New York’s city council has elected its new speaker. Corey Johnson, a council member representing Chelsea, Greenwich Village, and Hell’s Kitchen, won a long and involved campaign to lead the city’s legislative body, which passes laws, negotiates the $85 billion (and growing) budget, and oversees city agencies.
Though commonly referred to as a “citywide” role due to its visibility and influence, the speakership is not a popularly elected position. In fact, Johnson’s colleagues elect the speaker only nominally, generally rubberstamping the selection of the political bosses who control the Democratic Party in the outer boroughs. Four years ago, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to leverage his control over the insurgent “progressive bloc” of council members into a deal with Frank Seddio, boss of the Kings County Democrats, to install his ally Melissa Mark-Viverito as speaker. This year, Congressman Joe Crowley, head of the Queens County Democrats and one of the five most powerful Democrats in the House of Representatives, along with Bronx boss Marcus Crespo, appointed the speaker, leaving the mayor more or less emptyhanded in the “race.” Crowley will thus regain leverage over appointments and use his power to maneuver around the mayor.
That Corey Johnson was not de Blasio’s pick is a hopeful sign, if only from a strictly political perspective. Johnson’s emergence will provide an institutional check on the mayor’s more extravagant impulses toward social engineering. By the standards of American politics, Crowley and Johnson are extremely liberal. But in the hothouse of New York City progressive Democratic politics, both are considered moderates, if not conservatives, and are not much trusted by the party’s left wing.
Johnson has indicated that he plans to steer the council on a more independent track than his predecessor, who operated virtually in tandem with the mayor on most issues. He suggests that the city has spent too freely without enough contingency planning for an eventual economic downturn. He’ll be “more prudent” and exercise “more fiscal restraint,” he says. When asked about the role of private enterprise in the city’s continued prosperity, Johnson avoided the “two cities” redistributive rhetoric that characterized the council’s previous session, instead acknowledging that it is “imperative that private industry continues to thrive, guaranteeing a consistent tax base and new employment opportunities for New Yorkers.”
Though he has voted reliably with the progressive majority on most items pertaining to decriminalization, labor, and the expansion of business regulation, Johnson has also demonstrated his concern for New Yorkers’ quality of life. After the city introduced free Internet kiosks in 2015, pedestrians suddenly encountered homeless people camped out for hours on the sidewalks, watching music videos or porn; it was Johnson who insisted that the kiosks’ Internet browsing function be disabled. And he has signaled his appreciation for how most New Yorkers aren’t looking for grandiose social experiments, unlike de Blasio, who suggests that New Yorkers pine for socialist control of their lives and “would like things to be planned in accordance to their needs.” Johnson told NY1 that “most New Yorkers don’t ask about these big, huge things we tackle here at City Hall. They ask about their local neighborhood, their local block, and how the quality-of-life is in their local community.” The stepson of a teamster, Johnson refused to back the mayor’s 2014 effort to ban horse carriages from midtown streets. And he has said that he would not support a move to give illegal aliens the right to vote in municipal elections—a position that in the context of New York City progressive politics is practically on par with ending birthright citizenship or supporting the construction of Donald Trump’s border wall.
The new speaker has put forth his share of dubious proposals, though, including exploring the possibility of establishing a “single-payer municipal healthcare system,” modeled along the lines of a program in San Francisco. “Healthy San Francisco,” however, is not actually a single-payer health-care system; it simply provides limited free medical services to poor people without access to Medicaid or Medicare. In other words, it does pretty much what New York City’s Health + Hospital Corporation is going bankrupt doing. Johnson also wants the city to impose labor-peace agreements on virtually every business that benefits, even at second- or third-hand, from economic-development subsidies.
Johnson, though, is essentially a transactional, ambitious pragmatist; it’s unlikely that he will engage in the bizarre political theater prized by Mark-Viverito, who paraded a murderer and terrorist through the streets of the very city whose people he had killed. After four years of ideological grandstanding, having an old-fashioned Machiavellian in control of the city council looks pretty good.
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