The Misunderstood Candidacy of Corey Johnson, the Man Who Wants to Replace Christine Quinn


On November 5, New Yorkers will choose their next mayor. Whether City Council Speaker Christine Quinn is on the ballot or not, her seat in the Third District, which covers Chelsea, the West Village, and the Highline, will be in contention. And, as of now, one Democratic candidate named Corey Johnson (shown above) is in the running as her replacement. But he faces many of the same attacks on Quinn’s mayoral campaign, some of which are mired in too-easy-to-leapfrog judgments.

Ever since she convinced the council to legislatively hand Bloomberg a third term, Quinn’s opponents have labeled her as Ms. Hizzoner. But that’s old news–a remnant of distrust left over from the mayor’s years in office more so than a substantial policy attack on the now-mayoral candidate. If we’re talking about the latter, Quinn has fallen prey to calls of LGBT betrayal (the subject of a recent Voice cover story) and, of course, her ties to Big Development (the subject of a Voice series on this blog). To a certain extent, critics like rival Yetta Kurland say Johnson emulates both.

In 2000, the candidate, 31, came out as a homosexual while still captain of his high school football team in Massachusetts, becoming a young star in the LGBT movement. He would move to New York soon after and eventually become the chairman of Community Board 4, the local citizen group in Quinn’s constituency. Using that experience, he joined GFI Development Corporation as its director of government and community affairs in 2008–a position that would naturally attract attention from opponents.

GFI is a Wall Street titan. City data show that the company has received millions from the city in subsidies since 2002. Its development side is responsible for projects like the Ace and NoMad hotels–both of which are in Johnson and Quinn’s stomping grounds. Also, GFI has built serious, sky-scraping condos in North Williamsburg and Fort Greene.

So, like Quinn, Johnson has benefitted from real estate wealth, which his campaign has received $8,400, in total, from; several of his donors are even veterans from the speaker’s past and current campaigns, like Mario Palumbo of Millennium Partners and the development crew behind the Brooklyn Naval Yard. This should be noted, given the amount of political power in City Council their money carries. But, unlike Quinn, the candidate has strayed away from blatantly siding with the developers.

“He has a strong record of standing up to overzealous developers–whether in opposing the NYU land grab or the Chelsea Market Expansion or the Rudin plan at St. Vincents–as Community Board 4 Chair,” R.J. Jordan, Johnson’s campaign manager, told me. “These are among the reasons why Corey has been endorsed by leaders who symbolize the values of the West Side, like Jerry Nadler and Tom Duane.”

According to sources who spoke to the Voice, Johnson never registered with City Hall as a lobbyist for GFI as required by law. But that’s because, in his position, he was not responsible for those efforts on behalf of the corporation–a misconception from which the aforementioned judgments originate.

Born into public housing, Johnson grew up with a mother who worked as a lunchlady, unable to pay for her son to go to college–a background that led to his career as a community organizer. At GFI, his job was simply PR for the public, to make sure the Corporation didn’t look like the bad guy to tenants by mending ties between Big Development and the little man. He was assigned as peacekeeper of the Ace Hotel, NoMad Hotel and Fort Greene projects; in Brooklyn, he helped secure almost 26 percent of the condo space for affordable housing purposes.

So this statement of misleading juxtaposition from the Post story on Johnson last week deflates fast from intra-business confusion:

Last week, at a candidate forum, Johnson said he increased affordable housing for one of GFI’s buildings located at 470 Vanderbilt Ave. in Fort Greene.

But GFI, which develops luxury hotels, including the Ace and NoMad, was accused of being a discriminatory mortgage lender, prompting US Attorney Preet Bharara in April 2012 to file suit against it.

That article focuses on another line of criticism against Johnson, one that also shuffles around nothingness like a washing machine set on high to extract some sort of controversial talking point.

In the past, GFI has donated money ($30,000 or so) to politicians known for their anti-same-sex marriage positions, like Erick Salgado, one of the Democratic candidates for mayor. And they probably did it at the same time Johnson was working there. All too easily, the timeline parallel birthed this headline: “City Council candidate Corey Johnson worked for anti-gay-marriage company.”

Now Johnson, 31, is seeking to fill in the shoes of Christine Quinn, the first openly gay Speaker and mayoral hopeful. After leaving GFI in 2010, Johnson took a director position at the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (G.L.A.A.D.) and then a marketing position at the Sydell Group, the new owners of the NoMad Hotel. There, he’s employed part-time to help company relations with the LGBT community.

He’s also HIV-positive–a fact he has made public in the past, further dignified by the fact that Thomas Duane (a supporter, as said before) once occupied the 3rd District seat. Duane was the first openly HIV-positive legislator in council history; he won the seat in 1991 at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York City, a truly remarkable achievement for the time. So, with all that being said, does the Post headline still make a sense?

I chose the treatment of Corey Johnson’s candidacy for a reason. His situation highlights an all-too-common theme of election seasons: laziness, plain and simple. The most catchy clip jobs are fueled by accusatory dialect, a ton of misdirected pathos and, as a result, SEO bait. It’s a replacement of logic that detracts the voter from the reality of the situation, stretching facts and leaving truths few and far between.

Of course Christine Quinn has a “Bloomberg Lite” problem. Of course Joe Lhota has a “Giuliani Lite” problem. And of course Anthony Weiner had a cybersexting problem. But the public sphere thrives when we critique our officials on firm substance, not easily-attached emotions that come with labels. Argumentatively, for the reader, the Post headline and story leave us with little room to think. And, in a time when the political future of the five boroughs is at stake, we need all the room we can get.