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August 7, 2013 / New York City / Politics / Elections 2013

Corey Johnson: Practice Complete for Ex-Footballer Seeking Quinn Seat

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Corey Johnson with Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a supporter, in the June LGBT Pride March. | GAY CITY NEWS
Corey Johnson with Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a supporter, in the June LGBT Pride March. | GAY CITY NEWS

There is something about Corey Johnson that is carefully crafted. Or perhaps it’s everything.

The 31-year-old is vying with Yetta Kurland, a civil rights attorney, for the City Council seat that Speaker Christine Quinn has held for 14 years. For an interview with Gay City News, he arrived with his hair freshly cut, his light beard artfully trimmed, and his suit neatly pressed.

Johnson’s presentation was practiced, which is not surprising since he has been campaigning for months. He was well versed in the intricacies of city laws on housing and development. That is also not surprising because he has served on Community Board 4, which covers Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan, since 2005 and has wrestled with some controversial development projects.

“You do not spend eight years on a community board because it’s sexy,” Johnson said.

But some people do spend eight years on a community board because it can be a stepping stone to elected office. Johnson believes he is prepared to hold the seat representing the roughly 180,000 New Yorkers who live in a district that runs from 55th Street to Canal Street and from Fifth Avenue to the Hudson River.

“I’ve never worked for an elected official,” he said. “I didn’t come out of a Democratic club.”

He will be a “councilmem­ber who is community minded,” Johnson said, adding that he wants to be part of “progressive change” in the city. A significant issue is how the city approves real estate development plans.

For the past 12 years, the Bloomberg administration has favored large-scale projects, with some taxpayers objecting that they obliterate neighborhoods and favor market-rate housing at the expense of affordable housing. The city’s approval process — the uniform land use review procedure, or ULURP, as it is known — favors developers, opponents say.

Community Board 4 approved the expansion of Chelsea Market, a 300,000-square foot project that occupies an entire block between Ninth and 10th Avenues and West 15th and 16th Streets. Johnson opposed the expansion. Just as controversial was the Hudson Yards development, a 17 million square yard project on 26 acres that includes 20,000 apartments over the rail yards in the West 30s.

“We won some things and we didn’t get everything we wanted,” Johnson said, adding that he increased affordable housing units in that project from 20 percent to 26 or 27 percent. In her campaign for Manhattan Borough President, however, Julie Menin, a former Community Board 1 chair, pegs that number as low as 16 or 17 percent.

Ostensibly, ULURP begins at a community board then gets approval from a borough president and is then approved by the City Planning Commission and the City Council. The community board and borough president opinions are advisory. Critics say that developers meet with the commission and City Council members first and begin the ULURP procedure only after getting informal approval.

The process is “in need of major reform,” Johnson said. But it is defined in the city’s charter so that reform would have to be approved by the voters, he said.

When discussing his hopes for the City Council, Johnson emphasized plans to build more affordable housing, reduce class size in city schools, increase parks in the district, and bring a hospital to lower Manhattan to replace the now-closed St. Vincent’s Hospital and Medical Center. At least some of those plans do not square with his recent employment.

Johnson previously worked for GFI Development, a real estate developer that built two luxury hotels in Manhattan and an office building in Brooklyn. He did not mention that job publicly or on his campaign website until it was disclosed by citycouncilwatch.net, a website.

“I put none of my work history on my website,” Johnson said, noting that campaign experts told him that was not what the public wanted to read on such sites.

According to citycouncilwatch.net, Johnson boasted at a campaign event that 20 percent of the units in the Brooklyn building were affordable housing units. Those units have not been built. The project is not completed, Johnson said, but a “restrictive declaration” requires GFI to build those units.

“Whenever the project is built, they must abide by it,” he said. “My role was to make sure that whatever was done, it was done in a community-minded way.”

Johnson first entered public life when he came out to his teammates on the Masconomet High School football team in Massachusetts in 1999. The next year, his story went national with a 2,000-word profile in the New York Times and appearances on major TV shows. After high school, Johnson spent a year traveling across the country — 130,000 miles, he said — speaking at schools, meetings, and to the media about his experience.

Following that year, Johnson held a series of jobs at gay groups and on political campaigns, with some keeping him in the public eye. His campaign for City Council began in 2012 and he quickly raised roughly $168,000 from over 600 people, achieving the maximum he is allowed to spend in the September 10 Democratic primary.

Like any politician, he has put together a campaign that relies on a particular image He is an advocate for affordable housing so his GFI job and his current part-time work at the Sydell Group, a real estate development firm founded by former GFI senior staff, were omitted from his campaign material until citycouncilwatch.net reported them.

His image management, as a transplanted Massachusetts native who fell in love with the Big Apple, also ignores the year he spent living in San Francisco. He praised that city, just as he praises New York City now, in a 2001 profile in San Francisco magazine.

None of this is unusual for a politician, but Johnson can go to extremes. When Gay City News requested a copy of his campaign schedule, he refused to turn it over saying he feared Kurland would disrupt his events. He then made repeated promises to release his schedule, but never did. Most politicians routinely release their schedules.

Gay City News had a chance encounter with Johnson at a West Village diner where he described the difficult relationship he has had with Quinn. Moments later he disclosed personal details about his life that he said were “off the record,” so he understood he was talking to a reporter. Days later, he bristled, saying he was “disappoint­ed,” when Gay City News said it might use the comments about Quinn in this story.

In an obviously choreographed story in May in the Times, Johnson said that he was HIV-positive and had known his status for over eight years. It is not clear if the piece was meant to minimize the disclosure or maximize attention to it, but it received little play in the press.

Other than having Community Board 4 call for increases in AIDS funding in the city budget, Johnson has no record on HIV matters. Asked what were his notable achievements on AIDS issues, Johnson said, “I actually think me being honest and telling my friends and me being a role model.”

Some of the paranoid tinge within the Johnson and Kurland campaigns may arise from the particularly aggressive nature of the race. The campaigns and their surrogates have charged each other with violating city campaign finance laws, using physical violence against volunteers, and other bad acts. Allegedly, it is the Kurland campaign that is whispering to voters that Johnson has no college degree.

“My life experience has been a rich one,” Johnson said, referring to his decision to end his formal education after high school. “I’m proud of my life experience.”

Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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Reader feedback

GiorgioLIC says:
Good piece. I hope you'll give Kurland the same scrutiny. People who have worked for her have some real horror stories to tell.
Aug. 8, 2013, 1:46 pm
Christopher Lynn says:
OK., and Yetta has a BA, a Masters and a JD which provide her with the kind of experiece, necessary when writing and passing legislation. Oh, at 45 years old she has "rich life experiences," as well, such as suing the real estate industry, the City and the AG over St. Vincent's closing.
Aug. 8, 2013, 6:11 pm
Arthur Schwartz says:
And many more have stories of amazing hard work, perseverance and creativity.
Aug. 9, 2013, 1:47 am
Michael Kerr says:
Re Johnson's involvement within the HIV/AIDS Community, I've never even heard of his presence. Being gay or disclosing your HIV+ status at age 31 doesn't give you command of theses issues or win my vote, especially when you've held lofty well paid positions which ensures you've never had an insurance coverage gap, suffered for lack of being able to afford your medicines, or worried about being homeless, and so on. Hiding your employment background (real estate development), saying you've got us housing in Brooklyn (it's still a parking lot), not highlighting how your educational background and experiences got you to where you are (because you just completed high school), and getting Quinn's endorsement isn't going to cut it. So yeah, Kurland's got the edge because she's been an educator, is a civil rights attorney, has won cases for NYC residents, and is still fuming over the fact there's no hospital in district 3, and is so highly visible in the community she's known by simply Yetta. Experience, education, day to day presence in the community, and being transparent about your back ground and hard work still matter. She's not hiding anything from us - because there's nothing to hide.
Aug. 9, 2013, 4:18 am
Jim Connolly says:
Practice makes perfect. Sounds like Corey's time on the Community Board, and negotiating with the development community to get things for the West Side, was good practice for working within the City Council. Suing the city, fighting from the outside, and spewing negative platitudes is not the way to build support on the Council. Working together with 50 other members is critical for success -- we need someone who has proven he can do that. This article (and the comments from Yetta's supporters) helped me make up my mind to support Corey. Thank you.
Aug. 10, 2013, 12:22 pm
NothingButTheTruth says:
Corey Johnson claimed he was actively involved in fighting against the St. Vincent's closure and yet those who actually attended those events do not remembers Corey being there. Corey Johnson claims he was involved in fighting against the NYU 2031 Expansion Plan, and yet I personally attended all the events and hearings and never saw Corey Johnson there.
Aug. 10, 2013, 9:35 pm
jdnalleynyc says:
I was at those events and I have photographs of Corey at one of them.... Some of those who "actually attended those events" have a selective memory...
Aug. 15, 2013, 9:17 pm
Roger says:
A respectful note to Mr. Kerr...do you have Mr. Johnson's tax returns to show his "lofty well paid" positions?His tax records (not Yetta's) are published online... $52,000/year. Ms. Kurland law degree and her "fuming" has done absolutely nothing to get this neighborhood a hospital. Ms. Kurland's law firm is "for-profit", so all her civil rights work is paid. Once again, people must check their facts before their emotions.
Aug. 16, 2013, 9:43 am
Roger says:
I'm particularly disturbed with the author's comment "Other than having Board 4 call for increases in AIDS funding in the city budget, Johnson has no record on H.I.V. matters." and the author's assertion that Mr. Johnson's disclosure of his HIV status was "an obviously choreographed piece" not clear to "minimize the disclosure or maximize attention on it". Perhaps the author wanted Mr. Johnson to cure AIDS, or come up with a new drug therapy that eliminates the contraction of HIV, or rally 3,000 people and get signatures to give attention to his campaign? Instead of lauding Mr. Johnson for the courage to reveal his health status, something deeply personal and legally private, this author ignores the immensely powerful impact on the HIV/AIDS community by his public disclosure. Mr. Johnson was also an inspiration to countless thousands of GLBT people in his prior coming out publicly, in some cases saving lives from suicide. The author also failed to do any research on Mr. Johnson's Community Board work, where he testified regarding the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital .."I strongly believe personally that there should be a significant commemoration and marker to the AIDS crisis that happened in Greenwich Village and in Manhattan". Incidentally, Mr. Johnson's testimony stretched beyond his Community Board 4 into Community Board 2. So, the author's assertion that there is "no record" is false, and either lazy reporting at best or biased at worst.
Aug. 16, 2013, 9:49 am
Yetta G says:
I have transcripts of Mr. Johson speaking at the subcommittee meeting with Councilman Mark Weprin. ...."NothingButTheTruth" must have been on a lunch break, or omitted Mr. Johnson from her visual tally. Ms. Kurland was there as well. Truth be told, "NothingButThe Truth", NOBODY could stop St. Vincent's from closing...with over $1Billion dollars in debt...who was going to pay for that?
Aug. 16, 2013, 2:27 pm
Dana says:
Corey Johnson actually testified as a community board member. It is public record. He actually testified...as a representative of the community board. I do not have the link here but his testimony is actually on record.
Aug. 19, 2013, 11:01 pm
Dana says:
I personally do not want a lawyer - of any kind - representing me. i certainly don't want a gun-wielding, litigious, sue-happy prosecutor speaking for our district.
Aug. 19, 2013, 11:07 pm

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