National News

On Next Council Speaker’s Agenda: More Oversight and More Subway Aid

Posted January 2, 2018 5:48 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — After a formal vote on Wednesday, Corey Johnson is expected to become the next speaker of the New York City Council, a position second only to the mayor in terms of direct control over the most central political conflicts of city life: real estate development and the budget.

He already has big plans for the role.

In an hourlong interview, Johnson, 35, a Manhattan councilman, laid out a wide-ranging policy agenda that included congestion pricing for for-hire vehicles, municipal single-payer health care, and increased funding for the city’s beleaguered subway system.

“I would support us putting up a significant amount of money,” Johnson said of city funding for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, a stance that Mayor Bill de Blasio has resisted. “But there needs to be accountability involved so we know how that money is being spent, and that it’s being spent wisely and that the projects remain on time.”

Johnson said he would seek to re-establish a dedicated investigative arm of the council — with subpoena power, and staffed by former prosecutors, investigators and analysts — of the sort that was created three decades ago under Peter Vallone Sr., the city’s first council speaker. “It was very important at the time, because we were trying to establish our independence,” Vallone said in a telephone interview.

A new oversight and investigations division could set up more frequent and public clashes with de Blasio and the agencies he oversees.

Johnson said he would not move forward with that idea, or others such as a municipal health insurance system like the one in San Francisco, without support from members. “This body is going to be run by consensus,” he said. “It’s not going to be run with an iron fist.”

Nonetheless, it seems clear that Johnson, a Democrat, intends to help the council assert its independence from the mayor, bringing to the job an ambition to stretch its power of oversight and legislation into new areas.

The job of council speaker is almost certainly the second-most influential political perch in the nation’s largest city, with the power to reshape New York’s physical layout through land-use decisions, and its municipal services through the budget, now $86 billion and growing. For the last four years, the council was led by Melissa Mark-Viverito, who used the position to push reforms to the criminal justice system and pressure the mayor to back the closing of the Rikers Island jail complex. She left office at the end of the year because of term limits.

Johnson said he would approach land-use decisions by trying “toget to a place of yes”; that he wanted to take steps to “eradicate hunger in New York City”; and that he would deal with the prospect of tighter budgets — because of the new federal tax law or a potential economic downturn — by guarding funding for “programs and everyday things that affect the most New Yorkers and the poorest New Yorkers, to ensure that they don’t get cut.”

He also said to “fully exercise its power,” the council would need more people on its staff.

As a legislative leader, the speaker’s position entails balancing grand plans with the local needs of 50 other council members, for whom the parochial concerns of their residents on matters such as tree planting and garbage pickup can take precedence over sweeping changes to the fabric of government.

Christine C. Quinn, who served as speaker before Mark-Viverito and represented the same West Village, Chelsea and Midtown West district as Johnson, offered advice to the incoming leader.

“Have fun, follow your gut, don’t worry so much about the press, and stay in really close touch with your members,” she said. “This is the moment in your life to take everything in your life that you ever wanted to fix, change and undo, and do it. Because you can.”

Over her two terms as speaker, Quinn, a Democrat, suffered politically within her own party because of what some perceived as a too-close relationship to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, who ran as an independent and a Republican, and her support for Bloomberg’s third term. Similarly, Mark-Viverito has been seen as too close to de Blasio, even though both are Democrats; the mayor did not veto a single council bill during her term.

For Johnson, it will be a delicate balance, striving to be what he called “a productive partner” with the mayor, “while at the same time someone who is willing to maintain the council’s independence.” He said he could envision a more assertive council bringing bills to vote that do not have de Blasio’s support.

“I said this to the mayor: ‘When there is disagreement, it will never be personal with me,'” Johnson said. “But us overriding vetoes, if the members believe we should do that and there’s broad support for a bill, that’s us using our charter-mandated authority.”

Johnson became the overwhelming favorite for the position after leaders from the two most powerful Democratic county organizations, in the Bronx and in Queens, threw their weight behind him. De Blasio, who had not initially endorsed Johnson, soon followed suit.

“I look forward to four great years of partnership together,” the mayor said during Monday’s inaugural address to Johnson, who was seated in the front row. Johnson, who is white, prevailed in the eight-way campaign for speaker despite the prominence of race in the contest. It was only last week that Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of Brooklyn, the most prominent black candidate for speaker, privately conceded to Johnson as they met in the modest interior conference room in Johnson’s West Midtown district office.

The meeting on Thursday came about after Johnson and Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, who had supported Cornegy behind the scenes, conferred over coffee at the Park Plaza Diner near the Brooklyn Bridge. They discussed issues important to central Brooklyn, like how to stop “the gentrification steamroller,” according to an aide to the congressman.

Cornegy, who issued a public congratulations on Twitter on Friday, told Johnson that he wanted a position with real power, not just the role of majority leader, which had been offered to him, according to a person briefed on the discussion.

Another black candidate for speaker, Jumaane D. Williams, has yet to concede the race.

Johnson said he was committed to having the leadership of the council “reflect the diversity of New York City.”

Asked if he saw himself as mayor one day, Johnson was categorical.

“No,” he said. “I never want to be mayor. No.”

An adviser seated at the table with him, Chris Coffey, interjected. “We’re going to work on this answer,” he said.

“I don’t,” Johnson responded. “I don’t want to be mayor.”