Hudson, NY Mayor Kamal Johnson is running for re-election this year following his unprecedented 2019 victory. “We made history,” he affirms with a smile as he thinks back to that election night.
Actually, he’s made history twice…
The Youngest & First Black Mayor of Hudson
Hudson’s history making Mayor Kamal Johnson holds the title for both the youngest and the first Black mayor of Hudson. After a term filled with stark and intense challenges and polarization, Mayor Johnson is ready for more time in office. The effects of 2020’s pandemic and widespread protests boldly highlight the platform Mayor Johnson has championed since the beginning of his career. Police Reform. Accessible Housing. Equity. The list goes on*.
Mayor Johnson and I met for a conversation that was easy-going as the mayor himself. We talked about his passions, his platform, and his journey from a young man with little direction to directing local politics. I asked him how citizens reacted when his campaign went door-to-door. “Who is this kid/guy?” he chuckles. The answer is sure to inspire.
They said he couldn’t do it. He did it anyway.
In his office, Mayor Johnson displays framed degrees from Columbia-Greene Community College and SUNY New Paltz. He also hangs a letter denying his graduation from Hudson High School.
“It was the first time I was told I wouldn’t be able to do something,” he states. “So I buckled down, doubled-up on classes, and graduated.” Of course, the task wasn’t so simple. Faced with family issues at home and the weight of self-doubt, Johnson found motivation from teachers and in popular culture.
“One of the first teachers to tell me I was smart also told me not to be a waste of talent.” He goes on to quote 1993 film, A Bronx Tale: “The saddest thing in life is wasted talent.”
He’s been “The Mayor” since high school
Dubbed “The Mayor” in his 11th grade English class, Mayor Johnson gained early recognition for his commanding presence, polite charisma, and natural ability to engage a crowd.
“In class, I always went above and beyond for presentations,” Johnson recalls. “Classes were always rowdy. But when I presented, everyone was silent and listened. I realized I could communicate in an effective way.”
Unofficially holding office at Hudson High School, a teenaged Johnson redefined talent as he discovered his own.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I have something here.’” He smiles, remembering his days as a political novice. “When you grow up, you don’t think that’s an actual talent. You think a talent is to sing, or play basketball, or something like that. But to be able to capture people’s attention is a talent.”
He needed a seat to make a change.
That’s what Mayor Johnson heard 4 years ago when he petitioned for youth center improvements at a Common Council meeting. He approached the Council several times after a visit to the local youth center that once served as his safe haven. The center was without programming, maintenance, and basic infrastructure.
“They said I had great ideas, but I had to be part of the process.”
By 2017, Johnson could list several years of youth work in the experience section of his resume. He started mentoring in high school through a partnership program with the nearby elementary school. From there, he proceeded work at community after school programs and the Hudson Youth Center.
Always a popular counselor, Johnson related easily to the kids, especially those dealing with socio-emotional stress. Children gravitated to Johnson’s youthful personality and ability to handle tough situations with compassion. He quickly realized his gift for youth empowerment, and it become his passion.
“Something was telling me, ‘This is the lane for me’.”
Determined to protect Hudson’s youth, Johnson stood in front of Council and sought restoration of a beloved and vital community institution. He needed a seat to make change. At this point, the only thing between him and that seat was an election.
“I was tired of hearing I needed a seat, so I ran for Councilman in a ward that’s 5% minority.” He won and went on to chair the committee that oversees the Youth Center, proving passion can surpass barriers to enacting real change.
One Day in Therapy
During his two years as councilman, Johnson’s eyes opened to several other sectors of Hudson that were desperate for despair. He knew that to truly achieve equity and security in the city he loves, he needed to take the final steps toward his dream of becoming mayor.
“I knew the only way I could tackle these issues is if I’m at City Hall full time.”
Even with his goal in sight, Johnson compared his options. He understood this election would come with higher costs than his last.
“At the time, I was at a transition in life where I was comfortable and had a full time job I love.” Was he ready to give up comfort for campaign chaos and more responsibility? “Do I really want to put myself out there?” he wondered.
Johnson’s nerves teetered from anxious to excited to scared when he first seriously considered running for mayor. “After all,” he says, “this is the dream.”
Then, one day in therapy, he said to himself, “I have this hole in me. If I don’t find out if I can fill it, I’m going to be old, sitting around, telling my grandkids, ‘I was going to do this or that.’” He refused to let that happen. With a clear vision of his legacy and the story he wanted to tell, Johnson knew what he had to do.
“I put my name in the hat, and we made history.”
Equity and Commitment
For Hudson Mayor Johnson’s election represents progression toward a more equitable society were everyone’s issues get attention.
For Johnson, his election means two things:
1) He did not let his community down.
“There were little Black kids coming up to me in the streets. They said, ‘Our parents say you’re going to be the next mayor. Is that true?’ and I say, ‘Yeah. That’s true.’”
This sounds like an adorable encounter, but interactions like these remain the most pressured points of Johnson’s campaigns. “It started to get to me. What if I don’t win? Am I letting all these people down?”
2) He can continue to cultivate a community that feels like family and structure a city that Hudson citizens can proudly call Home.
HOW IT’S GOING
From beginning to end, 2020 tested Mayor Johnson’s capability. What a way to start a dream job! Fresh on the scene and equipped with enough enthusiasm to permeate the city, nothing could hold Johnson back from stepping into the role he was destined to take.
A Great Moment in Leadership
“Around the time George Floyd was murdered. That’s the first time I was nervous to speak in front of a crowd.”
Last summer, as Black Lives Matter protests spread across the nation, Mayor Johnson adjusted to viewing the situation through a political lens.
“It was the first time I was nervous because I’m an activist,” Johnson says. “I have the Black community saying ‘You represent us! Don’t forget, just last year you would have been on the front lines.’”
Amid uncertainty and with little time for contemplation, Johnson confidently sprang into action.
“I needed to get in front of this. I needed to get the community together. They’re protesting, I’m protesting.” He organized a protest and invited public servants and police officers to speak. To conclude the event, Johnson set a community standard. “If you trust me and what we’ve said today, you’ll be home by 9PM. If you trust your community leaders, that’s what you’ll do.”
He remembers declaring the curfew after a day of discouragement. “All day people were telling me, ‘Don’t do it. It’ll ruin your career!’” At 9:15PM, “Hudson was a ghost town,” Johnson recalls, triumphantly. He did it. He gave Hudson’s people room to express themselves and kept them safe. They trusted him. “That was probably my biggest moment of leadership.”
A prime point of Mayor Johnson’s advocacy is also a key ingredient to his recipe for success: Mental Health. “It’s equally as important as your physical health,” he explains. He goes on to describe mental health as both necessary and taboo, especially in low-income communities of color. “Growing up, mental health isn’t always seen as normal to address. Your life is hard. Your neighbor’s life is hard. So is your best friend’s. Everybody is going through some sort of trauma.”
From seeing his single mother struggle to witnessing his brothers’ incarcerations, Johnson is no stranger to the stresses of inner-city life. He recounts growing up numb to life’s pain. “Trauma has a way of settling. You look at someone die and you don’t feel anything because you’re used to it.” He continues, “But that’s not how it’s supposed to feel. There’s supposed to be some kind of emotion.” The long-term effects of his experiences started causing sleepless nights. ‘I could never sleep. I would always think, ‘All these things happen in life. Seeing your home get raided. Seeing your friends die. All these things just seem so normal.” Suddenly, an epiphany. “None of this is normal.”
Fighting the Stigma Around Therapy
This life-changing realization prompted 2AM Google searches for local therapists, which lead to Johnson’s first therapy session a week later. Johnson has been reaping the benefits of therapy ever since. He says it helps with his confidence and interactions with his family. “It became an outlet,” he says. “I would go in, unload my whole week, and then unpack certain things.” Therapy exposed hidden sources of his anxiety and depression. “I started realizing a lot of things in life that bothered me.”
Mayor Johnson smiles when he thinks back to his preconceived notions about therapy. “I thought it was some ‘white people stuff,’” he exclaims with a laugh. Johnson hopes to erase the stigma of mental health maintenance and alter the perception of therapy in minority communities. “That’s why it’s important for people like me to go,” he says. He wants people like him to know, “It’s not what it’s like on TV.”
What does Johnson think about mental health now? Without hesitation, he proclaims, “It’s the most important.”
I asked Hudson’s history making mayor one last question: Do you say a mantra before entering tough situations? “Not really. I just go over the possibilities, exhale, and go in. As long as I speak from the heart, it will go well.”
Written by: Brennan Austin Peters
Brennan Austin Peters studies International Education Policy at Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy. Her concentrations are alternative education, creative learning, and extracurricular programming.