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After a Step Back, Corey Johnson Reemerges

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Speaker Corey Johnson (photo: Jeff Reed/City Council)

When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York and the mayor vacillated before closing schools and imposing social distancing guidelines and restrictions on large gatherings, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson beat him to the punch in calling for all three. The Council speaker, a Manhattan Democrat and likely 2021 mayoral candidate, made regular appearances on local TV and radio, and tweeted constantly from his official and personal accounts, providing updates, ideas, and critiques. And he released plan after plan from the Council to deal with the fallout of the pandemic.

But Johnson recently fell out of view. During and after a bruising budget battle in June that showed dissension within the ranks of the Council, included vandalism at his boyfriend’s apartment building, and led to broadsides from advocates who felt let down by the limited scope of cuts to the NYPD budget amid a resurgent Black Lives Matter movement, Johnson seems to have taken a step back from the actively public role that he played in previous months.

Unlike past years, Johnson was not particularly vocal in the lead-up to the budget deal with Mayor Bill de Blasio in articulating and fighting for his and the Council’s top priorities. When the deal was announced, he expressed a great deal of regret and exasperation.

It’s been more than two weeks since Johnson held a public news conference (which was before a scheduled full City Council meeting, as is tradition). Though his official Twitter account, which is run by staffers, has been active, his personal account -- which grew by tens of thousands of followers as he used it incessantly on all sorts of matters -- has been silent since July 17. He hasn’t publicly weighed in on the mayor’s school reopening plans since July 21.

Johnson just began to emerge again this week amid inquiries about his lower profile and absence from the public discourse around the city’s ongoing crises and next big challenges, like resuming in-person schooling.

He has participated in some local events – touring areas in Queens damaged by tropical Storm Isaias with Council Members Peter Vallone and Bob Holden; distributing food boxes with Council Member Rafael Salamanca Jr. in the South Bronx; checking out an apparently growing rat problem in his district – but none have been publicized beforehand by his office, which did not advise members of the media of the speaker’s public events ahead of time as it typically does.

That changed on Wednesday evening when word came that Johnson would deliver remarks at a Thursday morning Council committee hearing on extending the cap on delivery service fees third-party providers can charge restaurants, which was one of the Council’s earlier measures to combat fallout from the pandemic. A Council spokesperson indicated that the bill is expected to pass this month.

After a nearly-silent six weeks post-budget, it amounts to a soft relaunch of Johnson’s public presence amid questions about whether he will indeed run for mayor in the crowded Democratic primary set to be decided in just ten months and as many disillusioned with de Blasio’s leadership seek a cheerleader for New York City with a policy vision – a role Johnson had played for much of the past two-and-a-half years but has abandoned of late. He's now promising a lot more soon.

“At the beginning of this crisis, we did a lot of work on stop-gap measures to help us survive the shut-down and make sure that we’d have a city New Yorkers would recognize when it reopened,” Johnson said in a statement to Gotham Gazette, after declining an interview through his office. “We got the Council up and running remotely so we could pass bills to protect small businesses and COVID-impacted tenants, and we pushed for things like open streets, outdoor dining and reporting on contact tracing. We also had to pass a budget under arguably the worst and most rapid economic decline we’ve ever faced. Now, we’re in a new phase. The budget has passed, and we’re doing more long-term planning. This is how legislative bodies work. We have a busy legislative calendar coming up, and will have more to announce soon. There are no silver bullets here, and the challenges facing us are real. But we’re determined to come up with solutions that help New York City.”

To some observers, it appears he is reassessing his intentions to run for mayor in next year’s election, giving other potential and declared candidates more opportunity to raise their profile. To others, it is merely the consequence of leading a 51-member legislative body, representing a diversity of voices and not just his own, and they say his recent action (or inaction) will have little effect on how voters make their decisions in next year’s primary.

“There obviously was a clear lane that the speaker could have chosen, particularly heading a city budget, in trying to capitalize or at least solidify himself as a progressive champion,” said L. Joy Williams, a Democratic political strategist, referring to deeper cuts to the NYPD, which Johnson had championed but did not achieve. “But I think overall anybody occupying the speaker's role is going to have a difficult time. From a historical standpoint, you just haven't seen speakers really chart out a course from that perch that would propel them to the mayoralty…He's competing directly right with someone like [Comptroller] Scott Stringer in terms of the lane that he should be making for himself, and I don’t think he was able to successfully pivot to that during this crisis."

Johnson’s engaging and affable persona, and his candor on tough issues had earned him popularity as a leader, especially in contrast to de Blasio. A headline in City & State in December 2018 read, “Is Corey Johnson already mayor?” — and that was six months before de Blasio would launch his lead balloon of a presidential campaign. Johnson was already being praised for providing viable alternative leadership for the city, which intensified and continued through the early months of the coronavirus crisis. As de Blasio increasingly showed his disinterest in local affairs, Johnson filled the vacuum and more and more people looked to him for leadership.

For example, when a major blackout hit Manhattan on a Saturday in July last year and de Blasio was busy campaigning in Iowa, Johnson shared consistent updates and messages of calm to anxious New Yorkers despite the fact that he too was out of town in Long Island, at least initially -- he quickly returned to the city amid the emergency. During the protests this year after the police killing of George Floyd, Johnson was expressing support for racial justice, hammering the NYPD for apparent misconduct, and moving long-stalled legislation while de Blasio dithered and largely offered defense of the police.

For some time, the advantages of Johnson’s powerful perch and his hyperactive approach to politics and government appeared to serve him well, with other city leaders often playing catch-up. But that was before the morass of budget negotiations.

On April 21, during the peak of the pandemic, the City Council unveiled a substantive legislative package that was meant to respond to the city’s moment of crisis – it included proposals to provide benefits to workers and protections for tenants, relief to small businesses and ideas about creating a network of open streets and stretches of outdoor dining. Some of it was in response to de Blasio’s unwillingness, at least to that point, to be more creative and take executive action.

While the Council did shut down for a month, it resumed remote hearings in the middle of April and then maintained a healthy schedule of legislative, oversight, and budget hearings.

Many of the bills introduced in the Counci’s relief package were either passed into law or mooted by executive orders from Governor Andrew Cuomo and policy decisions by de Blasio. Among the approved legislation were waivers and refunds for sidewalk cafe fees, renewal extensions for business licenses and permits, protections against commercial and residential tenant harassment based on the impact of COVID-19, among others.

Other bills responding to the pandemic fallout have not seen any movement beyond an initial hearing. Among the stalled bills are a proposal to provide pay premiums to essential workers, another to establish just cause protection against employment termination for essential workers, a paid sick leave law for gig workers, and a bill to create more street space for pedestrians and cyclists.

Only a few other meaningful bills that dealt directly with the pandemic were subsequently passed. The Council mandated the creation of an “open restaurants” program to create outdoor dining space – the mayor separately extended the program without a legislative push. Other bills require the city to build a database to track expenditures on the pandemic, establish a “city restart officer” and taskforce to oversee the reopening of city agencies, gave approval to e-scooters and e-bikes and mandated that the Department of Transportation create a pilot shared e-scooter program.

Like other years, the Council had just one full body meeting in July (as opposed to the two typically scheduled ten months per year), with few consequential bills passed. The Council changed the name of the Department of Consumer Affairs to the Department of Consumer and Worker Protection, required the Department of Cultural Affairs to publish to its website covid-related resources for arts and cultural institutions, required the Law Department to publish machine-readable copies of mayoral executive orders and local laws, mandated that the Department of Health report annually on heat-related deaths and neighborhood heat vulnerability, and ordered the Office of Emergency Management to publish an annual “cooling” plan to help residents during the summer.

In June, a significant package of police reforms was approved in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, including the criminalization of police chokeholds and other restraint methods, new oversight of NYPD surveillance technology, affirming the right to record police activity, creating an early intervention system for police misconduct, and mandating a new disciplinary matrix for police officers.

The budget, passed on July 1, came at a time when revenues had been decimated by the pandemic and the economy was at a standstill. While the mayor was proposing massive cuts to education and youth services, Black Lives Matter protesters were calling for a significant reduction in the NYPD’s budget and for that money to fill gaps at other city agencies. The speaker had to fight back against the proposed cuts, while balancing the interests of divergent City Council members.

Even Johnson himself admitted that the process was tough and that he was disappointed with the result, which saw some cuts to the police budget but not to the degree that he or the activists wanted. He also acknowledged that part of why he hadn’t pushed further was the position of several Black Council members who did not want to see major immediate reductions to the NYPD budget that would have meant layoffs and impacts on public safety in their neighborhoods.

Other mayoral contenders, Johnson argued in an interview with Gotham Gazette just after the budget deal, had nowhere near the same level of responsibility.

“I think that budget process was hard on a lot of Council members and being Mayor of New York City in the years to come is going to be even harder,” said Rebecca Katz, founding partner at consulting firm New Deal Strategies and a former advisor to de Blasio, in an email.

“The next mayoral administration is going to be a lot less about dancing in parades and a lot more about making tough decisions,” she said, alluding to Johnson’s many public appearances at parades in the city, where he is known for his dancing. “I think he has to decide if he wants that.”

The post-budget summer months are usually marked by little activity by the Council, a tradition that has remained this year even though circumstances are far different given the city’s ongoing crises. Limited legislative action by the Council would be less conspicuous if not for Johnson’s near full absence from the public discourse for six weeks.

The speaker has yet to reschedule his 2020 State of the City speech, which was planned for March 12 but he cancelled as the outbreak began accelerating. He did release a comprehensive climate change mitigation plan that was to be the focus of the speech and his legislative agenda if not for the pandemic, but it has sat idle as the cascading coronavirus crises have taken hold. Johnson hasn’t yet come out with a housing plan that he had promised in January when he unveiled proposals to fight homelessness just one day after Stringer released his own affordable housing plan.

Stringer and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, the other elected officials running for mayor, have been making far more public appearances the last two months. 

Stringer has been consistently vocal on the city’s planning to reopen schools, including a big push to encourage more use of outdoor space, and has also been calling out the mayor for a lack of a transit and streets plan, an issue that Johnson has been especially active on over the last few years. Besides the regular fiscal management and auditing functions of his office, Stringer has been hosting roundtables, addressing webinars, and giving regular interviews on TV and radio. At the same time, Stringer did not readily have clear answers for how he thought the city budget crisis should be solved and criticized the NYPD budget cut Johnson negotiated even though the comptroller’s proposal was less aggressive than the speaker’s.

Adams, a member of the NYPD for more than two decades before moving into elected office, was a constant presence amid the protests against police racism and held many press conferences and made many media appearances to address the need for police reform while also expressing support for the police and raising concerns about rising crime. In late June, he released a recovery plan for the city that included proposals to reform the police, reduce economic inequality, and to cut the city’s budget gaps.

Besides his position as a possible mayoral candidate, Johnson effectively has citywide responsibilities somewhat similar, for instance, to Public Advocate Jumaane Williams. In the last few months, Williams has been effectively using his bully pulpit, acting as a leading voice in the police reform movement, a natural extension of his decades-long history of activism and his role as the public’s ombudsman. At one point, after the mayor and speaker reached a budget deal that did not include $1 billion in direct NYPD cuts, he even threatened to block the collection of property taxes, an authority he claimed under the city charter.

According to Bruce Gyory, a political consultant and adjunct professor of political science at the University of Albany, Johnson faces the difficult prospect of having to propose solutions to city problems with little control over how to implement them. The city’s fiscal situation is dire and promises to get worse – the governor has threatened cuts to local funding if the federal government does not come through with more stimulus dollars. “Post-budget, this summer is a time for kind of letting things settle and let's see where we are,” Gyory said. Any plan that Johnson proposes could be undercut by developments at the state or federal level.

“I’m not surprised he's taking stock of the situation. I don't think that's necessarily a weakness. It may be a challenge to his mayoral profile, but it's fully in line with how to be an effective speaker,” he said.

Williams, Gyory, and Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant and former aide to Mayor Ed Koch, also pointed out that voters may not necessarily be paying as close attention to every move that Johnson makes.

“I think the pundit class makes a mistake by trying to interpret everything Johnson does through the prism of his presumed run for mayor,” Gyory said. “Sometimes, when you have an important government position, especially when you're a legislative leader, you have to basically do your job and get it done and that requires getting a consensus within the legislative body.”

Skurnik noted that there is ample time till the June primary and that general news consumers don’t pay attention to the ins and outs of the speaker’s schedule. “My general feeling is that very little that happens a year ahead of time in a campaign, other than raising money, really matters,” he said, noting that Johnson and his other competitors can’t directly make policy on issues like reopening schools. “If I was advising someone, unless there was something really valuable to say or, being cynical, something really politically beneficial to say, I'd say there's no reason to do it.”

But that may come to hurt Johnson too if he fails to make an impression on New Yorkers about his role during the pandemic. As Williams noted, all the candidates will be judged by how they responded to the crisis when they make their arguments about why they should lead the city through its next phases.

“From political circles and from political press circles, we obviously all know who the speaker is and what the speaker does,” she said. “There's still a lack of name recognition and a lack of attention in terms of New York City voters because they don't have a choice in who the speaker is. There is that disconnect...I don't know that he’s yet really defined the role particularly for New York City voters.”

by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette

Read more by this writer.

Ben Max contributed to this article.

Crowded Race Underway for 'Open' Lower Manhattan City Council Seat

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Outgoing City Council Member Margaret Chin (photo: John McCarten/City Council)

Although it’s a race to replace her, in some ways the Democratic primary in Manhattan’s City Council District 1 will be a test of term-limited Council Member Margaret Chin’s performance in office and political clout, as her current chief of staff will run to continue her legacy against multiple insurgent candidates who argue it’s time for a change, including one who narrowly lost a bid to unseat Chin in her 2017 reelection campaign.

Many of the most controversial issues Chin dealt with in recent years are already front-and-center in the 2021 City Council race, with most of them revolving around development in Lower Manhattan and how (or if) it should take place, as well as the future of a planned jail that Chin approved. The coronavirus outbreak and its fallout, including socioeconomic devastation, has hit the district -- which includes a diverse set of neighborhoods like Chinatown and Tribeca -- very hard. As with all of the 2021 elections, when the entirety of city government is on the ballot, the Council District 1 race will heavily focus on recovery.

Also like most other races in the heavily Democratic city, the Democratic primary will likely decide the next Council member. Those running in the Council District 1 primary include Gigi Li, Chin’s chief of staff; Chris Marte, who helps run a political training academy called Arena and lost to Chin by just 222 votes in 2017; Jenny Lam-Low, the Director of the Community Engagement Division at the New York City Council Speaker’s Office; Denny Salas, a former stockbroker turned Democratic Party staff member; and Maud Maron, a public defender and president of Community Education Council 2.

As for the development issues that continue to dominate much of the public discourse in the district, there’s the debate over whether or not Elizabeth Street Garden in Nolita, a source of local community greenspace on city-owned land, should be replaced by Haven Green, an affordable housing building for seniors which would include some greenspace of its own. On the Lower East Side, the Two-Bridges development would construct skyscrapers for luxury residential units, but it has garnered heated resistance from local community members,though it would also provide some affordable housing and, as part of the plan, provide repairs to a nearby NYCHA complex and the East Broadway subway station. Planned construction of the new jail in Chinatown, replacing one already there with a larger modern structure, as part of the city’s plan to close Rikers Island has resulted in backlash by residents who do not want to see it built in their community.

“When you look at development, Lower Manhattan has historically been ground zero for development within Manhattan,” said Democratic strategist Trip Yang, who served as Chin’s campaign manager for her first reelection effort in 2013 and has since worked on several campaigns in the area. “Whoever’s the next Council member has a large say in land use through the ULURP process, is going to take positions on and negotiate future land use decisions, is going to be critically important. So, I know that voters will be very attuned to what candidates are saying when it comes to development.”

City Council District 1 is an economically diverse district that includes low-income neighborhoods with swaths of public housing on the east side, as well as some of the richest zip codes in the city in the Financial District and Tribeca to the west. Home to Chinatown, the district is also racially diverse: 45% white, 36% Asian and Pacific Islander, 12% Hispanic, and 4% Black. While that diversity makes it important for candidates to have wide-reaching appeal to compete for the seat, the initial implementation of ranked-choice voting will make that even more essential as the system rewards being voters’ second or even third choice, particularly in a crowded field.

“As we look forward to 2021, there’s going to be a slew of different candidates with different backgrounds and viewpoints,” Yang said of the developing race. “And the challenge here, like in any district that is very diverse both demographically and economically, the challenge is how do you build a coalition, how do you tie together one unifying message across the entire district but also being nimble enough to communicate in a nuanced way to a specific neighborhood or constituency on their specific issues.”

“Every candidate is going to have to look at the inaugural edition of ranked-choice voting and they’re going to have to recalibrate their campaign strategies,” Yang continued, “…it inherently incentivizes you to build a broader coalition, forces you to go wide. You’re going to be penalized with ranked-choice voting if all you do is vote deep, meaning all you do is target one neighborhood, one constituency.”

During Chin’s time in office, Yang said she was able to build such a coalition. And he said Li is in a good position in the race as she should be able to work off of the strong coalition Chin has built and, “Being chief of staff of the current member certainly gives you a leg up in terms of experience and knowledge of city government and experience and knowledge of that district.”.

It’s not unusual for a term-limited Council member’s chief of staff (or other top current or former aide) to run to replace the outgoing elected official. But the association with said official can work both ways, especially when there are lingering controversies that form centerpieces of the race. In Chin’s case, her narrow 2017 primary victory also showed a significant number of voters in the district who wanted a change and may again choose Marte or lean toward another candidate who is not backed by Chin.

Marte, a former financial analyst, put forth a surprising-to-some showing in 2017, in large part due to substantial support from those organizing against Haven Green. He has also co-founded two community gardens in NYCHA complexes. With all three aforementioned development projects moving ahead and likely to come to the district despite protests from some constituents, they remain a point of criticism for Chin and likely Li by association.

“I decided to run again because a lot of the issues we ran on in 2017 haven’t really been addressed,” said Marte, who was born and raised on the Lower East Side, in an interview. “When you look at land use issues across this district, no one’s really being proactive about it and no one’s really allowing community members to have a say in what a neighborhood they live in, helped build, should look like.”

Marte recently touted his first endorsement of the cycle, from the Chinatown Working Group (CWG), a community-based initiative that has for years pushed its rezoning plan for the district, a downzoning that would preserve existing affordable housing and develop new permanent affordable housing, protect culturally-significant buildings and aspects of the district (especially in Chinatown), and potentially prevent the development of larger buildings and skyscrapers such as those included in the Two-Bridges development plan, among other things.

Marte and others have criticized Chin for not actively supporting the CWG rezoning plan, although she did say in 2017 she would oppose skyscrapers being built in the district, according to DNAinfo. When challenging Chin in 2017 and now, Marte has presented himself as the candidate who listens to the community, in contrast with Chin, who has been criticized for not listening to some vocal residents in situations like that with Elizabeth Street Garden.

Chin expressed support for the Haven Green proposal due to the housing it would provide for seniors, a population she has fought for as the chair of the Council’s Committee on Aging, while noting that the new plan keeps some green space. She argued the project is better for the district as a whole despite the organized and insistent opposition from those seeking to preserve the Elizabeth Street Garden.

Chin also approved the plan to close the Rikers Island jails and build four new borough-based detention facilities, including one in her district to replace the existing jail there. While Chin argues that the plan is for the good of the city overall, including those who are detained and their family members, local criticism of both the planned construction and existence of the new jail has spurred criticism.

Li herself has acknowledged that certain residents, particularly in Chinatown, are frustrated when it comes to not feeling their voices are heard, though she attributed this fault to the mayor rather than Chin. Li said the “frustration from the Chinatown community is that they feel like they’ve been consistently overlooked in policies and decisions,” and that there hasn’t been enough outreach to them, something she would work to change.

Still, Li, like her boss, supports the Haven Green and jail plans.

“Every community should be contributing to affordable and subsidized housing throughout the City of New York,” said Li, who previously served as chair of Community Board 3 and as an organizer at the Neighborhood Family Services Coalition, an advocacy group for children and families, in an interview. “I go back to the principle of everyone doing their part when it comes to a citywide challenge like the ability to have a place to live.”

Li said especially since the Haven Green plan included green space, she felt the need for affordable housing outweighed the potential value of keeping the garden.

Also similar to Chin, Li said she specifically opposes the megatowers that are part of the Two Bridges plan. She also worked on a lawsuit by the City Council and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer against the city’s Department of City Planning (DCP) over whether or not the building of multiple skyscrapers is classified as a “minor” modification, which DCP called it and which would allow the development to move forward without going through the Unified Land Use Review Process (ULURP) that necessitates public input and a City Council vote. That lawsuit went to the State Supreme Court where, in February, Judge Arthur Engoron upheld a ruling from August 2019 in favor of the plaintiffs and ordering the development plan to go through ULURP.

Lam-Low also mentioned her role in that lawsuit.

Previously the chair of the Board of Directors for the Chinese-American Planning Council and an executive in community relations and strategic philanthropy for JPMorgan Chase, Lam-Low said she gave her input to her current boss, Council Speaker Corey Johnson, and assisted him in his decision-making process on the suit.

“They said it was a minor modification, how would anyone in their right mind believe that?” Lam-Low said in an interview. “As a senior member of [Johnson’s] team, I provide input and being a resident of this community that’s impacted by this crazy thing, I help keep him informed and give him feedback directly as a resident of the community.”

Lam-Low, like Li and Marte, has strong community ties. She immigrated to New York when she was 12 and has lived in the district since. She’s also done extensive work with nonprofits and local businesses in the area in her various roles and has made helping those business key to her platform.

“It was the community that raised me and made me who I am…I am running because I have seen how our community has suffered in many different ways but most recently from covid. Our community was neglected and sidelined and I’m very sick and tired of that,” Lam-Low said. “Having seen this community thrive in the days when I first arrived, to what I see today and seeing the decline and what the work ahead of us to recover from this horrible, unprecedented, crazy pandemic. We need someone in City Council who is not only capable of bringing all the resources to help collaborate and rebuild our city and our district. I am that person.”

Lam-Low mentioned her work as a volunteer and community activist in the district, as well as her experience lending to small business and funneling charitable funds to nonprofits at JPMorgan Chase, where she managed a $5 million charitable giving portfolio for Manhattan. She said as a Council member she would put more resources into job training programs and encourage more lending to small businesses to help them recover.

Marte and Li have also emphasized small business aid in their campaigns, as parts of the district, like SoHo and Chinatown especially, are areas with large amounts of small businesses. And in part due to the spike in racism toward Asians as a result of misconceptions concerning COVID-19, businesses in Chinatown have been hit especially hard over the last many months.

“Asian-American businesses were suffering, the reports of Asian American and Chinese American businesses suffering as early as January before the pandemic was widespread in the United States,” Yang said. “The amount of anti-Asian incidents and hate crimes has exploded based on what the city has been tracking and this is Chinatown, Manhattan, this is home to one of the largest communities of Asian-Americans in the whole city and that’s a real issue. I want to see every candidate talk about what you’re doing to address hate crimes as well.”

Li said that she and her friends and family have experienced the increase in racism firsthand, even mentioning how Chin’s office received calls requesting certain restaurants be reported simply because they employed Asian people.

“Education campaigns are great, but I don’t think that it’s enough,” Li said. “These incidents that are happening, we need to do a better job at encouraging people to report to and really follow through on all of the different avenues and all of the different agencies that have a role and a responsibility to step in and to intervene.”

There have also been the recent protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, which led to a resurgence in the Black Lives Matter movement. All candidates in the Council race have voiced support for police and criminal justice reforms, and Salas highlighted it as one of the things that motivated him to run for office.

“I know the structural inequities that exist within, obviously, some of the old relics of structural racism that was implemented by Robert Moses that still exist today. But, essentially, you can look at how you can make this community better, and what you can do, that is something that compelled me to run,” said Salas, who is originally from New Hampshire but also lived in Massachusetts for part of his childhood and most recently lived in Florida before coming to New York City in 2015. “The George Floyd thing, that was another thing where, I’m a person of color and obviously I’ve been discriminated against even as I’ve been successful in my personal career…you look at some of the inequities in the system and you know that you can make this better and you want to fight for it.”

Of the candidates, Salas has spent the least amount of time living in the district. Though his Dominican-born parents immigrated to the Bronx before having him, he has only lived in the city for the last five years. He is running on a platform with some unique ideas, like building more co-ops that provide middle-class New Yorkers the opportunity to own their homes, creating superblocks (streets where car traffic is closed off during the day to allow pedestrians to walk freely), and requiring individual police officers to pay for half of a liability insurance policy in the case that there is a winning lawsuit against them.

He’s also been critical of some of his opponents’ positions, such as Marte’s support of No New Jails, an abolitionist movement that calls for Rikers jails to close but without any new jails being built. The movement calls for an investment in community-based resources to address issues that contribute to crime, such as housing insecurity and mental health treatment, but has been criticized as impractical due to the number of people currently incarcerated, particularly related to violent crime.

“The goal is to close Rikers Island, that is 100% the goal, that is exactly what we should be doing. And we do need to build new jails in order to make that happen,” Salas said. “There’s a lot of validity to the criticisms and the community feedback when it comes to building new jails, what has happened and with all the proposals and what does occur is that every single time there needs to be a social responsibility to do the right thing like close Rikers Island, that responsibility falls upon usually the lowest socioeconomic populations within the city.”

On the jails plan, Li said she is “willing to reassess, if the conversation becomes open again, what is best for Chinatown,” and that she would want to see a more significant investment in alternatives to incarceration programs. Lam-Low similarly said that the community should have been consulted more and mentioned how the proposed jail is larger than what was anticipated at 29 stories, creating another issue.

Salas also disagreed with Marte’s stance on Elizabeth Street Garden and said his near-successful run in 2017 seemed to be mostly supported by NIMBYs (those who support things like affordable housing or homeless shelters generally but oppose them when they are to be built in their neighborhood). Salas supports Haven Green due to the affordable housing it would bring and similarly — although he is not fully behind it — Salas said he would be in favor of the Two Bridges development if it brought more affordable housing (currently, 700 of the estimated 3,000 units planned to be built would be affordable).

Salas has been working at the Bronx Charter School For Better Learning, where 80% of the student population lives below the poverty line and between 2-5% experience homelessness annually, he said. He added that he has created different youth afterschool programs on topics ranging from computer science to music, something he’d like to see done across the city in partnership with local businesses to teach students skills relevant to their interests.

Education is a key issue in the district as well, according to Assemblymember Yuh-Line Niou, who represents Lower Manhattan at the state level.

“The schools in the Lower East Side are literally on the cover of The New York Times for segregation,” Niou said in an interview. “Our district is very much for making sure that we have equitable schools.”

Niou was referring to recent reporting detailing how District 1 has some of the most segregated schools in the city, despite a program that allows families to choose where their children go to elementary school. Efforts to reform the system have been unsuccessful.

“This is one of the most segregated school systems in the country, where there’s invisible lines that doesn’t allow someone who lives in Smith Houses to go to a school in the Seaport,” Marte said. “Even though the Council office has very little to do with education policy, it’s mostly mayoral control, a state issue, I think we have to start focusing on how to change that. And I think one of the biggest things we have to do is fix district lines, and we can do that with the census.”

Lam-Low’s idea to address segregation specifically in specialized high schools is to increase gifted programs in public schools, as she said increasing accessibility to gifted programs will better prepare students from all backgrounds to test into specialized high schools.

But Maron has faced backlash over comments she made about integrating public schools, such as when she defended parents who may be concerned integration would result in their children receiving a worse education, said New York City Department of Education anti-bias training does “nothing to actually improve our broken schools,” and, in 2019, criticized DOE guidelines to address bias and diversify the curriculum.

“I am passionate about public education,” said Maron, who declined to be interviewed for this story, in an emailed statement addressing her past remarks. “I’ve been serving on the district CEC for the last three years and my four children attend public schools. New York families need and deserve excellent, integrated schools that deliver high-quality education especially for marginalized children who rely on public schools as a life-line for economic mobility. Get the money into the classrooms and out of the unnecessary administrators’ offices. Politics must stop. I have spent years working toward those goals.  We must be bold and tackle the hard issues, and still be kind to people with whom we differ.”

Maron cited affordable housing as a key issue for her campaign, in addition to helping small businesses affected by the pandemic through loans and more outdoor seating, stopping evictions, cutting “job losses by telling the big corporations to take a break,” creating more parks, and preparing for the next superstorm.

With a crowded field already, Niou was unable to point to any particular candidate she feels will have an edge, saying she doesn’t “know what the field will look like, I haven’t really thrown my hat in the ring.” Niou herself had been talked about as a potential candidate, but said she feels her expertise lies in state politics and government, and that it wouldn’t be fair to her current constituents to move toward the Council, anyway. Still, her endorsement would be a big one as a well-liked politician representing much of the same area, and having just won her Assembly primary by over 20 points against a well-funded challenger.

“I think it's really obvious what I care about resonates with the district,” said Niou, who has made public housing a priority issue. The district has 10 developments operated by the New York City Housing Authority, according to NYCHA.

“Lower Manhattan’s the largest concentration of NYCHA, certainly for Manhattan,” Yang said. “NYCHA is tens of billions of dollars behind in basic repairs. This all exacerbates because of the pandemic, it’s a collection of factors that make day-to-day living more difficult.”

Similar to how all candidates say they will support small business recovery efforts, all candidates have said they would advocate for better conditions in public housing, but distinctions in their positions on how to do so will develop further as the race unfolds.

“The upcoming City Council race is the litmus test for what voters want,” Yang said. “Do they want someone who’s served in the community for a long time, do they want someone who has a lot of government experience, or do they want someone who’s relatively newer?” He mentioned that Brooklyn voters had just elected a wave of new, younger politicians. “There’s so many different candidates and the district is so different neighborhood to neighborhood that you’re going to automatically get a diverse set of candidates with a diverse set of viewpoints. So, it’s a very good flashpoint for what communities in Manhattan want to see in their local representative in 2021.”

by Victor Porcelli, Gotham Gazette

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Max & Murphy Podcast: New York City's Leadership Void, with Harry Siegel

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Mayor de Blasio (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

August 12, 2020 - Max & Murphy Podcast: New York City's Leadership Void, with Harry Siegel

Harry Siegel, a Daily News columnist, Daily Beast editor, and co-host of the FAQNYC podcast, joined the show to discuss New York City's leadership void.

Listen to the conversation and let us know what you think -- we're on Twitter @TweetBenMax and @JarrettMurphy. You can listen to the show through the embedded audio below or download the episode wherever you get your podcasts, under "Max & Murphy," and listen to Max & Murphy live on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. on WBAI radio, 99.5FM or

by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette

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