City Council Speaker Corey Johnson was having a blast: One month after securing an uncertain victory that catapulted him toward the apex of New York’s political pyramid, he joined the morning crew at Fox5 for an impromptu, televised dance party as the Groundhog Day weather segment wound down.
He seemed to be sending New Yorkers a message: With boundless energy and joy, he would embody qualities Mayor Bill de Blasio — somber on the lightest of occasions — does not.
Johnson has continued writing his love letter to New York City since becoming speaker in 2018, hoping voters are taken with his exuberance, charm and civic pride as they begin to consider candidates to succeed de Blasio, whose term ends next year.
That was before the weight of the city’s crises came bearing down.
After a grueling four months shaped by a deadly pandemic, the ensuing financial crisis and nightly protests demanding police reform, Johnson is staring at a city transformed from the one he hoped to inherit. In the midst of it, he shepherded through one of the most contentious city budgets in modern memory — an $88 billion spending plan that outraged both left-flank Democrats who wanted deeper cuts to the NYPD and pro-police moderates who believe it will lead to increased crime.
Now, with that vote behind him and other candidates gearing up for their own pandemic-era campaigns for mayor, Johnson’s political career is at a crossroads. He must decide whether to forge ahead in his bid to persuade voters he is a cheerleader who can lead during turmoil, or sit out what stands to be a bruising race.
To his left would be Comptroller Scott Stringer, a long-time politician with deep ties to active voters on the West Side of Manhattan. Stringer has been appealing to the increasingly influential ultra-left Democrats by endorsing their often-successful upstart bids for elected office and denouncing the budget for not imposing more sweeping cuts to the NYPD.
“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 as the Council prepared to vote last Tuesday. Weeks earlier, he had called for a more modest cut of $1.1 billion spread out over four years, rather than all at once.
Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney who worked for the de Blasio administration, is considering running for mayor on a criminal justice reform agenda. She too chastised the budget as “moving the deck chairs around” rather than “transforming public safety.”
If Johnson presumes progressive groups gaining ground in electoral politics are unattainable for him and instead pivots to win over a racially diverse contingent of more moderate Democrats, he will run into Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, a Black former cop, and other candidates looking to appeal to those voters.
Political insiders, including several consultants who would be inclined to support him, are whispering that the 38-year-old Manhattan Democrat might not run for mayor after all.
Johnson said his plans have not changed, though he stopped raising money when Covid-19 hit. He has acknowledged the bruising budget fight, in which he demanded more significant cuts to the NYPD from an unwilling mayor, only to find himself wedged in the middle of a Council divided over the issue.
“I’m still considering running for mayor, yes. It has not been my focus, to be honest, since the beginning of March when the pandemic hit,” he said in an interview Monday evening.
Though his 2021 account, for which he has raised $701,439, is for an “undeclared” office, he has made clear his intention to run for mayor. Asked when he would resume fundraising, he replied, “I sort of still feel like we’re in the middle of a pandemic. I feel weird asking people for money at the moment.”
“My plans haven’t changed,” he added. “I’m trying to take some time to reconnect with my boyfriend and my mother and friends after a really hard four months.”
The 51-member Council passed the fiscal year 2021 budget by a 32-17 split shortly after midnight July 1 — an unusually close margin and an unusually late vote, speaking to how vexing the matter had become.
“To everyone who is disappointed that we did not go farther, I want to be very honest and candid. I am disappointed as well,” Johnson said on Tuesday afternoon. Hours later, he virtually apologized for the outcome he was about to seal.
He said he had to balance Council members demanding more substantive budget cuts to the force in the wake of a national reckoning over police brutality, and those on the Black, Latino & Asian Caucus who were less inclined to dismember the NYPD.
The complicated dynamic played out over and over in Zoom sessions of the Council’s budget negotiating team, which were described as tense and exhausting by several people who participated in them.
As the group dissected the department’s nearly $6 billion budget, looking for $1 billion in savings to meet popular demand, Johnson posed the prospect of firing 1,000 police officers, said one Council member present for those talks.
As members raised their hands virtually to weigh in, Johnson said he only wanted to hear from Black politicians, reasoning their neighborhoods were most impacted by aggressive policing tactics.
“Members of the Black caucus were the first to go, and almost exclusively spoke and they said we don’t want to fire officers because the majority of the newer members are mostly Black and brown and they weren’t steeped in police culture yet. So they’re the ones who are going to save us,” said one Council member who voted against the budget.
“Every Black member objected to it. And that’s it. He moved on from it and no one else needed to speak,” the person added.
Tensions at that point were running high.
Calls to reform the NYPD, in the face of a national movement and resistance from de Blasio, were becoming louder and more consistent. Some demonstrators set up an encampment outside City Hall. Others showed up outside the homes of several Council members, as well as the Williamsburg apartment of Johnson’s boyfriend.
“These are individuals who have never been seen before, active before,” said Laurie Cumbo, a Brooklyn member who is close to Johnson and voted for the budget. Her home was also a target for protesters. “If these were issues you really cared about, we would see you in NYCHA, we would see you in our homeless shelters, we would see you in our neighborhoods fighting the good fight.”
On the other side, Council members decried a budget that barely paid lip service to an outcry for transformation at what is arguably the most powerful public entity in New York City. The final plan came up with what de Blasio called $1 billion in cuts, based largely on cutting overtime and shifting school safety agents to the Department of Education — a move that may not even take place this year.
“The City Council failed New Yorkers today. Instead of shrinking policing, the Council moved cops from the NYPD to other agencies, refused to institute a hiring freeze on police and failed to take meaningful steps to shrink the NYPD’s massive and abusive presence in our communities,” said Communities United for Police Reform, an umbrella organization, in a prepared statement.
The group put Johnson on notice, adding: “Mayor de Blasio, Speaker Johnson, and City Council members — we are keeping score.”