnson said in a phone interview about his first year as speaker, “I’m not good at downtime. So that kinda means that I live and breathe this every single day.”

Johnson’s path to the position and approach once in office have been poles apart from his predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, though both are groundbreaking officials. Mark-Viverito was the first Latina to be speaker and Johnson is it’s first openly gay male and openly HIV-positive one.

Mark-Viverito in part owed her ascendance in 2014 to de Blasio, himself newly-elected and especially powerful, who helped put her over the finish line in a tight contest with City Council Member Daniel Garodnick. With the mayor’s help, Mark-Viverito and her allies corralled a newly-elected group of progressive City Council members and bucked the traditional bastions of county party power in Queens and the Bronx.

A Democrat representing the west side of Manhattan, Johnson became speaker despite the mayor, emerging above a crowded field of candidates and receiving support from those two counties. In what looked to be an almost overt rejection of the mayor, leaders of the Democratic machines in the two boroughs announced their decision to back Johnson when de Blasio was out of town, while much of the discussion around Johnson’s colleagues support for him was not about working with de Blasio to pass sweeping progressive programs, as it had been in 2014, and more about independence from the mayor.

Johnson repeatedly vowed that he would not be beholden to the other side of City Hall, an allegation that dogged Mark-Viverito for her tenure as she balanced her support for the mayor’s policies with occasional rejection of them and very much charted her own agenda, often bringing de Blasio along, like on the closing of the Rikers Island jail complex.

A City & State profile of Johnson published in December — titled “Is Corey Johnson already mayor?” — noted that he had made converts of several City Council members who had opposed him during the race for speaker and who worried that he may exact revenge on them if elected. “If Corey had an approval rating in the City Council, I suspect it would be nearly 100 percent,” said Council Member Ritchie Torres, quoted in the article. Torres said Johnson was filling a vacuum of leadership left by the mayor, who is increasingly absent from City Hall and who seems more intent on building a national profile than running the city. It’s an observation that’s been thrown around more and more even though Johnson disagrees with it.

Part of the apparent discrepancy stems from their different approaches to communicating with the public — Johnson is an open book and known to say what’s on his mind, often on Twitter, and responds immediately to virtually every significant event related to public life in New York and with compassion to the plight of suffering New Yorkers. De Blasio, on the other hand, seems to struggle to express empathy and often has a measured, almost academic response to any given crisis. Johnson appears to relish being a New Yorker, holding public office, and doing any and all part of the job, even if some are less fun or interesting than others. De Blasio appears to dislike most aspects of his job.

There are times when the speaker has been more outspoken than the mayor -- his response to the city’s handling of the November snowstorm; his immediate call for the resignation of Board of Elections executive director Mike Ryan after the abysmal administration of the general election; and his more direct statements on incidents of apparent police misconduct. But Johnson has pushed back against the narrative that he is playing the role that the mayor should, as emotional leader of the city and its cheerleader, as the elected official who cares about every detail of city government and how it performs.

“We have one mayor. He was elected twice and I do not think I’m mayor,” Johnson said, echoing remarks he had made earlier in a television interview when asked about the City & State profile, which had the city political scene buzzing. “I do not have the powers of the mayor. I do not have the everyday responsibilities of the mayor.” He repeatedly emphasized that his relationship with de Blasio has been productive and collaborative, rather than combative. “It’s flattering in some way,” he said of the comparison with the mayor, “but I don’t think it comports with reality.”

It was early on in 2018, as budget season was kicking off, that Johnson showed he would test the mayor’s mettle. He dug his heels in on funding Fair Fares, reduced-price MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers, a program that de Blasio had repeatedly dismissed as a state obligation that shouldn’t burden the city’s coffers. Johnson spearheaded an advocacy campaign, sending Council members into the field to talk with commuters outside subway stops and heavily spotlighting the push on social media.

It became the Council’s top priority in budget negotiations with de Blasio, and the mayor eventually relented, a six-month Fair Fares pilot program was approved in the budget — and is launching this month, though the de Blasio administration has apparently dragged its heels on implementation, rolling it out late and in phases that have left some questioning the mayor’s commitment to the program. In a telling decision, Johnson has chosen not to publicly criticize the mayor for his approach to the program, the speaker’s signature accomplishment thus far.

Johnson also flexed the Council’s muscles to push the mayor on several other priorities -- more fair student funding for city schools, deeper savings and greater set asides in the city’s reserves -- though he did not win a desired property tax rebate that was at the top of the Council’s wish list; and has taken a clearly more critical tone in public comments. While he regularly stresses that “it’s not personal,” Johnson has made pointed comments about the mayor’s attention to matters, city agency performance, and policy priorities he believes the mayor should adopt, such as an outspokenness about reducing the city’s deference to cars in its public policies and his call for municipal control of the subways and buses (something he told the New York Times he would soon have more to say about).

“To see him emerge as such a strong and confident leader has been really exciting to watch,” said Council Member Laurie Cumbo, a close Johnson ally and first African-American woman to serve as the Council’s majority leader. She cited two successful legislative efforts that she sponsored under Johnson of which she is particularly proud -- the “Mother’s Day” package aimed at helping pregnant women, new mothers, and parents more broadly; and a bill that just passed to mandate that the administration report on pay levels in the city’s workforce, disaggregated by race and gender. “He’s just done an extraordinary job of raising the issues that members are really concerned about, solidifying our place as an equal branch of government to balance out the powers of the mayor.”

Among Johnson’s first acts as speaker was to bolster the City Council’s resources and staff, to be better able to hold its own with the mayor’s administration. Johnson increased the Council’s budget by millions of dollars, raised salaries across the board, beefed up several divisions — land use, finance, bill drafting (which helped to increase legislative productivity) — and created new committees to reflect the changing issues affecting the city (and reward supporters). Those include a subcommittee dedicated to the massive capital budget and a committee dealing with for-hire vehicle services such as Uber and Lyft. And he added new life to the oversight and investigations committee, now helmed by Torres, which has allowed the Council to more deeply scrutinize the failures of the de Blasio administration and city agencies.

Johnson, who often leads the hearings in tandem with Torres, has repeatedly called on agency heads at those hearings to apologize for their failings, though he insists he is not trying to embarrass the administration or pander to the cameras. “I think we’ve been an independent branch of government and independent not in a way just to score cheap political points or grab a headline,” he said, “but independent to serve the city as a whole and our constituents that expect results.”

But he has aggressively demanded answers from the administration, most recently by convening the first of a series of hearings on the joint state-city deal with Amazon to build a massive new campus in Long Island City. Critics pointed out that while it may be right for Johnson and his colleagues to ask questions after the announcement, they were silent as the well-known but secretive negotiations were happening.

Johnson doesn’t have a legislative agenda that can be summed up easily. Where Mark-Viverito’s chief concerns were immigrant rights and criminal justice reform, Johnson says he’s just trying to make the city fairer, strengthening the social safety net, and working on issues “that affect the most number of people and the most vulnerable.”

“I would love for us to be the fairest city in America,” he said, using a similar phrase to what the mayor has adopted as a second term goal, “but to do that, it’s not easy, it can’t be done overnight. It has to be done in collaboration with the state government and with the federal government. We don’t solely control our own destiny.”

The Council’s legislative record under his leadership is growing, though the political landscape is very different given what Mark-Viverito worked with de Blasio to advance during the first four years of the new Democratic era in the city and the latest policies out of the Cuomo and Trump administrations. Mark-Viverito spearheaded or worked with de Blasio on a long list of accomplishments, from a city bail fund to a municipal identification card program to shifting how low-level, non-violent offenses are policed in the city.

Still, the hundreds of bills the Council passed in 2018 include a landmark package of anti-sexual harassment laws, new rules for the for-hire vehicle industry (which Johnson had opposed under Mark-Viverito but came around on, admitting fault for prior opposition), a waste equity bill aimed at reducing the environmental burden on low-income communities of color, and regulations aimed at illegal short-term rentals through Airbnb. The Council’s efforts also pushed the mayor to change the NYPD’s policy on marijuana arrests and added to the significant cascade of criticism about how NYCHA has been run, eliciting new plans from de Blasio. Johnson worked with de Blasio and the Cuomo administration on a creative city-based solution to the state Legislature allowing authority for speed cameras in school zones to expire, reviving the program.

He’s also allowed members to drive the agenda more than in the past when some raised concerns that the speaker’s office throttled their priorities in service of its own, Johnson says.

“Part of my role is to amplify and support the voices of all Council members while at the exact same time balancing a citywide agenda that I believe in,” Johnson said. Members agree. To some, it’s been an entire year of the Council stepping in where the mayor and his administration have dropped the ball.

“I think the first year has been a good year, it’s defined our Council leadership style in a world where the mayor continues to make himself irrelevant,” Brooklyn Council Member Carlos Menchaca told Gotham Gazette, shortly before a hearing in the Council chambers. He pointed to a “vacuum” of leadership amid the policies emanating from the federal government and even the lack of state action, and said the Council has been taking up the charge by championing the issues raised by their communities. “And that’s the kinda participatory democracy that I know the speaker believes in…and you’ll see that as a defining pillar of this Council,” he said.

Council Member Joe Borelli, one of only three Republicans in the 51-member body, drew sharp comparisons between Johnson’s management style and Mark-Viverito’s “top-down approach.”

“We go to him and say ‘this should be, this must be, this oughta be,’ and there’s a receptive ear,” he said. “That’s a lot different than the Melissa Mark-Viverito approach where it’s ideology and personal ambition first and good government second.” 

In a statement on Monday, Mark-Viverito had tough words for Borelli. "When you’re a woman in power who has a vision to make this city more fair and just, you end up with Trump-loving men like Joe Borelli calling you a mean, ambitious woman," she said. "It's no surprise that the Councilmember who wholeheartedly defends pussy-grabbing Donald Trump has a problem with women who speak their mind. What a joke."

Borelli also said Johnson had been taking on a more prominent role in the absence of leadership by major citywide officials. “The major political issues of the day fall on Corey Johnson because the mayor has not always been a voice on the right side and the public advocate has been running her campaign and doing what she needs to do to be attorney general,” he said.

Freshman Council Member Bob Holden, a Queens Democrat elected on the Republican line, had effusive praise for Johnson. “He does more than any other human being that I know,” Holden said. “He just operates on another level. I can’t say enough about him.”

Johnson’s looking forward to the year ahead, with several large packages of legislation awaiting passage including tenant protection bills, legislation to require energy efficiency retrofits on the buildings in the city with the greatest carbon footprint, and one that would eliminate non-disclosure agreements when city officials negotiate economic development deals with private firms, prompted by the secrecy around the Amazon deal. There will also be the next phases, including ballot proposals, from the 2019 City Charter Revision Commission, the creation of which Johnson helped spearhead, and which could propose significant changes to how city government is structured and functions.

He also teased a reshuffle of committee memberships to come in January, based on requests from Council members, including a few chair positions. Several sitting members are also running for public advocate in a special election expected in February, which could create a vacancy that would need to be filled.

Not everyone is happy that the Council has been quite so active. “I think more the years before term limits, the agenda of the Council is very diffuse and is set by individual members who have far more discretion to introduce legislation,” said Kathy Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a nonprofit group that represents the business sector. Term limits put pressure on Council members to achieve big legislative victories very quickly, she said, as they look to their next job in government. “I think what the current speaker is doing is using his bully pulpit and his personal style and relationships to set a tone and to affirm the interests of the Council as a whole,” she added. “But there’s such a cacophony of legislative initiatives, 18 bills on the crisis du jour, that he’s in a tough spot. It’s hard.”

Though Wylde did say that she’d like to see “more collaboration, less confrontation,” as has been apparent at some of the oversight hearings, she said Johnson has created a healthy counterpoint to the mayor. “In New York City, where there are so many different interests, I think it’s positive that Corey Johnson feels comfortable putting out his ideas even when they’re not in sync with the mayor,” she said. “I think that’s a good thing.”

Johnson has suggested bringing the MTA’s subways and buses (New York City Transit) under the control of the city, and has supported a congestion pricing plan for the city and legalizing recreational marijuana use for adults long before the mayor or governor did.

There have been bumps in the road for Johnson. Early on he tried his hand at negotiating with the governor over funding for city public housing (NYCHA), only to publicly be undermined by the Cuomo administration (in what seemed to be a tactic aimed at leverage over de Blasio). He was also elevated to his position with the help of Joe Crowley, the Queens county boss and Democratic giant who lost his Congressional seat to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, now a national political star. Johnson endorsed Crowley, a move that earned him some criticism, particularly as he later went on to support several insurgent and unabashedly progressive Democrats running competitive primaries against more moderate incumbents at the state level, though those races did have the added element whereby the incumbents had formed a rogue conference and governed with Republicans.

Johnson also endorsed Cuomo for reelection, over Cynthia Nixon, another insurgent Democratic primary challenger, though at times he seemed to support Nixon’s ambitious agenda, including single-payer health care. He also backed City Council Member Jumaane Williams for lieutenant governor over Cuomo's running-mate, incumbent Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, angering Cuomo's inner circle and likely getting the governor's attention.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, has known Johnson since before he took elected office. “I believe that Corey has remade city government, with the City Council playing a crucial role in decisions impacting all New Yorkers,” Appelbaum said in a phone interview.

Johnson appears to be a likely contender for the 2021 mayoral race, though he hasn’t expressed direct interest in the position, nor has he ruled it out. He would join a field likely to include Comptroller Scott Stringer, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr., and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, among others who may throw their hats in the ring (including, possibly, Mark-Viverito).

“I think that the most important thing he’s done is the way that he’s elevated the role of the City Council to have a real voice in decision making and I think that the Council is adding transparency to government in the city,” Appelbaum added. “We’ve seen the most professional City Council operation since I’ve been a New Yorker and that has resulted in important victories.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Note - This article has been updated with comment from former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. 

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