Five of the eight candidates for New York City Council speaker shared their plans Tuesday night for how to reform the city’s criminal justice system, including the notorious Rikers Island jail complex, though drama surrounding the three candidates not in attendance threatened to overshadow the night’s substantial policy discussion.
The speaker’s forum on criminal justice issues was sponsored by City & State, among others, and was hosted by a consortium of criminal justice reform groups, including JustLeadershipUSA. That group’s president, Glenn Martin, opened up the forum at Columbia Teacher’s College by calling out the speaker candidates who “decided not to join us:” Corey Johnson of Manhattan, Ritchie Torres of the Bronx and Donovan Richards of Queens.
“To say I’m disappointed, to say that we’ve been let down, is a bit of an understatement,” Martin said. “We will not be insulted, we will not be ignored and we will not be silenced. I am rarely ever this upset as I am on this stage this evening.”
Martin then singled out Johnson in particular, saying he “went much further than just not showing up.”
“Corey Johnson aggressively lobbied colleagues to urge them not to show up either,” Martin said. “Corey Johnson deliberately tried to undermine our efforts to bring this forum together. But this forum has come together.”
Johnson is widely considered to be a leading candidate for the speaker position. His campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
A spokesman for Councilman Donovan Richards said that Richards had a family emergency and had to cancel his planned appearance at the event earlier in the afternoon. “We were not lobbied by Corey Johnson in any way,” the spokesman said.
Councilman Ritchie Torres also denied being lobbied by Johnson, and told City & State that he chose not to attend the forum on his own. The speaker candidates have been invited to more than a dozen panels, forums and meet-and-greets in the month of November alone, as the eight vie for one of the most powerful positions in city government.
“Attending a forum every night is neither feasible nor reasonable,” Torres said, adding that his track record on criminal justice issues speaks for itself.
Torres seemed surprised at Martin’s comments. “How does publicly attacking council members further the cause of criminal justice reform?” Torres asked. “The problem with the progressive movement is that it tends to devour its own.”
City Councilman Robert Cornegy of Brooklyn was one of the five speaker candidates who attended the forum, but he shared Torres’ frustrations with the constant invites.
“There’s almost one of these forums every single night!” he said. “There’s going to come one of these that I can’t make. Because no one can do this every single night.”
Cornegy, as well as City Council members Jumaane Williams and Mark Levine all told City & State that Johnson did not talk to them about the criminal justice forum or encourage them not to attend. City Council members Ydanis Rodriguez and Jimmy Van Bramer could not be immediately reached for comment.
While Martin’s comments provided some drama, the rest of the night was colored by agreements among the five candidates, Cornegy, Levine, Rodriguez, Van Bramer and Williams.
Closing the Rikers Island complex has become a legacy issue for the current City Council speaker, Melissa Mark-Viverito, and she shouldn’t fear any departure from her plans there from the next speaker. All candidates supported closing Rikers, and all took issue with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ten-year timeline for that closure.
“Rikers Island is not a jail. It’s nine jails, and it makes no sense to wait ten years to close nine jails,” Levine said. “We can start now, closing them one by one.”
The candidates tried to set themselves apart by sharing personal anecdotes. Cornegy said he started his career on Rikers Island, working as an assistant director of substance abuse at the jail complex. Van Bramer said one of his brothers had been detained on Rikers Island for weeks. “I don’t know if he was ever exactly the same” after a stay there, “to this day,” Van Bramer said.
But the political similarities between the candidates was most obvious during the lighting round, when each quickly answered yes to all five questions, including whether they would push to legalize marijuana in New York state as speaker.
Dr. Christina Greer, a Fordham University professor who moderated the forum, took another dig at the candidates who didn’t attend.
“It’s very important that we hear (candidates’) ideas and we have them on record for what they are going to do when they serve us as public servants for the next four years,” she said. “So I thank the five of your for actually having the courage to come here.”