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By SAM SPOKONY | In the end, it was probably the respect he’d earned from local tenant leaders and neighborhood organizations — relationships grown strong through his time on Community Board 4 — that propelled Corey Johnson to a huge win over Yetta Kurland in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary election for the City Council’s District 3 seat.
Johnson, who has chaired C.B. 4 for the past two and a half years, and been on the board since 2005, is readying to leave the board, as he will run uncontested in the November general election and assume office in the Council on Jan. 1.
But while he’s ready to take on this new and bigger role — his first as a legislator — Johnson is quick to remind constituents that, even once he becomes a city councilmember, he won’t be too hard to find around town.
“I learned a lot from the community board, but I don’t feel sentimental about ending my time there, because the truth is that I’m not going anywhere,” said Johnson, in an interview two weeks ago. “I’m just going to be working with all of these folks in a different capacity, and I’m going to continue to be at community board meetings, tenant association meetings, block association meetings and P.T.A. meetings. And I think this next chapter is really going to be an extension of the work I did with my colleagues in C.B. 4.”
The Third Council District includes Greenwich Village, the South Village, Soho, Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea and west Soho. Johnson said his formative training and expertise on the local level will continue to benefit his constituents by keeping him zeroed in on the neighborhood issues that played such a huge part in his campaign — namely, bringing in new affordable housing, improving public schools and restoring a full-service hospital to the area.
“I think affordable housing is the number one issue that faces all of these neighborhoods on the West Side, and on top of that, I think it’s an incredibly important issue throughout the city,” said Johnson. “For the far West Side, there’s going to be an even more dramatic change in new development over the next four years, as Hudson Yards construction takes place. We need to make sure that process, from start to finish, is conducted in a way that really works for the community.”
In terms of public education, Johnson acknowledged that the district enjoys an “embarrassment of riches” with regard to the number of quality schools, but stressed that issues of overcrowding and disputes over recent school rezonings still require hard work and vigilance. Specifically, he explained that, once on the City Council, he will advocate strongly for Community Education Councils — all-volunteer groups that coordinate with the Department of Education on neighborhood school issues — to gain more influence over the local decision-making process. Council District 3 is largely covered by C.E.C. District 2.
“The big issue here is that C.E.C.’s need to be given more power at the local level,” he said, “because they probably know even more about how to tackle their community’s problems than do the folks at D.O.E. or elected officials. That’s not a bad judgment of D.O.E. or the electeds. But the fact is that these volunteers on the C.E.C. are parents, they live this every day, and that really makes them experts on local issues. And I want to make sure I work directly with them to make sure things are done the right way.”
As Johnson continues to plan his Council agenda, C.B. 4 is preparing for a transition to new leadership on the board.
At the December full board meeting, members will elect a replacement not only for Johnson, but potentially for all of the board’s other officer positions as well.
Rumors abound that Christine Berthet, the board’s first vice chairperson, is likely to move up from second-in-command and win the chairperson position. But when asked to comment, she said it’s too “premature” to discuss.
For his part, Johnson lauded Berthet for her work on the board.
“I think Christine has been an exceptional first vice chairperson, and I’ve worked incredibly well with her,” he said. “She’s one of the foremost transportation policy experts in the city, and I think she’s been a great leader on the board for years.”
But in terms of his new leadership role in the Council’s District 3, Johnson pointed out that he won’t just be dealing with C.B. 4, since his district covers parts of more than just one community board. In addition, he’ll be working with C.B. 2, C.B. 5 and, to a lesser degree, C.B. 7 (of which only several blocks are included within the district’s boundaries). Johnson stated that he’s planning to further cement his relationships with the other boards even before he takes office.
“Within the next month or so, I’m going to be sitting down with the different community board chairpersons and district managers, to talk about what their needs are and how we can best work together, so we hit the ground running in January,” Johnson said.
Talking about his additional goals as a councilmember within a broader, more citywide perspective, Johnson said he plans on immediately joining the Council’s Progressive Caucus. This might not seem like such big news for one of the three new openly gay councilmembers who will be taking office, but Johnson pointed specifically to the reformation of Council rules as an issue on which it will be important to make a markedly progressive stand.
In a Sept. 16 op-ed, the Daily News called on Johnson and 11 other new councilmembers to make good on their past promises to ban “lulu” payments and reform the so-called member items, which have allowed Council speakers — most recently, Christine Quinn — to effectively buy political support by providing extra funding to members who toe the line. Johnson said he welcomed that early scrutiny, since the new Council will have to pick a new speaker upon taking office in January.
“This is the first order of business,” he said, “so people really should be watching over the next few months, as we plan to make some significant reforms in the Council. I’m looking forward to teaming up with all these good folks in the Progressive Caucus who want to reform the Council to make it more democratic, to empower individual members, to take favoritism out of the member item process and to make staff allocations and committee assignments more fair.”
There is also a certain sense of optimism felt by Johnson and many of his soon-to-be colleagues on the Council. It stems partly from the fact that this year will mark the end of the Bloomberg era, bringing in a new mayor, along with other new officials across city government, such as the public advocate and comptroller. Johnson said that he “wholeheartedly” supports Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio. “This is going to be a true sea change in city government, and of course a lot of us are really excited about the prospect of having a Democratic mayor again, after not having one for the past 20 years,” Johnson said. “So part of this is going to be about working well with these new folks in positions of influence and power, and that doesn’t just mean elected officials. It also means communicating well with new commissioners of city agencies and, particularly, whoever will be the new D.O.E. chancellor.”
Johnson acknowledged that all those changes, especially involving new appointments at the city agencies, will likely create a somewhat chaotic transitional period at the beginning of the year. But, looking forward with his constituents in mind, he pledged to always keep the Lower West Side’s top local issues — new affordable housing, improvements to public education and a new full-service hospital — close to his heart, and in the minds of his fellow councilmembers.
“So much of delivering for this district will revolve around being persistent and relentless, and continuing to make the case for why these things should happen, and why our city budget should direct taxpayer monies to pay for them,” Johnson said. “I’m ready, willing and excited to make that case.”