Corey Johnson, with Bill de Blasio watching (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
Speakers of the New York City Council don’t fare well when running for citywide office. Melissa Mark-Viverito, who previously held the job, was unsuccessful in a crowded 2019 special election for public advocate. Christine Quinn, the speaker before her, placed third in the 2013 Democratic mayoral primary that saw Bill de Blasio advance toward the mayoralty. Gifford Miller, Quinn’s predecessor, similarly lost in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary to Fernando Ferrer, and Peter Vallone came in third in the 2001 Democratic primary.
Corey Johnson, the current City Council Speaker, is hoping to buck that trend as he pursues his own mayoral bid in 2021, when both he and de Blasio will be term-limited out of their current offices. But like Council speakers before him, his leadership of the city’s 51-member legislative body is likely to be a double-edged sword.
Johnson has been able to achieve major goals and advance populist ideas that could serve as the foundation of a fruitful campaign platform. But, by nature, his position requires consensus-building among a large, diverse group of lawmakers and compromising with the mayor. That was the case when he brokered the recently approved $88.2 billion city budget and found himself balancing the positions held by Council members and the demands of a movement against police brutality, and delivered a compromise that broadly angered people on the left and the right, and which even he admitted he was disappointed with.
“I love being speaker,” Johnson said in an interview earlier this week, discussing criticism he’s received, including from others in government. “I can't speak to other people's jobs, but as speaker I'm able to have a big impact on policy and legislation and the budget in New York City, and I'm grateful for that. It's a challenging job that requires me to take positions on issues on almost a daily basis. And there's an upside to that but also a downside to that because some of these things are complicated, nuanced, and politically fraught but still exciting and you still have the ability to impact the city and public policy in a significant way.”
Johnson’s potential mayoral opponents, particularly Comptroller Scott Stringer, had harsh words for the budget deal, especially with regard to the NYPD picture.
“Politics is politics sometimes,” Johnson said. “I don’t think it’s anything new that potential opponents are going to try to use issues and votes and the budget process against me or other Council members. That’s probably happened for time immemorial so I don’t think it’s unique to me. But, at the same time, being speaker, I actually have to negotiate a budget. I actually have to negotiate legislation, I have to support members who are negotiating land use deals. These things are much more under the microscope and politically electrified than what other elected officials have to deal with on a daily basis.”
In past interviews, when asked about the trend of City Council speakers struggling to become mayor, Johnson has pointed out it is a small sample size and that no comptroller has become mayor in decades, while no borough president has become mayor since David Dinkins won in 1989. Along with Stringer, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams is the other current elected official expected to run for mayor in the 2021 election.
With the city facing a $9 billion revenue gap, Johnson faced the toughest budget that the Council has had to deal with in his time as speaker. The city had been flush with cash for years through a robust recovery after the Great Recession, allowing for massive increases in spending. Now, the mayor was proposing cuts to social services, youth development, education, and more. There was also a growing demand from police reform advocates that the city cut $1 billion from the police department’s nearly $6 billion annual operating budget.
Even as Johnson embraced that advocacy, he could not obtain the level or types of cuts he was pushing for as he cobbled together the votes for the budget. It was ultimately approved 32-17 just past the midnight deadline for the July 1 start of the 2021 fiscal year. It included pledged cuts to police overtime spending with no specific plan to achieve them, a small reduction in officer headcount, and hundreds of millions in costs shifted by moving school safety back to the purview of the Department of Education.
The pieces added up to what the mayor called $1 billion but were marked by the sort of gimmicks that incensed advocates and Johnson acknowledged did not hit that target. (Even the school safety shift isn’t expected to happen within the new fiscal year, a detail that didn’t emerge until after the budget was approved.)
“From the moment George Floyd was murdered at the end of May till when we passed the budget in the hours leading up to July 1, we were able to do a lot while also recognizing you can't do everything in five weeks,” Johnson said.
There has been speculation that the budget vote will come back to haunt Johnson’s mayoral prospects. A bargain frustrating the most fervent activists and made with de Blasio before a change election where each candidate is seeking to differentiate themselves from the two-term mayor could be challenging for the speaker. It’s somewhat reminiscent of what worked against former Speaker Quinn in 2013, who had been an ally of then Mayor Bloomberg and was running to some degree on a continuation of his policies and the broad success of the city. But Quinn, who hasn’t ruled out a 2021 mayoral run, was in part done in by her deal with Bloomberg to extend term limits over the will of voters.
“Chris Quinn...had the problem of being seen as too close to the mayor,” said Jessica Proud, a Republican consultant who helped run Joe Lhota’s 2013 general election campaign against de Blasio. “Corey doesn't necessarily have that problem but the duties of the job and the nature of the job, the decisions that come with it, pose challenges like any leadership position.”
While they have worked together on many things, Johnson has also repeatedly set himself apart from de Blasio and under him the Council has tried to exert its power more often than under former Speaker Mark-Viverito, whom de Blasio helped become the speaker for his first term. Though he has at times made significant concessions when de Blasio has taken issue with his proposals, Johnson has more often than not forged ahead with his priorities and forced the mayor to go along.
The recent passage of a bill criminalizing the use of chokeholds and other harmful restraining methods by police officers is testament to that, particularly as it almost invited the first ever mayoral veto by de Blasio before he begrudgingly agreed that he will sign it over the opposition of vocal police leaders.
It also remains unclear how many voters will broadly attribute the budget deal solely to Johnson or if it will even take center stage in a primary that will occur in the middle of another budget session and, current signs say, while the city is still on its way to recovering from the pandemic. The deal may have alienated some on the far left, but that isn’t far and away the only constituency in the Democratic primary and it's not clear that those voters will have another candidate to turn to given that Johnson has also been competing for the left among the current crop of 2021 candidates.
There are, of course, center-right Democrats, the kind who voted for Bloomberg, who may also be turned off by the NYPD cuts. Moderate and conservative Democratic Council Members including Robert Holden, Chaim Deutsch, Kalman Yeger, and Ruben Diaz Sr. all voted against the budget on those very grounds. As one Democratic consultant said, “I don't know yet if this mayoral race is going to be about, ‘We need a fervent socialist, progressive, Black Lives Matter mayor.”
Johnson believes that voters won’t focus on this one budget vote, but will be looking for a larger vision for the future of the city. He denied conjecture among political observers, reported by Politico New York, that he may opt out of the race because of the fallout of this budget, though as with other candidates, he has yet to officially declare his candidacy. That announcement will likely happen after the presidential election in November, he indicated.
Unlike some of the other declared and potential mayoral candidates whose focus has seemed more defined, Johnson says he isn’t carving out a specific niche for himself. “I’ve never really thought of my campaign for mayor with regards to trying to appeal to one lane or one subset of voters,” he said. But he is clearly running to the left on issues that affect the city’s most vulnerable residents, as indicated by his support for the calls of a $1 billion NYPD budget cut. “It’s really about coming up with big ideas and solutions for the future of New York City, being myself, and seeing if that connects with a broad electorate,” he said.
Stringer has long-standing ties to the political establishment but has been wooing the insurgent left, especially as he has endorsed several female candidates, particularly women of color, aligned and adjacent to the Working Families Party, Democratic Socialists of America, and other groups that have emerged as formidable forces in recent elections.
Adams, a Black former police officer and state senator, now Brooklyn Borough President, leans more moderate, and hopes to win over both Black New Yorkers and the white ethnic voters that helped elect Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Guiliani as mayor.
Loree Sutton, a retired Army Brigadier General and former commissioner of the city’s Department of Veterans Services, is also vying for the center-left, and advocates for a more fiscally restrained government and tougher law enforcement. Former nonprofit executive Dianne Morales (who left her job to run) has centered social justice issues in her campaign, including a major rethinking of how public safety is done and the need to create more opportunities for women to thrive and lead.
Former top Obama and Bloomberg aide Shaun Donovan has a lengthy resume as a public servant that has managed fiscal, health, and environmental emergencies. Maya Wiley, former counsel to Mayor de Blasio, is an accomplished civil rights attorney and activist whose campaign would likely target issues of criminal justice and racial inequity. She has been more outspoken of late, including in criticism of the city budget deal and in calling for the removal of NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea.
Some who observed the budget process, or participated in it, had praise for Johnson’s leadership.
Longtime political consultant and former Mayor Ed Koch spokesperson George Arzt said Johnson did “an exceptional job” balancing the countervailing demands over the budget. “I think all in all, by next year, this will have been forgotten,” he said, noting that between now and the 2021 primary, there will be another budget modification in the fall, a presidential election and, hopefully, a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Arzt also noted that Johnson bore the brunt of criticism because of the public’s lower expectations from the mayor. “I don’t think there has been a mayor in recent times as unpopular as de Blasio, and he still has a year-and-a-half to go. So people look to Corey for leadership on major issues,” he said. “What the budget process showed is that he’s a person that people look up to for leadership and he can work to put together a stable government.”
Council Member Antonio Reynoso was among the half-dozen or so members who voted against the budget because the NYPD cuts did not go further. “I think that the speaker is in an unenviable position,” said Reynoso, a Brooklyn Democrat running for borough president in next year’s election, noting that the speaker’s individual positions can’t override the majority of Council members, who didn’t want to defund the NYPD as aggressively.
“I don’t think there’s any other position in the entire city that has the same role as the speaker,” Reynoso said. “Everybody else – the mayor, the comptroller, the public advocate, borough presidents, and even Council members can all speak independently about what they want without having to be accountable to anyone except their constituents. He, on the other hand, has to be accountable to these elected officials, to these Council members.”
But Reynoso did say that the police funding issue will continue to be on the forefront if the Council and mayor fail to follow through on the promises made in this budget, particularly relating to changes in how school safety is handled. “If a lot of the stuff that [Council members] thought was going to happen doesn't happen this year, I could see a change in heart [from Council members],” he said, predicting that in such circumstances, there may be even more support from progressive members allowing for greater cuts to the police budget next year.
Advocates are also keeping a watchful eye to see that those pledges, however disappointing, are fulfilled. “We’re in this for the long haul, we're not going anywhere,” said Andréa Colon, lead organizer for Rockaway Youth Task Force, a member of the Communities United for Police Reform coalition.
Colon faulted all parties involved in the deal – the mayor, speaker, and the Council at large. “Even members of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus said, ‘This is a win for our community. This is a first step,’ but so many acknowledged that this doesn't go far enough. So if they’re able to acknowledge that, why vote yes?”
The night of the budget deal there was chatter among activists on Twitter that Johnson’s mayoral campaign was over.
“It was probably one of the most challenging budgets in modern municipal history,” Johnson said in the interview. Having spent weeks dealing with the varying crises the city faced, and having to triangulate what his members demanded and what the mayor was willing to concede, he appeared visibly exhausted and browbeaten in the hours before the budget vote. “My goal was to save as many programs that affect poor New Yorkers, communities of color, and covid-vulnerable communities as possible while at the same time recognizing this moment of national reckoning on police reform and racism and pushing as far as we can go,” he said.
Even as the full scope of proposed NYPD cuts weren’t realized, the speaker emphasized that the Council managed to save vital programs and services to the tune of about $700 million that were on the chopping block in the mayor’s proposal, besides the funding that was reallocated from the police. “The mayor wasn't there and the Council was divided,” he said on the NYPD budget. “So I had to try to find consensus. And I think we were able to do a lot of good in this budget, and I look at this as really the beginning, not the end.”
Ravi Gupta, co-founder and managing partner of Arena, a national organization that trains and supports progressive Democrats running for office and those seeking to work on campaigns, said that though Johnson could be hurt by carrying the weight of the budget vote, he can also benefit from it.
“I think given the trauma that this city has been through over the past year and even longer, superficial politics are going to be a thing of the past,” he said. “Straight rhetorical politics aren't really going to carry people very far. And [Johnson] will have a case to make that he has had to make tough decisions, which is not something that everybody in the race, either now or in the future, not everybody's going to be able to say that.”
He also noted that Johnson’s potential opponents will have to explain their own records. “Not all, but many of the people critiquing Corey don't have very long histories of being aggressive for reform of the police,” he said.
“The '$1 billion cut' to the NYPD proposed by the Mayor and the City Council is not a $1 billion cut—it's a bait and switch and a paper-thin excuse for reform,” Stringer said of the budget, though he had proposed a more modest NYPD cut than Johnson’s plan, and Johnson acknowledged before the budget vote that the deal did not include $1 billion in cuts.
Adams said, “The city is in crisis, inequality is deepening, New Yorkers are marching every day against injustice — and instead of forging change and lighting a path to a brighter future, this budget simply maintains the status quo.”
On Twitter, Wiley wrote, “Today’s deal isn’t a cut. It’s moving the deck chairs around. We have to stop tinkering and start transforming public safety.”
Morales, in a statement, said the budget “failed those whose lives have been lost at the hands of the NYPD and communities of color who have been disproportionately impacted by violence and brutality.”
Johnson’s “greatest advantage,” Gupta said, is the various proposals he has advanced at the Council, particularly his Streets Master Plan (though that has been delayed because of the pandemic’s impact on the budget). “I think there's a huge constituency in the city for that kind of vision right now,” he said. Johnson was also successful in convincing the mayor to fund the Fair Fares discounted MetroCard program for low-income New Yorkers and in getting more funds to provide pay equity to early childhood educators. He has proposed major plans to address homelessness and food insecurity.
“This is an existential election for the city. So people are going to be looking for truth-tellers, not performers,” he said. “I think people are going to be looking for somebody that they trust. And I don't know who that person is yet but I certainly don't think that this past week has been disqualifying [for Johnson].”