City Council Member Corey Johnson left his Chelsea political base to campaign with fellow Council Member Debi Rose on Staten Island in June. Johnson, who is running for City Council speaker, donated $2,750 to her reelection campaign and hit the stump on her behalf. Photo: Twitter/@CoreyinNYC ?
Never before has so much attention been lavished by so many striving Manhattan politicians on the relatively obscure, and safely Democratic, 49th District City Council seat on the North Shore of Staten Island.
The lucky recipient of favors, friendship and funds in the run-up to the November 7 election was incumbent Council Member Debi Rose, who routed a weak GOP challenger to coast to a 24-percent blowout victory.
Her political fiefdom is located a distant five miles south of Battery Park. She was ranked by City and State Magazine as “one of the worst members” of the Council — 46 out of 51 — with an attendance rate, 67 percent, that was the third-worst in the chamber in 2016.
But none of that kept Council Member Corey Johnson, who represents Chelsea, Hell’s Kitchen and Greenwich Village, from joining her on the campaign trail in a district that’s much closer to Bayonne, N.J., than it is to Times Square.
“My BABY @CMDebiRose — she’s the best,” he tweeted, sending out a picture of the two of them on the stump on June 17. “Re-elect Debi!”
There’s more: Johnson’s campaign committee, Corey 2017, cut a check for $2,750 to Debi Rose 2017 on March 8, according to filings with the city’s Campaign Finance Board. That’s the maximum legal contribution allowable to a Council candidate during a single election cycle.
Why would a dyed-in-the-wool Chelsea progressive, just reelected with 94 percent of the vote, leave his comfort zone, cross New York Harbor, and take up the cudgels for a Richmond County pol best known for championing access to the Kill Van Kull and advancing the borough’s maritime interests as chair of the Council’s Waterfront Committee?
Rose’s office didn’t respond to questions. Johnson’s chief of staff, Erik Bottcher, didn’t return multiple calls and emails. But the answer is simple: He is seeking her vote.
After a lackluster mayoral race, a predictable second-term coronation for Bill de Blasio, and scant surprises in the Council campaigns, all eyes now turn to the next election, the contest for Council speaker, which is arguably the second most powerful elected office in city government.
Johnson, who would be the first gay male speaker, is the apparent frontrunner in a pack of eight Democratic hopefuls — all men — vying to replace outgoing Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the East Harlem Democrat who departs at the end of the year because of term limits.
To triumph, he must secure the votes of at least 26 Council members, a majority of the 51-member body, and outpoint two other contenders from Manhattan, two apiece from Brooklyn and Queens, and one from The Bronx when the Council convenes next month for its first meeting of the year.
Arithmetic is only part of the story. Labor unions, lobbyists, real estate interests, contractors, trade associations, members of Congress and the mayor all have influence over the process. And the Democratic county bosses from Queens and the Bronx typically work in tandem to increase their leverage.
Still, it is the incoming class of Council members who will actually cast the ballots. Hence, the courtship of Rose, who in 2009 became the first African-American to win elected office on Staten Island. Johnson is not alone:
• One of his chief rivals, Council Member Mark Levine, who represents parts of the Upper West Side, Manhattan Valley, Morningside Heights, Manhattanville and Hamilton Heights, also contributed the maximum amount, giving $2,750 to Debi Rose 2017 on January 10, campaign records show. Levine wasn’t reachable by deadline.
• Another opponent, Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, whose uptown district includes Washington Heights, Inwood and Marble Hill, pumped $2,000 from his political committee, Ydanis for New York, into Rose’s campaign treasury on July 7, the filings show.
“Look, when you’re running for citywide office, you go around the city, you have conversations with your colleagues, and you ask how you can be helpful in different ways,” Rodriguez explained in a phone interview.
“And if they need you to be there, or to make a donation, you try to help when you can — but not with the expectation that the donation would translate into support for your campaign,” he added.
Rodriguez noted that in 2013, when Rose was running for reelection to her second term, he went to her district to help. “I wasn’t running for speaker four years ago, but I went from Washington Heights to Staten Island to help Debi win her election,” he said.
And he added, “Corey was there that same day, and he wasn’t running for speaker back then either!”
Nonetheless, money does talk in the speaker’s race: “The mercantile nature of politics has tended to work,” said Democratic political strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked on the campaigns of Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer and Mike Bloomberg. “There is an expectation that those kindness will be returned in kind.”
Another key dynamic in the race is independence, or the perceived lack of same, from de Blasio, who despite his landslide triumph becomes a term-limited lame duck the moment he’s sworn into office for a second term on January 1.
“Corey has always been a bulldog, he is now presenting a more statesmanlike persona, and many members feel that he could stand up to the mayor when the Council disagrees with him,” said Democratic political consultant George Arzt, who served as Mayor Ed Koch’s third-term press secretary in the late 1980s.
“Levine is someone lots of people like and think they can deal with, someone who will listen to them, someone who is fluent in Spanish. But there are some members who don’t believe that Levine can stand up to the mayor,” he added.
No matter who wins the speakership, the city’s political apparatus — its pols, clubhouses and Democratic county organizations — have already profited handsomely:
• Council Member-Elect Keith Powers. The newly elected District 4 member, who won the open seat on the East Side being vacated by outgoing incumbent Dan Garodnick, received the maximum $2,750 donation from both Johnson and Levine.
• Council Member Mathieu Eugene of Brooklyn. The city’s first Haitian-born Council member scored a trifecta from the Manhattan candidates, pulling down $2,750 from Johnson and Levine respectively, and another $2,000 from Rodriguez, campaign filings show. He won reelection.
• The Democratic Organization of Queens County. An old-line and still muscular political machine in Forest Hills, it took in $2,900 from Levine, $2,550 from Johnson and $2,250 from Rodriguez. Levine also ponied up $2,950 for the Kings County Democratic Committee on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn and another $2,650 for the Bronx Democratic County Committee.
• The Benjamin Franklin Reform Democratic Club in the Bronx received $1,000 and $500 from Levine and Johnson respectively.
Need further proof that the old outer-borough clubhouses still matter to the vote-seeking politicians of Manhattan? Johnson kicked in $250 to the Powhatan and Pocahontas Regular Democratic Club in Astoria, Queens, which was founded in 1901 and never changed its Tammany-era name.
• Council Member Elizabeth Crowley of Queens. The daughter of two former Council members, and a cousin of U.S. Representative Joseph Crowley, the Democratic county leader in Queens, her support was also sought by the trio of Manhattan contenders. Johnson and Levine gave her $2,750 apiece and Rodriguez contributed $2,000.
Their money did no good. The Crowley dynasty suffered an unexpected setback. She was unseated by Republican challenger Robert Holden, who squeaked out a 133-vote upset. Her last day in the City Council is December 31. She won’t be able to vote for any of them.
Douglas Feiden: firstname.lastname@example.org