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The Man Who Is Glitterbombing New York City Politics

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson participating in the 2017 New York City Pride March. Photo: Michael Stewart/Getty Images

We’ve met only a few hours before and already New York City’s second-most powerful politician has told me about the moment he found out he was HIV positive, his former cocaine habit, the night he decided to get sober, has complained about online gay dating in New York, gotten choked up at least three times, told me he barely gets laid, talked about his mother’s love life, told me how he wants a husband and kids, smoked a cigarette, invited me over to his tiny studio apartment so I can see precisely how small it is — a touch over 300 square feet — and presented me with a proposed theme for a potential 2021 mayoral run.

That message: “Stop Fucking With Us.”

It’s not exactly bumper-sticker ready yet, but to even the casual observer City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has glitter-bombed the city’s staid political scene. Flip through social media, and it is hard to miss online videos of Johnson, 35, belting out Lady Gaga, arms outstretched, from the back seat of his government-supplied SUV, dancing along to “The Country Bear Jamboree” at Disney World on his recent Florida vacation, or doing the morning weather on the local Fox broadcast. (“It may not be raining men, but there was a little precipitation this morning.”)

And it’s true — Johnson’s apartment is so small that it can barely contain the Speaker himself. He wanted me to see it because when he first ran for the City Council, in 2013, Johnson was attacked as a tool of big real-estate interests. In the past, he had done community relations for GFI Development, which was behind such projects as the trendy Ace and NoMad hotels in the Flatiron District. At debates he would answer the attacks by saying, “I live in a 319-square-foot apartment! If I am a real-estate developer I am the least successful, poorest real-estate developer in New York. I would invite you all up but I can only fit four of you at a time!’”

And so on a Saturday night we are sitting beneath Johnson’s framed and signed poster of Barney Frank, between a pair of suit trees in the living room that keep Johnson’s outfit fresh for the next day, while the Speaker, despite the advancing hour, nurses a bucket of Starbucks iced coffee.

There are other cardinal rules of politics — beyond not talking about your love life and not inviting reporters over to your home without aides or even a recording device present — that Johnson seems to have no qualms storming through, including not talking about the crippling anxiety you faced when you were about to be elected Speaker by your colleagues: “Oh my God. I was lying on the ground in the conference room in my district office. Literally every reporter was calling. Literally. Every reporter. The Times, the Post, the Daily News, NY1 … I screened their calls! I still have PTSD!”

Johnson speaking at November rally against the GOP tax bill in front of Trump Tower on 5th Avenue. Photo: Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

That doesn’t even count not talking about what your slogan would be if you were to run for mayor in four years. But he’s ready to explain what “fucking” means in this context: “Stop nickel-and-diming us,” Johnson said. “There are 8.6 million people who live in New York City, and not all of them, but a lot of them, could move somewhere else. They live here because they love New York City, they love the energy of the city. But the rent is too damn high, property taxes are too damn high, the subways are in a state of disrepair. Small businesses are being driven out in droves.”

He continued: “So I think the message is: Give People a Goddamn Break. Provide basic things — safety, sanitation, reliable subway service, and work on the affordability crisis that has gripped our city.”
It’s not a message that is so different than the one that got Bill de Blasio elected mayor in 2013. Then, de Blasio railed against inequality and vowed to take on the tale of two cities that saw an ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor.

“I would not have put it that way,” Johnson says of the mayor’s 2013 sloganeering. “It’s not really about focusing on one group of people. It’s about focusing on policies that would help everyone. For me, it’s a middle-class message that is about fairness.”

When de Blasio has appeared before the Association for a Better New York, a civic group filled with the titans of the universe who have governed New York for generations as mayors have come and gone, it was like Jesus gone to sup with the sinners and the tax collectors. He has railed to the group against inequality, high finance, Mike Bloomberg, and Donald Trump. But when Johnson spoke at ABNY soon after being sworn in as Speaker, he told them that he grew up in public housing outside of Boston, that “my politics are probably very to the left of nearly everybody in this room” but that “being progressive does not mean being anti-business or anti-growth.” He praised them for saving the city during the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and told them: “I’m here to get things done. But I can’t do it alone. I need your help.”

Johnson’s theory of politics is that the electorate, especially at a time of seemingly intractable policy issues and economic stagnation, is fickle. They want Bush for eight years, then Obama, then Bernie Sanders for half a moment, then Trump. They want 12 years of Bloomberg and then eight years of de Blasio. They give their elected leaders a little bit of rope, then yank it back, and want to give someone else a try.

Speaker Johnson at the street co-naming ceremony for Bella Abzug Way in the West Village. Photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council

And he is staking his tenure as Council Speaker on reinvigorating a body that has grown to be little more than an extension of the mayor’s office. Johnson replaces Melissa Mark-Viverito, a de Blasio ally who served as Speaker during his first term. She replaced Christine Quinn, who hitched her own wagon to Mayor Bloomberg’s agenda for eight years. By Johnson’s telling, ever since the modern City Council was created in 1989 it has failed to properly fulfill the duties that it was given in the city charter.

Johnson’s charge is to change that. He has empowered a new investigations unit, chaired by Councilman Ritchie Torres, a rising star from the Bronx, and staffed it with former prosecutors who are looking into the operations of city agencies. In an unusual move for a Speaker, Johnson has taken to attending hearings himself and slammed the head of the MTA and the mayor’s budget director for management failures and for not having requested information ready, made-for-TV moments that council members used to go for only sparingly, if at all. This approach has already seen results. The extent of the unfolding NYCHA scandal — that more than 300,000 public housing residents were without heat this winter, an order of magnitude greater than City Hall first let on — was a result of a city council investigation. “Just say it: I apologize!” Johnson demanded of the city’s NYCHA head at one dramatic committee hearing.

This has led to some eye-rolling on the other side of City Hall, where taking potshots at de Blasio has become something of a sport for those who want his job. “It’s a different environment, and we will deal with it,” said one senior de Blasio administration official. “Is this about helping people here do their jobs, or is it about cutting every fact and figure eight different ways so that you get a clip on TV?”

Johnson’s allies think the next four years present a grand opening for someone whose ambition is to keep city services on track.

“We are going to be the most powerful City Council the city has ever seen,” said Torres. “We have a lame-duck mayor who is antagonistic towards the governor, a governor who is partnering with the City Council, a mayor who is going flying around the country while de Blasio fatigue sets in here at home. And Corey is at the center of it all.”

De Blasio made it through his first term without vetoing a single bill. That is certainly not going to happen the second time around.

“The mayor is not always good at admitting when he made a mistake,” said Johnson. “I am not sure it is entirely his fault but his bad relationship with the governor has a really bad impact on the city of New York. And some of the mayor’s top-level staff treat people really poorly, are very disrespectful, are not responsive to people, and try to settle scores with people. And that is not a good way to try to get things done.”

Torres, 30, ran against Johnson for Speaker, and the smart money early would have been on Torres, who had already been profiled by The New Yorker, or on any of the other dozen or so council members who wanted the job. Johnson won it though by sheer force of personality. He was a constant presence in members’ districts, campaigning for them, raising money for them, deploying his own supporters to volunteer on their behalf.

Speaker Johnson meeting with children from the Hudson Guild Program in February. Photo: John McCarten/New York City Council

“He doesn’t sleep,” said Joe Borelli, a Trump-supporting Republican council member from the South Shore of Staten Island. Johnson visited him too, getting to know his wife and family, and Borelli counts himself as one of Johnson’s biggest supporters. “I text him all hours of the day or night with random thoughts. He always gets back to me right away. He doesn’t let up.”

Torres described himself as “an intensely competitive person” and had been determined to be the next Speaker. But against Johnson, “There was no hope.” Torres knew it was over when he went online and saw Johnson, on Election Day, shaking his butt and swinging his arms outside of a Brownsville Popeye’s alongside Councilmember Alicka Ampry-Samuel to “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now.”

“I just came to realize that I am hopelessly, hopelessly boring compared to Corey Johnson.”

In fact, Johnson is so not-boring that at 18 he nearly had a made-for-TV movie scripted about his life. Johnson was the captain of his football team in high school in a working-class town in Massachusetts — and so when he announced to his team that he was gay, it made national news. The New York Times profiled him on A1. A speech before 400,000 people at the Millennium March followed, as did a 20/20 profile by Anderson Cooper. He had never been on an airplane, but was being flown out to Los Angeles to dine at Spago with the superstar literary agent Bill Clegg and representatives from CAA. Wolfgang Puck dropped by their table.

At a celebration of the West 9th Street Block Association last month. Photo: William Alatriste/New York City Council

Johnson had spent much of high school closeted and nearly suicidal. His biological father was the son of American GI stationed overseas and a Korean woman. His father grew up in a Korean orphanage, before being adopted by an American family, never knowing his real age. Johnson’s father was also an alcoholic and a drug addict, and not married to Johnson’s mother when she gave birth to Corey at age 20. Eleven months later, she dropped him off at work one day, and he never came home. It was the last time either of them ever saw him.

Ann Richardson, Johnson’s mother, worked in his school cafeteria in order to be close to him. His stepfather was a truck driver and a member of the Teamsters, but also a compulsive gambler who left the family on the constant brink of financial ruin, and an untreated alcoholic. He died of lung and brain cancer at age 56, a year before Johnson won his seat on the City Council.

Even though a ghostwriter had been lined up for his memoir, and casting was beginning on the movie, in the end, Johnson declined to go through with it.

“I wanted to be more than the gay football player. I felt like I had more to offer. I felt like there are some people that this important thing happens in their life and they hold on to it and, I don’t know, it becomes like Kathy Griffin’s Life on the D-List. You become a D-List something and 25 years later you are telling people how you were the gay football captain who ended up on the front page of the New York Times.”

He dropped out of college and moved to New York. In 2004 Johnson was selling couches at ABC Carpet & Home when he went in for a routine physical. The doctor’s office called him back two days later and told him to come by right away. A few months earlier Johnson had been out at Fire Island and gotten so sick that he couldn’t stand up, and his friends had to call a doctor. He realizes now that he was seroconverting, his body developing HIV antibodies.

“I was so mad at him,” said Richardson. “I took damn good care of my kids. I said to him, ‘How could this happen.’ He says, ‘Ma, how do you think it happened?’”

Johnson told me hadn’t been sleeping around very much, but he tried to track down who infected him, and was unable to. To this day, he doesn’t know.

“It was one of the most devastating things I have ever gone through. I was ashamed. I was scared,” Johnson said.

The diagnosis sent him spiraling downward. He started drinking, and then it was A-B-C: “Alcohol Becomes Cocaine,” Johnson said. It went on like this for five years.

“I was self-medicating. It was horrible. It was dark, and it was terrible,” he said.

Johnson was working at a real-estate firm, and in the middle of July took a week off to visit friends in Provincetown. He came back to New York City on a Saturday vowing to lay off the booze and coke for a couple of weeks. The next morning, he started drinking with friends at brunch, drank all through the day and into the night. Alcohol became coke, and he didn’t make it home until after two o’clock in the morning. At work the next day, Johnson curled up in a ball and went to bed on the floor of the office bathroom. He went home, decided he was done with alcohol forever.

Johnson and Dr. Demetre Daskalakis at the U=U Rally & Dance Party to End HIV Stigma at the NYC AIDS Memorial last year. Photo: Lars Niki/Getty Images for Housing Works

“I don’t know why I got it. I don’t think that people become sober because they are smart or because they are enlightened or because they have some level of self-awareness that other people do not,” he said. “It’s like lightning strikes, there is a moment of grace, there is a moment of clarity, and some people grab on to that moment of clarity and other people can’t hold on. I was never able to accept that I had a drug and alcohol problem until one day I realized I did.”

It will be nine years in July.

And it is part of that one day at a time approach to sobriety that explains why Johnson is not ready to make any announcements about his political future just yet. He is still navigating the cross-currents of the Cuomo/de Blasio blood feud, seemingly pulled toward the governor one day and then the mayor the next. And besides, New York politics, he says, is a telenovela, especially in the last ten years or so which has seen a mayoral front-runner flame out over dick pics, a prostitution scandal take down a sitting governor, the overturning of mayoral term limits by fiat, and de Blasio coming from fourth place to win two terms in landslides.

Ten weeks ago, Corey Johnson was a dude in a tiny apartment with a decent salary as a city council member. Now he has an around-the-clock armed police detail and a black SUV that will take him wherever he wants to go. And if that is Horse Meat Disco, a monthly gay dance party at a club in Williamsburg, so be it. And so it was last month, the armed police detail looking on as a swarm of shirtless and sweaty men grooved to old-school hits, Johnson, clothed, among them. Some drunk guy came up to them and demanded to know if they were Secret Service. They said no, but they refused to say whom they were there protecting.

“Just tell me this,” the discogoer slurred. “Is it a closeted member of the Trump administration?”

Johnson laughed out loud telling the story.

“I mean, can you believe it? I feel like I am playing with the house money here. I mean, I can’t believe I am Speaker! I can’t believe I am Speaker!”

*A version of this article appears in the April 16, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Man Who Is Glitterbombing New York City Politics