Johnson cultivates Council, kingmakers to become speaker

Corey Johnson addresses the City Council on Wednesday as its members elected him their speaker — the second-most-powerful position in the city’s government — for the next four years. Photo by William Alatriste / NYC Council

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE | One thing was said over and over again about Corey Johnson as the City Council convened on Wednesday to elect its new speaker — the 35-year-old works hard.

“Everybody in this body cannot deny that Corey Johnson worked harder to be the speaker of this body than anybody else in this body,” said Laurie Cumbo, who represents parts of Brooklyn in the 51-member City Council, as she nominated Johnson for speaker on Jan. 3.

Beginning with a field of eight candidates, the speaker’s race was winnowed to two by Jan. 3. The other contender, Inez Barron, who also represents Brooklyn neighborhoods, was reduced to nominating herself.

Johnson’s nomination was seconded four times and the final vote was a lopsided 48-1, with two members not attending the Council’s first meeting of 2018.

Jumaane Williams, who also stayed in the speaker race till nearly the end, was reportedly in Albany, where Governor Andrew Cuomo was set to give his State of the State address later that afternoon. Williams is said to be considering a primary challenge against Cuomo this year.

Members who took time to explain why they were supporting Johnson, who is openly gay and H.I.V.-positive, talked about how he aided their campaigns or how he reached across the ideological spectrum to talk to them.

Corey Johnson is not a consolation, said Daneek Miller, a Queens councilmember who first noted that he originally wanted to see an African-American speaker. Corey Johnson is an ally. Corey Johnson is the cream that rises to the top and became speaker of this body. I will be honored and privileged to serve with my neighbor and little brother over the next four years.

Carlos Menchaca, an openly gay incumbent who faced a determined primary opponent last fall in his Brooklyn district, said, “He came out and he helped me win my race. He walked the walk with me.”

When Ruben Diaz, Sr., a former state senator who now represents Bronx neighborhoods in the City Council, was in the hospital following major surgery, Johnson paid him a visit. Diaz is a well-known opponent of the L.G.B.T.Q. community and voted against same-sex marriage in the state Senate in 2009 and 2011.

“A man that doesn’t agree with what I say, this person, Corey Johnson, came to see me in the hospital,” Diaz said as he cast his vote for Johnson.

Similarly, Fernando Cabrera, who also represents parts of the Bronx, traveled with Johnson to Israel in February 2017. Cabrera has a history of working with anti-L.G.B.T.Q. groups and, like Diaz, is an opponent of same-sex marriage. Cabrera traveled to Uganda when that country was weighing a law that imposed the death penalty for homosexuality. During the Uganda visit, Cabrera made a YouTube video praising the nation’s antigay forces.

Johnson also distributed a lot of campaign cash to his fellow councilmembers during the 2017 election cycle. He donated to 26 candidates who now hold Council seats. He did not donate to Diaz or Cabrera. He also supported a large number of city Democratic political clubs and donated to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s re-election campaign.

Johnson arrived in New York City from Massachusetts in 2001. He was known then as the high school athlete who came out on national television. He held various jobs and volunteered for the political campaigns of Mark Green and Carl McCall. Johnson learned about the intricacies of city law on housing and development while serving on Community Board 4 in Manhattan. He eventually chaired the board.

His knowledge of housing and development issues was apparent when he first ran for the City Council in 2013 for a Manhattan district that includes the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. He defeated attorney Yetta Kurland in the Democratic primary, though that race was known for its acrimony and one or two embarrassing conflicts between the candidates. Johnson faced no serious opposition in 2017 in the primary or general elections.

The degree to which he has cultivated kingmakers and the politically connected was evident when he spoke following the vote. He acknowledged Congressmember Joe Crowley, who represents a Queens district in the House and chairs that county’s Democratic Party, and Keith Wright, a former member of the state Assembly who chairs the New York County Democratic Committee. Crowley and Wright were sitting in the balcony of the Council chamber watching the proceedings. They were joined by Yvette Clarke, who represents a Brooklyn district in the House.

Also sitting in the balcony and recognized by Johnson was the president of New York City’s Central Labor Council — an AFL-CIO umbrella group comprised of multiple union locals — and the heads of three locals in the Central Labor Council.

What has dogged Johnson’s race for speaker is that he is a white man heading a City Council that has a majority of members who are Hispanic, African-American and Asian. This matter came up when Barron nominated herself.

“White men, a white woman and a Latina have been speaker, but we’ve never had a black speaker,” she said. “I think you have to recognize that I am not white and I’m not male and I’m not going to get the blessing of the power structure.”

Charles Barron, who represents a Brooklyn district in the state Assembly and previously served in the City Council, was in the Council chamber to support his wife. When it became apparent that she had lost the race, he noisily exited with a small group of friends.

“My real view is that I am never going to compare my experience to that of a person of color in New York City because we all have our own unique experiences,” Johnson said during a press conference following the vote when asked about Barron’s comments. “I recognize the privilege in the color of my skin… . I’m going to ensure that the leadership structure of the Council, that the committee chairs of the Council are represented by women, by people of color, by L.G.B.T. people, and ensure that all voices are heard.”

In a statement, Williams said, in part,  “One area where we have failed…is in the lack of diversity in top positions of power in government and agencies across the city. … Equity must be an issue of highest priority to the next speaker of the City Council. Having spoken at length with Councilmember Johnson, he is acutely aware of those concerns, and has agreed, in a tangible and accountable way, to work alongside me on issues of equity, both in government and citywide, for people of diverse backgrounds across race, gender, sexual orientation and more.”

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