It's All About the Details

After five years as chief of staff to the City Council Speaker, Erik Bottcher is stepping up and running for a seat of his own

18 Feb 2020 | 11:30

In Erik Bottcher’s ideal political world, policy problems would be resolved by gathering stakeholders around a table to hash out the issues and come up with creative solutions together. As chief of staff to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson for the last five years, Bottcher says he’s seen it done. It’s what has inspired him to run for Johnson’s seat when he is term-limited next year. But it’s the experience he’s gained, and the community connections he’s made during this time, that he says make him the right candidate to lead that conversation.

“We've been able to work really closely with [community members] and establish extremely effective working relationships,” Bottcher, 40, said in an interview with Straus News. “So that, to me, is one of the reasons why I think I'm most prepared to do the job, because I want to continue the work that I've already been doing and then take it further as a council member.”

Bottcher is running to represent District 3, which covers Hell’s Kitchen, Chelsea, Greenwich Village and part of SoHo. Last week he qualified for the NYC Public Finance Program, which grants public funds to candidates running for city office.

A Troubled Teen Finds His Way

Bottcher grew up in a small town upstate in the Adirondack Mountains, where he had a difficult time coming out as gay as a teenager, as profiled in The City last week. Bottcher tried to kill himself three times before he got the mental health help he needed.

He moved to New York City days after graduating from college and just three months before 9/11. He became involved in LGBT advocacy and worked on Andrew Cuomo’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and was subsequently a part of the team that helped pass same-sex marriage legislation in 2011.

Bottcher said it was one of his proudest moments of his career to date.

“You talk about things when you’re in a rocking chair, what you’re going to think about when you look back at your life and, to me, it will be the campaign for marriage equality,” he said. “That really broke the dam for more equality around the country. I really believe it’s because New York showed the way.”

Bottcher joined Johnson’s staff as chief of staff in 2015 and has since been learning the ins and outs of the office.

Issues and Opponents

As for issues he would like to tackle if elected to the council, Bottcher highlighted the street homelessness crisis as a major priority. He said residents in District 3 call Johnson's office every day asking what more can be done to help unsheltered people, many of whom suffer from mental illness. He said one of the city’s major failings has been not doing enough to help those with mental illness.

“I am someone who benefited from mental health care when I was in high school,” Bottcher said, explaining that he spent a month in a mental health facility in Saratoga Springs following a suicide attempt in high school. “At age 15 I got mental health care I needed and I was able to go back to my community and finish high school and go to college. But many, many people don't get that care. I think that the city needs to do much, much more than it's doing in that in that capacity.”

Bottcher could be facing two opponents in the Democratic primary for the council seat. Arthur Schwartz, a well known labor lawyer who most recently led a crusade against the 14th Street busway pilot program, and Marni Halasa, an ice skating instructor at Chelsea Piers who was described as a “professional protester” by the New York Times, have both been reported as candidates. Schwartz, though, has said he is still mulling it over.

If Schwartz files his candidacy, he will likely run on a platform to put an end to the 14th Street busway, which he argued against in court, saying it would push traffic onto side streets.

Bottcher said it was important to keep in mind that the 14th Street program is an 18-month pilot, and should be reviewed fully when it ends. But, he said, most of the feedback he’s gotten from constituents has been overwhelmingly positive.

Halasa has come out hard against a program called RAD, or Rental Assistance Demonstration, through which the city and NYCHA would convert a third of its public housing stock to private management. The city said the move would pay for the millions of dollars of restoration needed in NYCHA properties.

Bottcher said politicians for decades have been kicking the can down the road on this issue, and it’s led the city to this point. He said the Speaker's office has convened a working group of tenants from the Elliot, Fulton and Chelsea houses, along with advocates and elected officials, that meets every Thursday to come up with answers on how to approach the problems at NYCHA.

“That we have people living in squalor virtually across the street from Hudson Yards is not acceptable,” said Bottcher. “We have to do something to come up with a plan to renovate these buildings.”

Stop and Look Up

Bottcher hopes voters recognize that he pays attention to the finer details. He said he catches things others don’t — and often that includes the birds flying around the neighborhood.

“People don’t know I’m a bird watcher,” he said. In October last year, Bottcher tweeted a video of a black and white warbler walking between his feet in the Clinton Community Garden in Hell’s Kitchen. “That’s highly unusual for that species.”

“If we stop for a moment and look up," he said, "we’ll see some pretty cool things.”