Edited by the NYC Seminar & Conference Center’sFlatiron Hot! News Editorial Staff
Bill de Blasio wasn’t the only bold progressive to take New York City by storm last November. Along with him came a surge of fresh Democratic faces committed to pursuing liberal goals neglected by the Bloomberg administration. The so-called “Progressive Caucus” has swelled from 9 to 19 members, playing into the narrative that New York City, a bastion of liberalism in national politics, is moving even further left.
However, it has become increasingly clear over the past few months that good intentions alone are not enough to face messy political realities. Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has followed the Clinton model of triangulation in order to win over business interests and more conservative constituencies upstate, has thwarted de Blasio and City Council progressives at every turn, opposing tax increases on the wealthy to fund universal pre-k, defending charter schools and opposing a minimum wage increase in New York City.
Freshman City Councilman Corey Johnson, 31, was elected in November to represent District 3, which includes Chelsea and the Flatiron District. Against a backdrop of political upheaval, the young, unapologetic progressive conducted a Q&A with his constituents at TD Bank’s Chelsea Branch at 6th Avenue and 20th Street. At the latest in a series of free speaking events organized by the Flatiron 23rdStreet Partnership, attendees enjoyed a breakfast spread that included fresh fruit, bagels, muffins, coffee and a variety of juices.
It was immediately clear that Corey Johnson possessed a youthful exuberance, while simultaneously demonstrating a command of policy that suggests years of experience. He emphasized, above all, his commitment to striking a balance between “doing the really important legislative work that your committee does and the council does as a whole and serving your district, making sure you’re in your district, you’re at the schools, community board meetings, you’re at block associations…” His answers reflected his commitment to these dual imperatives. He addressed lower-key issues involving zoning, traffic control, as well as the possible conversion of a former treatment facility for mentally ill women into a piano factory.
Johnson also answered a number of questions on meaty, hot button issues. He offered a strong defense of de Blasio’s universal pre-k plan, dismissing concerns about its cost. “It’s something like a $1,000 tax increase [for people making more than $500,000 a year] over the course of one year, which is not that much. We’ve seen it doesn’t drive wealthy people out of New York City, they’re not gonna go park their money at West Palm Beach down in Florida.” Johnson identified “… a badly dysfunctional State Senate, made up of bad Republicans and very bad Democrats who caucus with Republicans” as the chief obstacle to de Blasio’s universal pre-k plan.
Johnson did not spare Governor Cuomo in his criticism. Over the course of the Q&A he repeatedly highlighted the simmering tension between City Hall and Albany. Although unfailingly polite, Johnson asserted: “there’s been a disagreement with the Governor. The Governor says I’ll come up with the money in the state budget, we’re not gonna raise taxes, we’re gonna cut taxes, actually.” Johnson countered: “that’s not good for us because if you give us a one shot deal, this is gonna take hundreds of millions of dollars each year to fund and we need consistency, we need a dedicated revenue stream… that’s gonna take care of this for at least the next five years … ” Despite his firm stance on universal pre-k, Johnson recognized the reality that Mayor de Blasio and Governor Cuomo would reach a compromise on the issue.
Johnson also supports de Blasio and opposes Governor Cuomo when it comes to raising the City’s minimum wage to $10 an hour, which would help some 40 million rise above the poverty line. “You put in 40 hours a week, you show up, you do your job, there should be a basic promise that you can support yourself and your family. I don’t know how people in New York City can live off $7 or so an hour… without any benefits. We need to do more to lift people out of poverty. It helps the city as a whole, it brings in more tax revenue and it’s the right thing to do.” Johnson acknowledged that this would as of now require state approval, but he is nevertheless cautiously optimistic that the new court of appeals, comprised of mostly progressive judges, will grant this authority to the city.
Taking a firm stance on another controversial issue, Johnson defended a new requirement that businesses provide full-time employees with five days of paid sick leave. The bill has been divisive among small business owners, who worry that they will not be able to afford the expense. Johnson insisted that businesses, generally eager to help their employees, would come around to the new policy once properly educated. He acknowledged, however, that detailed information on the paid sick leave requirement is not readily accessible. In particular, he was adamant that the city must devote special effort to helping non-native English speakers access vital information. In light of these issues, the City Council has granted business owners a six-month grace period to ease their transition to the new policy.
Corey Johnson counters the stereotype of a New York City politician out only for him/herself and in bed with special interest groups. He comes across as part of a wider progressive movement, while at the same time examining the policies he supports with a critical eye. It is too early to cast judgment on Corey Johnson when he’s only been in office for a few months, but based on what we’ve seen so far, the guy’s a keeper.
Check out the Youtube Video below for a sampling of what Corey had to say about today’s issues.