Corey Johnson crafts a Council bid; C.B. 4 leader vies to succeed Quinn

Photo courtesy of Gay City News Corey Johnson, center, with Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, to the left of him, and District Leader Jonathan Geballe, to the right, who have both endorsed Johnson, in the June LGBT Pride March.

Photo courtesy of Gay City News
Corey Johnson, center, with Congressmember Jerrold Nadler, to the left of him, and District Leader Jonathan Geballe, to the right, who have both endorsed Johnson, in the June LGBT Pride March.

BY DUNCAN OSBORNE  |  There is something about Corey Johnson that is carefully crafted. Or perhaps it’s everything.

The 31-year-old is vying with Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney, for the City Council seat that Speaker Christine Quinn has held for 14 years. For an interview with the editorial staff of NYC Community Media, he arrived with his hair freshly cut, his light beard artfully trimmed and his suit neatly pressed.

Johnson’s presentation was practiced, which is not surprising since he has been campaigning for months. He was well-versed in the intricacies of city laws on housing and development. That is also not surprising because he has served on Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, since 2005 and has wrestled with some controversial development projects.

“You do not spend eight years on a community board because it’s sexy,” Johnson said.

But some people do spend eight years on a community board because it can be a stepping stone to elected office. Johnson believes he is prepared to hold the seat representing the roughly 180,000 New Yorkers who live in a district that runs from W. 55th St. to Canal St. and from Fifth Ave. to the Hudson River.

“I’ve never worked for an elected official,” he said. “I didn’t come out of a Democratic club.”

He will be a “councilmember who is community-minded,” Johnson said, adding that he wants to be part of “progressive change” in the city. A significant issue is how the city approves real estate development plans.

For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has favored large-scale projects, with some local residents objecting that they obliterate neighborhoods and favor market-rate housing at the expense of affordable housing. The city’s approval process — the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, as it is known — favors developers, critics say.

C.B. 4 approved the expansion of Chelsea Market, a 300,000-square-foot project atop the historic structure that occupies an entire block between Ninth and 10th Aves. and W. 15th and 16th Sts. Johnson opposed the expansion. Just as controversial was the Hudson Yards development, a 17-million-square-foot project on 26 acres that includes 20,000 apartments over the rail yards in the West 30s.

“We won some things and we didn’t get everything we wanted,” Johnson said, adding that he increased affordable housing units in that project from 20 percent to 26 or 27 percent. In her campaign for Manhattan Borough President, however, Julie Menin, a former Community Board 1 chairperson, pegs that number as low as 16 or 17 percent.

Ostensibly, ULURP begins at a community board then gets approval from a borough president and is then formally approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The community board and borough president opinions are advisory only. Critics say that developers meet with the commission and city councilmembers first and begin the ULURP procedure only after getting informal approval.

The process is “in need of major reform,” Johnson said. But it is defined in the city’s charter so that reform would have to be approved by the voters, he said.

When discussing his hopes for the City Council, Johnson emphasized plans to build more affordable housing, reduce class size in city schools, increase parks in the district, and bring a hospital to Lower Manhattan to replace the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital. At least some of those plans do not square with his recent employment.

Johnson previously worked for GFI Development, a real estate developer that built two luxury hotels in Manhattan and an office building in Brooklyn. He did not mention that job publicly or on his campaign Web site until it was disclosed by citycouncilwatch.net, a Web site.

“I put none of my work history on my Web site,” Johnson said, noting that campaign experts told him that was not what the public wanted to read on such sites.

According to citycouncilwatch.net, Johnson boasted at a campaign event that 20 percent of the units in the Brooklyn building were affordable housing units. Those units have not been built. The project is not completed, Johnson said, but a “restrictive declaration” requires GFI to build those units.

“Whenever the project is built, they must abide by it,” he said. “My role was to make sure that whatever was done, it was done in a community-minded way.”

Johnson first entered public life when he came out as gay to his teammates on the Masconomet High School football team in Massachusetts in 1999. The next year, his story went national with a 2,000-word profile in The New York Times and appearances on major TV shows. After high school, Johnson spent a year traveling across the country — 130,000 miles, he said — speaking at schools and meetings and to the media about his experience.

Johnson then held a series of jobs at gay groups and on political campaigns, with some keeping him in the public eye. His campaign for City Council began in 2012 and he quickly raised roughly $168,000 from more than 600 people, achieving the maximum he is allowed to spend in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary.

Like any politician, he has put together a campaign that relies on a particular image. He is an advocate for affordable housing, so his GFI job and his current part-time work at the Sydell Group — a real estate development firm founded by former GFI senior staff — were omitted from his campaign material until citycouncilwatch.net reported them.

His image management, as a transplanted Massachusetts native who fell in love with the Big Apple, also ignores the year he spent living in San Francisco. He praised that city, just as he praises New York City now, in a 2001 profile in San Francisco magazine.

None of this is unusual for a politician, but Johnson can go to extremes. When Gay City News, The Villager’s sister paper, requested a copy of his campaign schedule, he refused to turn it over, saying he feared Kurland would disrupt his events. He then made repeated promises to release his schedule, but never did. Most politicians routinely release their schedules.

This reporter had a chance encounter with Johnson at a West Village diner where he described the difficult relationship he has had with Quinn. Moments later, the candidate disclosed personal details about his life that he said were “off the record,” so he understood he was talking to a reporter. Days later, he bristled, saying he was “disappointed,” when Gay City News said it might use the comments about Quinn in this story.

In an obviously choreographed story in May in the Times, Johnson said that he was H.I.V.-positive and had known his status for more than eight years. It is not clear if the piece was meant to minimize the disclosure or maximize attention on it.

Other than having Board 4 call for increases in AIDS funding in the city budget, Johnson has no record on H.I.V. matters. Asked what were his notable achievements on AIDS issues, Johnson said, “I actually think me being honest and telling my friends and me being a role model.”

Some of the paranoid tinge within the Johnson and Kurland campaigns may arise from the particularly aggressive nature of the race. The campaigns and their surrogates have charged each other with violating city campaign finance laws, using physical violence against volunteers and other bad acts. Allegedly, it is the Kurland campaign that is whispering to voters that Johnson has no college degree.

“My life experience has been a rich one,” Johnson said, referring to his decision to end his formal education after high school. “I’m proud of my life experience.”

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36 Responses to Corey Johnson crafts a Council bid; C.B. 4 leader vies to succeed Quinn

  1. Corey Johnson has ties to big real estate interests and is running for office to be the people's representative in the City Council? Am I missing something here or is this a conflict of interest?

  2. Yes, the facts.

  3. I'm particularly disturbed with the author's comment "Other than having Board 4 call for increases in AIDS funding in the city budget, Johnson has no record on H.I.V. matters." and the author's assertion that Mr. Johnson's disclosure of his HIV status was "an obviously choreographed piece" not clear to "minimize the disclosure or maximize attention on it". Perhaps the author wanted Mr. Johnson to cure AIDS, or come up with a new drug therapy that eliminates the contraction of HIV, or rally 3,000 people and get signatures to give attention to his campaign? Instead of lauding Mr. Johnson for the courage to reveal his health status, something deeply personal and legally private, this author ignores the immensely powerful impact on the HIV/AIDS community by his public disclosure. Mr. Johnson was also an inspiration to countless thousands of GLBT people in his prior coming out publicly, in some cases saving lives from suicide. The author also failed to do any research on Mr. Johnson's Community Board work, where he testified regarding the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital .."I strongly believe personally that there should be a significant commemoration and marker to the AIDS crisis that happened in Greenwich Village and in Manhattan". Incidentally, Mr. Johnson's testimony stretched beyond his Community Board 4 into Community Board 2. So, the author's assertion that there is "no record" is false, and either lazy reporting at best or biased at worst.

    • I have to agree with Roger! It is clear the author had made up his mind about Mr Johnson before the interview started. Who cares if Mr Johnson likes both New York and San Francisco? Perhaps the author should look at the 10 years of community board service Mr Johnson has provided instead of where he lived 12 years ago.

  4. I'd choose Corey's 8 years serving on the community board over Yetta's 4 years at SUNY Buffalo any day.

  5. I'm so curious why the "big ties to real estate" has been thrown around so often, without looking at the contradictions in the "swiftboat" style political quip. Mr. Johnson has no big donors from real estate supporting his campaign, he lives in a 300sq ft. apt. in Chelsea, he worked at the real estate companies as a liaison to the community, he makes $0 for his work on the community board, and he opposed Chelsea Market and Hudson Yards expansion. Does this show big ties to real estate?

  6. Duncan, it sounds like you are voting for Yetta? You seem to really have an issue with Corey’s grooming habits. Are these important enough to lead with?

    Also: Have you interviewed Yetta? Can we expect to see a piece dissecting her campaign and highlighting her gaffes? It seems to me you are pretty “anti-Corey.” If HIV is a hot button issue for you, will Gay City News offer insight into what Yetta Kurland has done for AIDS? I really have no better understanding of either candidate as a result of your article.

    I am astonished, as a gay man, at how many other gay men have found fault with Corey for things ranging from his beard to coming out as HIV-positive to not being outspoken enough about HIV. Is it that you really have issues with his politics – or are these meaningless criticisms a reflection of your own self-hatred and internalized homophobia.

  7. Maybe someone should write a story about Yetta's desperate campaign tactics – racebaiting in NYCHA, spreading untruthful smear letters in large building complexes, lying to voters on the street about Corey's record? Or maybe the purple couch is just too captivating…

  8. I met Corey Johnson on several occasions. I was impressed with his honesty and caring. After speaking with him personally, I am convinced that he is totally committed to improving the community.
    I also agree with Roger. The article is obviously slanted against Mr. Johnson.

  9. william stricklin

    This is a very unfair and biased profile of Mr. Johnson, obviously the author is a Kurland supporter. To point out that he has no college degree reeks of elitism and class discrimination. I have known Corey since 2002; i am impressed with both his intelligence and his ethics.

  10. Umm… Corey Johnson didn't disclose his employment with a real estate developer,.. he lied about building affordable housing… do I need to go on? He endorsed Michael Bloomberg for a third term .. and then claimed he opposed the extension of term limits… it is not biased or unfair to report this.., it is not internalized homophobia.. it is essential information for voters… It is shocking to see a small group of Johnson supporters so viciously attack first Ms. Kurland and now…, the press??… What next? The voters when we don't vote for him?

    • Umm…what? Have you ever spoken to Corey Johnson? Have you seen his tax returns, published online? Have you read the above article and its (actually) false claims? Have you seen his 350 square foot apartment?

      I won’t criticize Yetta here, lest you cry foul. I don’t agree with her methods, her campaign tactics, the fact that she owns a gun…and i dont want her speaking for me. Is that fair?

      See you at the polls Roger.

  11. Chz90, actually – you’re living in an alternate universe. Yetta and her supporters have circulated over 9000 letters in large buildings in the district, letters that contain lies about Corey and his record. Jerry Nadler did a robo call to these voters, something he rarely does for a council race. He says this is the nastiest race he’s seen in a long time. Check your facts. Corey’s been endorsed by Tenants PAC and the Working Families Party.

  12. Reality Check… all of this is just more jumbled attacks. What does Working Families have to do with it? You keep saying "lies" what are the lies? I saw the letter. It says that Mr. Johnson works for real estate and supported Bloomberg for a third term. Why are you attacking Kurland's supporters for bringing this to light?

    • I saw a letter from David Kaufman, MD and Eileen Dunn, RN who worked at St. Vincent's and said Corey Johnson did nothing to help them keep St Vincent's hospital open, though his campaign literature says he did. It was a simple matter of fact letter telling of their experiences with the candidate. There was nothing hateful in it, just a relaying of their experience with him.

      • The reality is that Corey testified – as partof the community board – and it is on the record. At the end of the day, the hospital closed so it is pointless to argue who’s methods were better. They all failed.

  13. A picture speaks a thousand words: Jerry Nadler, Jonathon Gabelle, and Dick Gottfried pictured marching with Pride with Corey….that's enough to convince me.

    Beyond that, I needed to sift through the sensationalism, gossip, and lazy reporting to see some facts buried in this article:

    - He was well-versed in the intricacies of city laws on housing and development.
    - he has served on Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, since 2005 and has wrestled with some controversial development projects
    - he increased affordable housing units in that project (Hudson Yards) from 20 percent to 26 or 27 percent.
    - Johnson emphasized plans to build more affordable housing, reduce class size in city schools, increase parks in the district, and bring a hospital to Lower Manhattan to replace the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital
    - He is an advocate for affordable housing

    I'm a Corey fan because I look beyond the hyperbole.

  14. A lot of misinformation from Corey's Cronies. For real information on Corey Johnson, go to http://therealcoreyjohnson.blogspot.com/

    • Ruth, neither candidate is perfect. Here's an example of something for you to consider: http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130211/BLO

      Let's focus on issues rather than mudslinging. Building affordable housing, expanding classroom space, and finding a location for a new hospital are the issues. Not whether Corey once did some work for a real estate company or Yetta violates campaign finance laws. I want a City Councilor who will look forward to building a new hospital rather than a candidate who's only claim to fame is a failed fight to keep a hospital open.

    • misleading yetta

      Ruth, I just received a flyer from Yetta Kurland under my door. Front and center, is a picture of her and Edie Windsor, holding up each other's T-Shirts. The flyer headline states "Women leading the way to support Yetta Kurland for Council. Edie Windsor came out and supported Christine Quinn for Mayor, not Yetta Kurland for Council. This is what is called "misinformation".
      http://www.hrc.org/blog/entry/edie-windsor-announ

  15. Jim… You say let's focus on issues rather than mudslinging but then you proceed to sling mud… The problem with the Johnson campaign is that even their calls for ending mudslinging are not real.

    • Sommers, it is fair to criticize me for slinging mud, and I'm sorry I sunk to that level. I was just trying to balance the discussion to prove a point — no one should cast stones if they live in a glass house. To stick to the issues, please tell me what hospitals have been built under Yetta's leadership or what affordable housing has been built under her leadership or anything she has done thinking about the future of the West Side rather than just fighting against change . (And, by the way, I'm not part of the Johnson Campaign — you should do more fact checking before posting false information.)

  16. Corey Johnson claims to have built 10,000 units of affordable housing. The truth is he has created none.

    • Ruth, why is it that when asked a question about Yetta, you respond with a clearly blatant exaggeration about Corey? You can't back up that he has said 10,000 units of affordable housing, but you also can't show me any proof of Yetta building even 1 unit. why?

  17. Actually I can. See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RiJINi7kjiY.

    But community boards do not create housing, affordable or otherwise. Developers do. Johnson's employer, GFI development, displaced SRO tenants from the Ace Hotel and created new luxury digs (but that's a hotel now, and it was formerly housing). So in that light he helped to destroy real affordable housing. And despite the promise, the Brooklyn development has not made any housing.

    All community boards do is rubber-stamp developer applications (and whatever they say is not binding). But approvals by community boards are used to enable bad development. They provide political cover, as Johnson and others currently in office make those claims with unapologetic frequency.

    And that is why Kurland has also not created any housing, affordable or otherwise. (buy she hasn't made that claim).

    • My guess is that the Hudson Yards developer didn't propose any units of affordable housing in the initial application. To say the Community Board created "tens of thousands' of affordable housing units probably comes from the negotiations between the developer and the community board for that final plan. Can you do that research about the initial proposal versus the final approved plan? That might answer your concern about his phrasing on the creation of tens of thousands (even if 20 is only twice 10!) of affordable housing units.

  18. Ruth, thank you for that video clip. In it he says "the Community Board created tens of thousands of affordable housing units" so it's unfair to say Johnson created 10,000 units of affordable housing, but I understand your confusion in thinking that he said he created 10,000 units since he says in the context of his successes. So let's look beyond the hyperbole and try to look at facts instead of campaign propaganda.

    There are going to be approximately 20,000 housing units at Hudson Yards (based on a Wikipedia report http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_Yards_Redevel… If the community board, under the leadership of Johnson, increased the percentage of affordable units from 20% to 25%, I do feel like he can take some credit for the creation of 1,000 additional affordable housing units in the West Side. Even if we divide that number by 50 to equally give credit to every community board member, that's 20 units. That puts Corey up by 20 units of affordable housing going online in the West Side to Yetta's admitted zero.

  19. Carol D'Amicis

    EnI know both Yetta and Corey and I would love to vote for a woman and a lesbian but I am voting for Corey. He has not run a negative campaign and he has not lied about anything. He practices rigorous honesty. No one from his camp has slung mud or lied but I cannot say the same about Yetta's camp. I am deeply disappointed and saddened by that fact. The letter written by Eileen Dunn and circulated by Yetta's camp WAS A LIE and they knew it was. I was at City Council hearings and so was Yetta, Eileen, and Corey. We all spoke about saving St Vincent's hospital and the need for a hospital on the Westside. We all saw each other there. The Hospital Workers Union and the Doctors Council support Corey because of his efforts to save St Vincent's Hospital and advocating for a hospital to replace it when it closed.
    Corey didn't go to college and neither did my father but my father did serve on a lay panel that adjudicated juvenile criminal cases in a county with an Ivy League college. He had lunch in the White House with Jack and Jackie Kennedy and he knew Martin Luther King and more. Obviously, he did not need a college degree and neither did Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs, Carl Sandburg, Harper Lee, Jane Jacobs and many more. Corey is impressive, very smart and could run circles around most college graduates. Without a degree, he has accomplished much.
    The author shows more of his bias when he writes that Corey praised San Francisco and New York, both cities that he lived in and "none of that is unusual for a politician." I am not a politician but I too praise some of the cities that I have lived in – Calcutta, Kathmandu, Vancouver, and New York City.
    I am appalled that the Villager would print an article that borders on yellow journalism.

  20. There is no one single Hudson Yards developer (even though Related wants to think it is). The so-called affordable housing component in Hudson Yards came from a backroom last-minute deal between Bloomberg and Quinn in 2005. See the various articles by Juan Gonzalez on that – I don't have the URLs handy. That was Quinn's deal, and the community board had hardly anything to do with that.

    But any developer can get huge bonuses from 80/20 housing or inclusionary zoning. That's built into the zoning resolution and neither Quinn, nor Johnson have anything to do with that.

    In May 2013 the Daily News reported that only 16% of the first 5,600 units are "affordable." The rest are luxury. But often in buildings like these, beginning rents for affordable studios start close to $2,000, which is hardly affordable. The units often have less expensive appliances and finishings, and are based on a percentage of the NYC AMI (which is skewed by the inclusion of higher incomes from Westchester and Nassau).

    Johnson had barely been appointed to the community board at that time when these deals were made and can't really take credit for anything.

    • Ruth, you have proven that you are wearing horse blinds and that anything Corey does just won't be good enough for you, and that only the bad things can stick to him while even miniscule praise is not forthcoming. You won't even give him credit for the 16% of affordable housing at Hudson Yards even though by your admission it was approved under his tenure on the Community Board — an 80/20 split is not mandatory so someone had to push for it. An intellectual conversation and dialogue about the issues with you just isn't possible. Therefore, return to your platitudes, hyperbole and innuendos and I wish you the best of luck. As an Irish descendant, we always had a saying in my family: Never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Cheers.

      • If you're not being paid by Johnson's campaign for making false statements, you should be.

        As I said, community boards do not create housing. In the case of Hudson Yards, that was Quinn's deal with Bloomberg. CB4 – much less Johnson – had anything to say about it.

        For tax abatements pursuant to section 421(a) of the NYS RPTL, if the premises is in the exclusionary zone, then yes, it's an 80/20 split. The developer does not get the abatements without it. That has nothing to do with any community board.

        You can spin the yarns you want, but in the end, the only housing Johnson "created" was the luxury Ace Hotel he got with GFI development in displacing SRO tenants. It's all a matter of record, even if Johnson wiped it from his website.

        • Ruth are you aware of the salary and title that Corey had while with GFI? He has made both public. Can you provide any salary information for Yetta? Her law-firm (and all her civil rights work) is for profit, correct? Please do correct me if I’m wrong.

    • Carol D'Amicis

      These units were created when Corey was CB4 chair. As far as the blogspot goes, what bull crap. All the lies are coming from Yetta's people.

  21. long time villager

    i was actively involved with the st. vincent's development from the beginning…when it was a committee and before the developer was selected. although a few of us believe that when the rudins were given the deal it had long been in the bag. the other bids were never released although there were requests for them. privacy issues were moot at the time. eventually, we realized that there was no way that the hospital could be saved. there is enough blame to go around. i believe that yetta kurland cynically used the understandable fears and outrage of locals to give her political aspirations a boost….playing on their fears and emotions, wasting their time.

    i am impressed with corey johnson and don't care if he has a sheepskin. i have discussed the need for a new hospital on the west side with him and i hope that with corey as councilmenber, our health needs will be a priority. he has convinced me that they will be.

    the villager piece is a hit job. i am surprised that our local newspaper ran it as straight reporting. it isn't.

    • yetta? forgetta!

      I agree. i got a mailpiece from yetta yesterday "I led the fight against closing St. Vincent's". No mention that there is still no hospital and her leadership proved futile. Yetta has bullied her way into public life, inserting herself in almost every major event…If it was DOMA, she manipulated Edie Windsor to hold a "I heart Yetta" t-shirt, after Edie endorsed Christine Quinn. Edie didn't endorse Yetta. Yetta "led the fight" in the Treyvon Martin marches, she "led the fight" against stop-and-frisk, she "led the fight" during hurricane sandy, carefully positioning herself in photos/videos for her campaign to use. She would be a disaster in City Council…I would imagine few would want to engage in her bullying tactics and ultimatums that breakdown discussions.

  22. Yetta is the liberal version of the Tea Party. Her m/o is to bully, make a scene, insert herself where she can get publicity. Her behavior is shameful and disrespectful to us as a constituency and to the democratic process. I've looked at both of these candidates carefully and Corey gets my vote. If I had not decided to vote for Corey before Yetta's hateful letters, I would have then.

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