Kamal Johnson was elected mayor of Hudson in November after serving a single term in the city’s common council. A Hudson native, he began working as a peer counselor for Planned Parenthood before attending SUNY New Paltz, and later helped lead Greater Hudson Promise Neighborhood, a nonprofit assisting Hudson children. Now 35 and a father, he has begun to address the issues he talked about during his campaign—affordable housing, the city’s youth, and pedestrian infrastructure—as well as making Hudson more inclusive and equitable. Roger Hannigan Gilson interviewed him at his office on February 25. We have lightly edited the interview for clarity and length.
RHG: Hudson had elected only white, male mayors since the late 1700s, but then elected a woman, a gay man, and now you—Hudson’s first black mayor, which is especially notable because the city has a significant black population. What do you think has changed in Hudson that has allowed people like you to come forward?
KJ: I think it was less on me being African American and more the message that my campaign gave off—new, fresh ideas, the all-hands-on-deck approach, and people being able to be a part of the history of the first African American [mayor]. I think all of those components combined made for a really exciting campaign.
RHG: In your campaign, you challenged the incumbent Democratic mayor, Rick Rector. What kind of change was needed that led to this?
KJ: I think I had a vision that resonated with voters, and I’ve also done a ton of work in the community, and so I was well-known and trusted. I think people felt like the city was going in a direction that wasn’t beneficial to the people who grew up here, who live here—even those who look to move here and raise families. I had a vision that was really for that population, the working-class population.
RHG: #AllHandsOnDeck—you hear that a lot from your administration. Could you explain it?
KJ: That basically means that I can’t do it alone. We have an extremely talented city, and I think that people want to know how their talents can be utilized to help the city grow and move forward, so when we say all hands on deck, that’s really what I meant—I’m willing to be the face and the leader, but I can’t accomplish everything that I want to accomplish on my own. That’s what you see in some of the appointments I’ve made for commissioners and some of the boards—to really get talented people in leadership positions.
RHG: You grew up here, and Hudson has changed a lot since then. What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between now and then?
KJ: Yeah, Hudson has changed so much. It used to be a very close-knit community. You used to see a lot more families on the street and kids outside playing, and I think we’ve gotten away from that, and I want to see families come back into the city. I want stores to be affordable to people who live here, and I want it to be an actual community with soul.
RHG: You just vetoed legislation that sought to establish whether Hudson has a low enough vacancy rate to qualify for rent stabilization, saying you didn’t want to waste taxpayer money when the results would most likely show the city wouldn’t benefit. Moving forward, what else can be done to maintain or create affordable housing?
KJ: I think we have to work with developers and property owners to find different innovative ways to bring affordable housing to Hudson. [To qualify for rent stabilization] Hudson has to have a five percent vacancy rate, and that goes for any buildings that have five or more units in the city and are built after 1974.
I know Hudson wouldn’t qualify. There are not that many units here [it would apply to]. So, for us to kind of broadcast rent control and then, if Hudson became rent controlled, it would only affect a certain amount of units, a very miniscule amount of units. I just wouldn’t want to get people’s hopes up about that, so I’d rather not waste $15,000 dollars for a study that Hudson isn’t going to qualify for.
RHG: You mentioned working with developers. Does that entail more residential development? As in, if more housing stock is created, would it take pressure off the rental market?
KJ: I think if we have affordable, quality housing being built, it attracts families to our city. That helps out our school district. It helps Hudson across the board. I recently partnered with the Galvan Foundation (Ed. note: a nonprofit considered controversial by some Hudsonians who claim the developer profits from gentrification) for a huge 80-unit project that’s going to be coming into the city, and a lot of people felt like, Why would you partner with Galvan? But for me—and I said this at the debate—we as a city really need to ask Galvan to be transparent and bring them to the table. So, if we are in a housing crisis, as I would say—there are people who would not agree with me—we need to bring [Galvan] to the table for transparency, and we need to outline what we want to see, and this is what I did for this project.
RHG: Is Hudson’s economy too dependent on tourism?
KJ: I think that’s a myth. The largest driver of the economy in Hudson is actually the hospital, and jobs like LPNs [Licensed Practical Nurses] and CNSs [Clinical Nurse Specialists] are the jobs that employ the most people. I think tourism is great for our city, but it’s great in moderation. So, we can’t put our full focus into tourism, but we can’t ignore the amount of income that tourism brings in, and how it’s been [helpful] to small businesses here.
I think balancing that with equity is what’s most important. It just can’t be all about tourism, but we don’t want to forget the benefits of tourism.
RHG: You voiced support for extending term limits. How would this benefit Hudson?
KJ: I think Hudson is in need of some consistency. I’ve been in constant talks with the state around housing and different initiatives, and also [with] potential developers, and the one thing that always comes up is the fear that in a year they’re no longer going to have the partner that they’re working with. The mayor could be different, and the next administration that comes in, they might not value the same things as the previous administration.
For me, I would just like to see some continuity in leadership so that we as leaders and elected officials are able to see some of the plans that we’re putting forward, that we’ve campaigned for, come to fruition. But at the same time, I’m willing to run until I accomplish what I have to accomplish.
RHG: How can Hudson better use its waterfront?
KJ: I think that our waterfront is in desperate need of a makeover. I’ve been in talks with the state about the side where there’s the huge parking lot, and they have some money from our governor and there’s some talk about revitalizing that and making it accessible to the community, which I’m excited about. Those are early preliminary talks. We also have the popular side [of the waterfront], where there’s the issue going around with the gravel company [A. Colarusso & Sons], and people really wanting to see a more accessible, vibrant waterfront.
With Hudson looking constantly for income, I think that having a train station right next to a lively, vibrant waterfront could really help the city in the long run. So I would definitely like to see us to make it more accessible for everyone.
RHG: Finally, how has your life changed, other than your job title, since you became mayor?
KJ: It’s different, because being mayor—this is the first job that I’ve ever had that is kind of 24/7. So even when I’m trying to buy my broccoli at the grocery store, I’m the mayor there. People come up to me and say, ‘What do you feel about this project?’ and, ‘What is this and that,’ and I’m just trying to get my dinner (laughs).
A lot changes because everywhere I go, I’m no longer just Kamal Johnson, I’m Mayor Kamal Johnson. So whatever I say, even as a private citizen, I’m representing the mayor’s office, and I’m representing the city. That’s been really different, because you can’t turn it off. But other than that, I try to continue to do some of the things that I love, to remain as humble and normal as possible.
This article was published in the April issue of Chronogram.
Roger Hannigan Gilson is a Hudson Valley journalist and humorist. A former crime reporter for the Register Star, he now runs the news site The Other Hudson Valley.