BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Amid a tumultuous political climate, the mayor’s race was shaken up Thursday as Corey Johnson announced he is dropping out of the running.
Johnson, 38, the openly gay City Council speaker, has represented Council District 3 (West Village, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen) since 2014 and will be term-limited out of office at the end of 2021.
The young and aggressive speaker started his rapid political ascent by leapfrogging a more-established member to become chairperson of Community Board 4, then won election to the City Council, followed by the speakership.
But the bruising budget battle this summer — which centered on defunding the police amid dwindling city finances — was widely seen as having dimmed his mayoral hopes.
In a statement Thursday, Johnson acknowledged the difficulties the city is currently facing while admitting he’s focusing on personal issues right now, as well.
“It was no secret that I had been considering a run for mayor, and that I have put my campaign on pause for the past six months,” Johnson said. “I felt strongly that it was the right thing to do considering all that our city has been going through, including COVID-19, the resulting shutdown and economic pain, and the long-overdue national reckoning on race.
“Just as I was open about the fact that I was considering a run for mayor,” Johnson said, “I now want to be open about the fact that I have made the difficult decision not to run. This challenging time has led me to rethink how I can best be of service to this city, and I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right path for me. I thank everyone who supported my campaign for this most important job. I was so inspired by the passionate, knowledgeable and committed New Yorkers I met throughout this process. I know that there are plenty of good candidates in the race, and I wish them well.
“In the same spirit of openness, I would also add that I have been dealing with some personal challenges over the past few months, namely — depression. I am sharing this because I know from experience the value of speaking honestly about one’s struggles. I’ve been open about my sobriety, which along with my partner and mother, has been instrumental to me during this difficult time, and my H.I.V. status. I believe it’s important to be open about this, as well. Too often mental health issues are shrouded in secrecy and stigmas, which causes people struggling with these issues to feel alone. I encourage anyone who is experiencing a mental health condition to seek help. I did and I am better for it.
“I want to be clear that my decision to end this campaign is not the end of my public life,” Johnson added. “Far from it. I will continue serving as speaker of the City Council and working to improve the lives of New Yorkers. I love this city with all my heart and I believe by working together, we will come back stronger than ever. Let’s continue looking out for one another and fighting for the greatest city in the world.”
The budget vote at the end of June put Johnson in a very tough spot. While $1 billion was cut from the New York Police Department, critics, including notably Councilmember Carlina Rivera, argued the cuts were achieved by merely shifting police personnel into different city agencies and that not enough was done to redirect funding into communities where it was needed. Rivera is seen as a leading candidate to be the Council’s next speaker.
In August, the Daily News published an exposé alleging that Johnson had subsequently retaliated against Rivera and other councilmembers who voted against the budget, by slashing the funding allocated for their districts.
In a statement to The Village Sun at that time, Jennifer Fermino, Johnson’s communications director, blasted the News article as inaccurate.
“Their analysis is wrong,” Fermino said. “No Council district received less than $1.6 million in expense funding or less than $5 million in capital funding. [The article] also only looks at a fraction of the funding that every district received. For example, it doesn’t include initiative and programmatic funding, which brings millions of dollars to districts, and [the article] inexplicably excludes group projects on capital funding despite the fact that that’s how we encourage members’ requests. It was a difficult budget and tough decisions had to be made. The speaker kept the members whole, despite a $9 billion revenue shortfall, while voluntarily cutting his own pot of money for allocations by a quarter. He also saw his initiative funding cut by more than half. There was less to go around for all.”
Fermino added, “Any allegation that the speaker made decisions based on anything other than the city’s unprecedented financial hardships is patently false. It’s unfortunate that people who were part of the decision-making process underestimate the economic reality we’re facing and are now complaining.”
Asked for comment on the Daily News article and Johnson’s alleged retaliation, Rivera said she stood by her No vote on the budget.
“I proudly voted my conscience and in solidarity with those who are fighting for racial, social and economic justice for New Yorkers,” Rivera said, “and I look forward to continuing my work with the movement on future budgets and legislatively to achieve that vision.”
That flap was followed by a puzzling incident later in August where Johnson issued an e-mail saying that a letter, on his City Council letterhead, detailing proposed municipal personnel cuts was, in fact, a fake.
Asked for comment on the alleged bogus letter and if he would be taking steps to investigate how it happened or to punish whoever sent it, Johnson did not exactly give the sense that he was vigorously pursuing the matter.
“The fake letter was reprehensible, especially since it toys with the livelihoods of city workers,” Johnson said. “If anyone has information about this, I encourage them to come forward.”
Tribeca attorney Pete Gleason, a former police officer and firefighter, speculated that the letter was real and from Johnson, but was leaked by an enemy trying to make the Council speaker look bad with municipal unions: The letter proposed cutting 4,100 police officers, 3,900 Police Department civilian employees, 1,000 firefighters and 400 Fire Department E.M.S. medics, among others.
Whether the letter was fake or actually real but leaked, it jibes with what veteran political consultant Hank Sheinkopf describes as an increasingly savage political landscape, where “there are no friends.”
“This is not news,” Sheinkopf shrugged of Johnson’s announcement. “A lot of us knew this weeks ago.”
He painted Johnson as just the latest in a long line of City Council speakers whose mayoral ambitions fizzled out anticlimactically.
“The last person that was elected from that position was…no one,” he said.
Of course, Christine Quinn, who represented District 3 and was also Council speaker, also flamed out in the 2013 mayoral race, finishing fourth.
“That budget session he went through in a time of COVID, calls for police reform, severe underfunding, a dysfunctional mayor, made him the locus of activity,” Sheinkopf said. “All the pressure was on Corey Johnson. What he saw was the worst of public life.”
In Sheinkopf’s view, the speaker simply made a calculation on whether to stay in the vicious fray and keep taking punches, or as he put it, “Do you want to be a prizefighter or have a normal life?
“They stabbed Corey Johnson to death, who could have been a healer,” he noted.
In general, the veteran consultant bemoaned the current state of politics, especially in New York City.
“The socialists are no better than than the progressives,” he said. “And they’re more brutal because they use social media to destroy people’s lives.”
The stakes are so high and the battles so fierce, he said, because “urban politics is ultimately about competition between groups.”
On top of that, being mayor right now would be no easy job, Sheinkopf said, noting, “The city is going to go into a significant tailspin — crime is up, money’s down and move-outs are real.”
He said Johnson’s dropping out of the race helps City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who no longer has to “defend his left flank.”
Other candidates for the city’s top office include Eric Adams, the Brooklyn borough president, along with less-well-known hopefuls, such as Maya Wiley, former chief counsel to Mayor de Blasio, and Raymond McGuire, a top executive at Citi.
As for reports that Johnson might be eyeing a run for Congress at a later date, Sheinkopf scoffed that seems unlikely, unless a new seat is created or there’s redistricting.
“There’s gotta be reapportionment,” he said, “Jerry Nadler’s going to drop dead?”
Meanwhile, speaking of socialists, a local group of the Democratic Socialists of America was planning a “Say No to CoJo” march on Johnson’s home in Chelsea on Thursday to call for further defunding the police.
Join NYC-DSA’s #DefundNYPD campaign this Thursday at 5pm to tell Corey Johnson NO!
No! To the sham budget he passed on 6/30
No! To hiring new cops while the rest of the city faces austerity and layoffs
No! To his support of the NYPD
That’s OUR money. & we’re gonna take it back! pic.twitter.com/7zCKUtA0NQ
— NYC-DSA RJWG (@nycdsarjwg) September 21, 2020
It wasn’t immediately clear if Johnson having dropped out of the mayoral race would change the socialists’ marching orders.
Village District Leader Arthur Schwartz is currently running against Erik Bottcher, Johnson’s chief of staff, to succeed the speaker for the District 3 seat. While Schwartz has differed with Johnson on some issues — notably the 14th St. busway, which Schwartz filed a lawsuit against — in a statement, he generally heaped praise on the young politician.
“I have known Corey Johnson for many years,” Schwartz said. “We ran together as Obama-pledged delegates to the 2008 Democratic National Convention when everyone else in New York politics, except a few Black leaders, was supporting Hillary. He was a marvelous chairperson for Community Board 4, and learned his job at the City Council quickly, and has many important accomplishments under his belt as speaker, presiding over what can be called the most progressive period ever in the City Council’s history. For every mistake he made, he did 10 things right.
“He is a man of great intelligence and deep conviction, who will be heard from again,” Schwartz said. “I consider Corey to be a friend, and he was there for me when I got arrested in 2014 for defending a 92-year-old tenant from landlord harassment, keeping me out The Tombs. We worked together on important community issues, and even when we disagreed, the conversation was principled and civil. As I said, a person with his talent, who is still in his 30s, will be an important player in the future of New York.”
David Siffert, president of the Village Independent Democrats club, praised Johnson’s work on the local level during the pandemic and said the community is ready to return the favor.
“Corey is someone who deeply cares about his community and about New York City,” Siffert said. “The way he stepped up for his district during COVID was incredible, from food deliveries to phone calls to seniors. He made it a mission to make sure everyone in his community had what they needed physically and emotionally to make it through this crisis. People with his dedication and compassion are rare, and sometimes they are the ones who need love and support. I hope Corey knows that his community is here for him, just like he’s been here for the community over the last six months.”
One local activist, though, was not saddened to see the speaker pass on the mayor’s race. David Marcus was an early Johnson supporter but became disillusioned with him over the speaker’s support for the 14th St. busway. Marcus went on to become a founder of the 14th St. Coalition, which, represented by attorney Schwartz, sued to stop the car-banning transit scheme.
“I think he came to the realization that having betrayed his district and the people who elected him by doing a 180 on his initial opposition to the 14th St. busway and dedicated side-street bikeways, by throwing in his lot with Transportation Alternatives and their anti-community agenda, that he could not win and his ego couldn’t stand the likelihood of that defeat,” Marcus said.
“Once again, a District 3 councilperson who goes on to become speaker is thwarted in their effort to become mayor by virtue of their shameless betrayal of their constituents. Just like Christine Quinn, who threw our community under the St. Vincent’s/Rudin bus, biting the hand that feeds you is a sure way to fail,” Marcus said, referring to the closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital in 2010.
“Many of us are quite pleased at now not having to spend the effort to defeat him. Time he looks for a day job.”