By Michael D. Minichiello
Erik Bottcher is running to represent District 3—which includes Greenwich Village—in the New York City Council. Since 2015 he has served as chief of staff to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson (who also represents District 3). Prior to that, Erik served as Governor Cuomo’s liaison to New York State’s LGBT community. Bottcher was born in upstate New York and has a degree in political science from George Washington University.
When Erik was growing up in the Adirondacks he learned a valuable lesson about how one person could effect change. “My parents own a fly-fishing motel on the Ausable River,” he says. “They weren’t into politics, but one time my dad did lead an effort to get a portion of the river designated as catch and release. The fish were disappearing due to overfishing. That effort met a lot of resistance in the town. I remember getting on the school bus and having kids gang up on me because of it. My dad stuck to it, though, and they succeeded in getting a portion of the West Branch designated. It was so successful that they’ve since expanded it to more of the river. That was an early lesson for me: the potential of organizing and how one person really could make a difference.”
It was another—albeit much more personal—experience that led Erik to pursue a life of service and activism. As a LGBTQ youth growing up in a rural area in the early ’90s, Bottcher struggled with his sexuality. “I became more and more depressed and despondent, and I began making attempts on my own life,” he admits. “After the final attempt they sent me to a hospital in Saratoga, New York with other young people from all over the state who were victims of physical, sexual, and substance abuse as well as gang violence. Here I was—this kid from the middle of nowhere—being exposed to the world in a way that I had never been before. It was eye opening. Seeing the kinds of trouble that others went through was the beginning of my political awakening, and that perspective really informed my political beliefs. It’s a big part of why I chose this life.”
Right after finishing college Bottcher moved to New York. “I graduated on Saturday, and I moved to New York that Monday,” he says, laughing. In 2008, after having worked at several different jobs, he jumped at an opportunity to be an LGBT and HIV community liaison for the city council. “I did that for two years, and when Cuomo got elected he hired me to be his LGBT liaison to help with the passage of the Marriage Equality Act,” Eric says. “I worked with activists all over the state to get the legislature to pass it, which they did. I was also Cuomo’s regional representative in Manhattan, where I was a conduit between all twelve community boards and the state government. That was very valuable experience!” At the end of 2014 Bottcher went to work for Corey Johnson as his chief of staff, an experience that was even more valuable. “By helping District 3’s constituents with myriad issues, I learned the workings of the city council intimately,” he says. “That included the legislative process, the land use process, and the oversight process.”
What are some of Bottcher’s top priorities? “Number one is economic recovery from Covid-19,” he says. “Getting our small businesses open and thriving again, getting people back to work, and opening up the performing arts again. Number two is housing and homelessness, which is a humanitarian crisis that’s unfolding in our streets. Mental health is one of my top priorities as well. It’s personal for me given my history. However, I don’t think we’ve seen the sense of urgency that’s called for by the situation. We closed the big psychiatric hospitals where people were kept for their entire lives, and rightfully so. The plan was to replace the hospitals with community-based mental health services, but we never did that. As a result, this pandemic is exposing many of our policy failures. I’ve recently put out an eight-point mental health plan to address these issues.”
When asked what it is about politics that excites him, Bottcher admits it’s the opportunity to make a difference. “That’s what motivates me, and I think government and elected office provides an incredible opportunity to do that,” he says. “I’ve already seen it in my life with the fight for marriage equality and LGBT rights. I’ve seen what’s possible and I know that so much more is possible. I’m reminded of my grandmother who died last fall at the age of 104. When she was born in 1916, women didn’t even have the right to vote. She witnessed a lot of change and I believe we’re going to see change like that as well. But nothing that happened during my grandmother’s lifetime happened on its own. People fought for those things and that’s what we have to continue to do.”
New York City’s early voting begins June 12th. Primary day is June 22nd.
Erik Bottcher’s Eight-Point Mental Health Plan
- Stop the elimination of inpatient psychiatric beds. According to the New York State Nurses Association, the number of certified inpatient psychiatric beds in the state dropped 12 percent between 2000 and 2018 even though the population and the need have mushroomed. We need to reverse this trend.
- Immediately dispatch mobile mental health crisis response teams to the West Side. In November, the mayor announced a pilot program in which health professionals and crisis workers, instead of the NYPD, would be dispatched to respond to mental health crises. That program is being piloted in northern Manhattan beginning this spring, but there is an immediate need for these response teams citywide, including in our district.
- Increase the number of crisis stabilization centers. When unhoused New Yorkers experiencing mental health crises are brought to hospitals, they are released after they are medically stabilized. Frequently, they are not sick enough to stay in the hospital, but are too sick to return to a shelter or the streets. Crisis stabilization centers, also known as medical respite beds, fill this critical need, giving people time and space to recuperate.
- Build supportive housing. Affordable housing that offers case management and other supportive services is known as supportive housing. We’ve only constructed a fraction of what is needed. Extensive evidence has shown that permanent supportive housing is the best way for people with mental health challenges to lead full lives outside of hospital settings, the shelter system, or the criminal justice system.
- Embrace and expand the “Clubhouse model” of psychosocial rehabilitation. The Clubhouse model, created decades ago by Hell’s Kitchen’s own Fountain House, helps people with a history of serious mental illness rejoin society. Clubhouses are community centers where people with mental illness can find opportunities for friendship, employment, housing, education, and psychiatric services in a caring environment. The city should create at least 10 more Clubhouses across the five boroughs.
- Revamp discharge planning and services for incarcerated New Yorkers. Every year, thousands of individuals are discharged from prisons and jails with inadequate planning and support services. The city should expand community-based organizations like the Fortune Society that work with formerly incarcerated individuals to help them thrive. Albany should enact legislation that would require the state to assist people in obtaining housing prior to release from correctional institutions.
- Increase school-based behavioral health services. Serious mental illness often begins to take shape in adolescence, and early diagnosis and treatment are critical. School-based health and social services are essential, and schools must have nurses, counselors, and social workers on site who are trained to identify warning signs of behavioral health issues and make referrals to behavioral health professionals.
- Redirect ThriveNYC funds to address serious mental illness. As of 2019, roughly 10 percent of ThriveNYC’s $250 million annual budget was spent on serving those with serious mental illness. Hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been spent addressing this crisis in recent years were not. This must change.