Corey Johnson, the New York City Council speaker and a presumed front-runner in the 2021 contest to replace Mayor Bill de Blasio, withdrew from the race on Thursday.
Mr. Johnson, who was expected to announce his decision on Thursday afternoon, had been grappling for weeks about whether to continue his candidacy.
“I have made the difficult decision not to run,” Mr. Johnson said in a statement. “This challenging time has led me to rethink how I can best be of service to this city, and I have come to the conclusion that this is not the right path for me.”
The exit of Mr. Johnson, a Democrat, is a reflection of how the country’s largest city has drastically changed in just six months, with its economic, social and political landscape reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic and the George Floyd protests.
No one really knows when or how New York City, which has so many offices, restaurants and businesses still empty, will fully return to its paces, or whether people will feel comfortable on crowded subway trains or sidewalks.
What seems clearer is that formidable challenges await whoever becomes the city’s next mayor. A severe drop-off in tax revenue, for example, is expected to create annual budget gaps of at least $5 billion starting with the next fiscal year.
The social unrest that accompanied the Floyd protests led the city earlier this summer to cut the police budget and shift funds away from the department, but the reductions did not amount to the $1 billion cut that protesters had sought. The pressure to de-emphasize or defund the police is expected to mount in the coming months.
The fight over police funding took a toll on Mr. Johnson, who had pledged to cut $1 billion from the police budget. But by late June, it became clear that divisions on the Council would make it impossible to do so, leaving Mr. Johnson apologetic and near tears.
Mr. Johnson, 38, is prevented from seeking a third consecutive term on the City Council because of term-limit laws. He has not ruled out a future run for another office such as Congress.
“I want to be clear that my decision to end this campaign is not the end of my public life,” Mr. Johnson said in his statement. “I will continue serving as speaker of the City Council and working to improve the lives of New Yorkers. I love this city with all my heart and I believe by working together, we will come back stronger than ever.”
Since becoming Council speaker, Mr. Johnson quickly won a following by casting himself as the antithesis to the somewhat aloof Mayor de Blasio. Mr. Johnson performed back flips at parades, wrote a syrupy ode to the city on Twitter and publicly celebrated his sobriety and new relationship with his boyfriend.
A year ago, when Mr. de Blasio was 1,000 miles away in Iowa pursuing a long-shot bid for the Democratic nomination for president, the power went out over a large swath of Manhattan’s West Side. Mr. Johnson filled the breach, rushing back to the city from Long Island to provide frequent updates.
Earlier this year, Mr. Johnson, who is white, was considered to be among three leading candidates to replace Mr. de Blasio. The others were Eric Adams, the borough president of Brooklyn who is Black, and the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, who is white.
But as the coronavirus killed 24,000 people in New York City and the civil unrest hit the streets, Mr. Johnson’s challenge of getting 51 Council members to act together became more draining, and the idea of being mayor held less appeal, say those close to Mr. Johnson.
A racial dynamic may also influence the race.
The recent congressional primary victories in the New York City area of three candidates of color — all three Black and Latino, and two of them gay — may signal that Democratic voters might be more receptive to someone other than a white man.
Along with Mr. Adams, two other formidable Black candidates are said to be weighing whether to enter the race for mayor: Maya Wiley, a civil rights lawyer who worked as a commentator for MSNBC and as a legal counsel for Mr. de Blasio, and Raymond J. McGuire, the global head of corporate and investment banking at Citi. Another candidate of color, Dianne Morales, a former nonprofit executive and Afro-Latina woman, has raised almost $158,000, mostly from small-dollar donations.
“Next year may not be the year for a white man,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus of political science at Hunter College. “It’s hard to come back from a losing race where you do absolutely worse than expected. Corey may have just made a cold, rational political decision that this is the wrong race at the wrong time.”
Still, Mr. Stringer, who officially announced his candidacy earlier this month, may be the prime beneficiary of Mr. Johnson’s decision not to run; the two were thought to appeal to similar swaths of voters.
There is a long history of City Council leaders who have run for mayor or other elected offices with less than stellar results.
Christine Quinn, the former speaker of the City Council, was a front-runner for mayor in 2013 before coming in a distant third in the Democratic primary. Melissa Mark-Viverito, Mr. Johnson’s predecessor as speaker, has run unsuccessfully for public advocate and a congressional seat in the Bronx since she left office in 2018 after a tenure filled with legislative accomplishments.
Earlier, two other former speakers stumbled: Gifford Miller ended up dead last in the 2005 Democratic primary for mayor and Peter F. Vallone lost the primary in 2001.
“Legislative leadership is different from administrative leadership,” Professor Sherrill said. “It’s quite different from the skills you need to run a large bureaucracy and inspire a large, diverse population.”
William K. Rashbaum contributed reporting.