National News

Race Rears Its Head as New York City Council Elects New Leader

Posted January 3, 2018 10:39 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Despite a 48-1 vote, Corey Johnson’s election as leader of the New York City Council was not without controversy.

Johnson, who is white, bested seven other candidates, largely because of support from powerful county bosses. Five of those candidates were black or Latino, and there had been significant sentiment that a minority should have been the choice.

Councilwoman Inez Barron of Brooklyn, comparing herself to Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to Congress and the first black to run for president on a major-party ticket, said she was fighting for a “paradigm shift” in how leadership was chosen.

“It’s time for a black speaker,” said Barron, who cast the only dissenting ballot, voting for herself.

Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo of Brooklyn, expected to be named the majority leader, said the failure of the Black, Latino and Asian Caucus to agree on a consensus candidate hurt the chances for having a black speaker.

She added that Johnson, as a gay man who is HIV-positive, could understand some of the issues facing minorities, a sentiment that was echoed by Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez of Manhattan, another speaker candidate.

Johnson carefully acknowledged the remarks.

“There is no way for me to say I can fully relate to the experience of being a person of color in New York City,” he said. “But as someone who’s an openly gay man, who’s openly HIV-positive, who did not grow up in a family with a lot of money, I think that experience gives me some more sensitivity.”

Johnson said he would call on the diversity of the body to address various issues.

“When there are issues related to race in New York City ... I don’t need to be the main spokesperson,” he said.

Black leaders said they would look to Johnson’s leadership appointments, and not his rhetoric. Johnson said he wanted to speak to every member of the council before making leadership assignments.

But according to multiple sources familiar with the negotiations, Councilman Robert E. Cornegy Jr. of Brooklyn, the black runner-up for speaker, could be named as chairman of the Democratic Conference, a newly created position, as well as chairman of the housing committee.

As chairman of the Democratic Conference, he could also serve as a liaison to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature, and have a role on the budget negotiations committee. Housing affordability is one of the biggest issues in the city.

Cornegy declined to discuss his possible roles but said that “there have been discussions about black people accessing power and leadership simultaneously.”

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries said he was not pleased that there would not be a black speaker, but said he was excited about the other possibilities.

“The black community hasn’t yet achieved its Jackie Robinson moment in the City Council, but the leadership opportunities afforded to members like Laurie Cumbo and Robert Cornegy are a substantial step in the right direction,” Jeffries said.

A less diplomatic response came from Assemblyman Charles Barron, who was at the meeting to support his wife, Inez Barron. He heckled black council members as he left the meeting; Cornegy said Barron, who once held his wife’s council seat, called him “spineless.”

“I can’t say what I said to him,” Cornegy said.

Barron said he was supporting his wife’s right to enter the race and the need for diverse leadership.

“I think there should have been more support from the blacks for her right to run,” Barron said. “They all cut deals with the county bosses because they’re still on the plantation.”