Is This Gay, Sober, Poem-Writing City Council Leader the Mayor New Yorkers Want?

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On Friday, he read from a poem by Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” seeking to highlight the need for more funding for New York City libraries. Two days earlier, he took on slightly less demanding prose: “Too Many Carrots,” a children’s book that he read with a toddler in his lap.

In between, he oversaw a city hearing about the future of Hart Island, where New York buries the indigent.

Saturday offered no rest: He officiated a wedding in Brooklyn, remarking on the beauty of love, but also noting that he was susceptible to loneliness and was “still searching” for his prince.

Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, then ended the day by firing off a painfully earnest love poem to New York — just as Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is one of 23 Democrats running for president, was returning home from a campaign trip to South Carolina.

For Mr. Johnson, a Democrat who is exploring a run for mayor in 2021, the political has always been personal. And with Mr. de Blasio’s attention diverted, Mr. Johnson, 37, has seized the opportunity to use his personality to bring attention to Council issues — and offer New Yorkers a glimpse of an elected official who seems to genuinely enjoy his job and all its trappings.

In his first weeks as speaker, in early 2018, Mr. Johnson was given a walk-on cameo on Fox 5’s “Good Day New York” weather report; he turned it into a dance-on appearance, singing and swaying to Lady Gaga’s “The Cure.” He now has a regular spot on the show: “Tuesdays With Corey.”

Last summer, Mr. Johnson presided over a celebration of Coney Island’s Riegelmann Boardwalk being added to a city list of scenic landmarks. He then decided to ride the famed Cyclone roller coaster, and posted that ride on Twitter.

Mr. Johnson’s style of leadership is very different stylistically from Mr. de Blasio’s, who can often appear standoffish at news conferences and tends to avoid many of the ancillary appearances typically demanded of a mayor in New York.

At the same time, Mr. Johnson has been criticized for focusing on issues that divert attention from the city’s more traditional concerns. Last month, for example, he said he would rework his proposal to ban the sale of fur in New York City after a backlash from those in the industry and black and Jewish religious leaders.

“I don’t want to go so far as to say he was grandstanding, but I think Corey should pull back to to focus on more pressing issues of the people who put him into office, such as education, affordable housing and gun violence,” said the Rev. Johnnie Green Jr., the head of Mobilizing Preachers and Communities, a group of mostly black pastors who opposed the fur ban. “We have a long-term memory, and the people that might support him for mayor have a long-term memory.”

Indeed, many other issues loom with a July 1 deadline nearing for a new city budget.

Mr. de Blasio has said his presidential run will not affect his ability to manage the largest city in the country, suggesting that as a mayor in the middle of his final term, his vision and direction for New York had been firmly established.

Freddi Goldstein, Mr. de Blasio’s press secretary, said the mayor’s “participation is the same today as it’s been every other year that he’s delivered an on-time, balanced budget.”

Yet Mr. Johnson said last week that he had not had any direct budget conversations with the mayor in three weeks, although their staffs had been speaking.

The two men were scheduled to meet Wednesday evening to discuss the budget.

“The mayor’s away, and he and I have not had a face-to-face conversation about these individual priorities,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “This will take multiple sit-downs.”

Asked if the mayor’s travels were affecting budget negotiations, Mr. Johnson, who was addicted to alcohol and drugs and is now sober, once again returned to his personal story.

“One of the lessons I learned in recovery and sobriety, one of the key lessons, is I am powerless over alcohol, it made my life unmanageable. I am powerless over other people,” Mr. Johnson said last week at a news conference. “I am powerless over Bill de Blasio.”

The mayor and the City Council usually announce a handshake agreement in advance of the July 1 budget deadline. Last year, they approved a plan by the second week of June.

“We are nowhere close this year to having a budget done,” Mr. Johnson said. “I’ve said I will wait until June 30 because these issues are so important.”

Among those issues was a Council proposal to transfer control of Hart Island to the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation to be run as a waterfront park accessible by ferry. Mr. Johnson, who supports the move, personalized the issue, noting that he had recently visited the island and its graves of people who died of AIDS.

He recalled how the trip was overwhelming for him, as an openly gay man living with H.I.V.

Last week, Mr. Johnson held a news conference calling for the city to add the Weeksville Heritage Center, a house museum that preserves the history of one of the largest free black communities in pre-Civil War America, to its Cultural Institutions Group, which would guarantee funding for the financially troubled Brooklyn landmark.

Mark Treyger, a city councilman from Brooklyn who is chairman of the Committee on Education and a member of the City Council’s budget negotiating team, said Mr. de Blasio’s presidential run has given the Council leverage.

“The mayor is in a position where he has to defend his claim that we are the fairest, most progressive city in America because there is now a national spotlight around his positions,” Mr. Treyger said. “The speaker and the Council are aware of that dynamic.”

A recent agreement to change the request for proposals to provide more funding for early childhood education providers is a sign that the Council’s strategy is working, Mr. Treyger said. “It’s a unique opportunity to drive home some of our priorities,” he added.

Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College, said that given the mayor’s lame-duck status, Mr. Johnson and other Council members are “probably smelling blood in the water. They are gutsier than they might have been.”

Another opportunity may come in the Council’s push to provide up to $125 million to ensure that early childhood teachers who work for community-based organizations receive the same pay as those who work for the city’s Department of Education.

The early childhood teachers who work for community-based organizations and receive less pay are largely black and Latino women, according to a study from the National Center for Children and Families at Teachers College at Columbia University, while the teachers at the Department of Education are largely white.

“The pay disparity is unconscionable,” said David Nocenti, the executive director of Union Settlement, a community-based organization that serves about 400 prekindergarten-age students. “It goes against his core idea,” he added, referring to Mr. de Blasio, “of working people first.”

Mr. Johnson said the Council may be able to leverage the mayor’s presidential ambitions to its advantage. He added that “while the mayor is traveling, my Council colleagues and I are going borough to borough to get these items included in the budget.”

And on the issue of increase pay for the community-based early childhood education teachers, Mr. Johnson said, “Anyone who is going to campaign as a progressive needs to fund pay parity for women of color.”

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