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On a recent morning at a diner in Chelsea, Erik Bottcher was working the room.
He embraced a man he had met the night prior at a tenants association meeting. He asked the owner about area homelessness and gave out his card. He flipped through free gay nightlife pamphlets stacked at the door and joked that he needed to start dating again.
Bottcher was doing the neighborhood connection-building that has helped him transform from a real estate agent with no political contacts into the top aide and confidante to New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson.
Now Bottcher is hoping to climb higher, running to take over Johnson’s City Council seat when the speaker is term-limited out next year. The job would put Bottcher at the power center of some of Manhattan’s most historic and prosperous neighborhoods, including Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen.
“I’m running because I love working hand in hand with community members everyday to help solve problems in my community large and small,” Bottcher told THE CITY, “and I want to continue this work and take it to the next level.”
He said he plans to open a campaign account this week.
The seat has long been held by some of the city’s most ambitious politicians. Johnson springboarded from Council member to speaker and is now mulling a mayoral run. Christine Quinn, who also served the district, became speaker before a failed mayoral bid. Tom Duane represented the area before being elected as New York’s first openly gay state senator.
The race comes as the district faces rising rents, a growing tech-industry footprint, concerns about public housing conditions, battles over its waterfront park and fractured opinions about its future.
“People expect whoever the City Council member is to be a vocal opponent of the Trump agenda,” said Andrew Berman, executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation. “But they are probably most concerned with how their Council member focuses on making these neighborhoods livable and equitable.”
From Futons to Cuomo
Bottcher was born upstate in an Adirondack mountains town with a population of roughly 1,200. His parents operated a motel: His dad worked the front desk; mom was the restaurant hostess.
Bottcher, the only gay person he knew growing up, tried to kill himself three times. “When I was a teen becoming aware of my sexual orientation, the world was a different place,” said Bottcher, 40. “I felt completely alone in the world.”
While in a hospital after a suicide attempt, he was introduced to people from outside his small town, beginning his political awakening.
Bottcher moved to New York City two days after graduating college — and three months before 9/11 — sleeping on “a series of futons” and working jobs including traffic coordinator for an advertising company and real estate agent. In his free time, he volunteered with gay activists groups such as Gay Men’s Health Crisis and hung out at bars like Chelsea mainstay Barracuda.
After ingratiating himself in city and gay politics, Bottcher landed a job as liaison to gay and transgender communities on Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Bottcher helped coordinate a response to Cuomo’s Republican rival, Carl Paladino, who called pride parades “disgusting.”
When Cuomo won, he hired Bottcher as his liaison to Manhattan. Bottcher got off Amtrak in Albany his first day with a message that Cuomo wanted to see him. Cuomo quizzed his new aide on why a gay marriage bill had failed in the Senate two years prior.
The subsequent success of same-sex marriage in 2011 proved a victory for both men, though Bottcher has since been arrested protesting for tenant friendly rent laws outside Cuomo’s Albany office.
Before landing a job as Johnson’s chief of staff in 2015, Bottcher volunteered on Quinn’s 2013 losing mayoral run. Asked what he learned from it, he paused before saying the campaign was “too workshopped.”
“People want authenticity,” he added.
Competition Shaping up
Bottcher may have competition in the Democratic primary from Arthur Schwartz, a labor lawyer, district leader and organizer for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders who said he is mulling a run. The Village Sun first reported his interest.
Among other issues, Schwartz has clashed with Johnson by protesting a new busway on 14th Street, arguing it would relocate cars into residential neighborhoods.
“If Erik is going to run as the candidate of Transportation Alternatives,” Schwartz said, referring to a pro-bike advocacy group, “good luck.”
IS THIS FASCISM IN NYC? Wheely mad: TransAlt to protest at anti-busway attorney’s home https://t.co/lBlpbm66X3— Arthur Z. Schwartz (@advocat4justice) August 13, 2019
Another community activist, Marni Halasa, said she plans to run. Halasa, an ice-skating coach at Chelsea Piers who was described in a 2014 New York Times profile as a “professional protester,” runs a website unflatteringly comparing Johnson to Quinn.
“I don’t think these people are doing all that much,” she said of local officials, describing a need for “ordinary citizens” to get involved.
Thx @WestViewNews 4 story about my closeknit relationship w/#Chelsea #HellsKitchen community via @ChelseaPiersNYC, that supports @USFigureSkating @SkatingClubofNY team showcase skating! Teaching children dedication&teamwork is truly an honor. https://t.co/AoU6KP89Q6 #marnihalasa pic.twitter.com/t4sjiJhJvN— Marni Halasa (@Marni4Council) January 14, 2020
The district is overwhelmingly Democratic, but Manhattan Republican Party Chair Andrea Catsimatidis said the GOP will field a candidate.
Bottcher sees his relationships with the micro-communities that constitute the district as giving him an edge.
“People are sleeping in our hallways and peeing on our floors,” said Darlene Waters, the tenant association president for a Chelsea NYCHA development, the Elliott-Chelsea Houses.
“But anything I need I can go to Johnson’s office,” added Waters, who said she supports Bottcher’s bid. “They know us and we know them.”
A Friend in City Hall?
Bottcher’s candidacy will test Johnson’s legacy as the Council speaker explores a mayoral run.
Johnson told THE CITY he is “100%” backing Bottcher’s Council candidacy, describing Bottcher as his “point person” on initiatives like keeping the Hartley House, a longtime social-service nonprofit, from losing its Hell’s Kitchen location.
In turn, Bottcher supports Johnson’s mayoral hopes. Asked if he was considering following in Johnson’s footsteps as speaker, or Quinn’s footsteps as a mayoral aspirant, Bottcher said flatly “no.”
But it could be helpful to have a friend in Gracie Mansion. “It would be an effective partnership for the district,” Bottcher said, of a scenario where he becomes a Council member and Johnson becomes mayor. “I think we’ll do really big things together.”
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