Name: Corey Johnson, 37
Who He Is: Speaker of the New York City Council, potential mayoral candidate
How He’s Contributed: Johnson takes politics seriously but has fun doing it. An activist since high school when he came out as a football player, he has overcome addiction to become a popular and powerful political force in the Big Apple, well positioned to become city’s next mayor.
Why We’re Proud: For twenty years, Johnson has been something of a one-man pride parade. He grew up in a blue-collar household in Massachusetts that was less than idyllic. His father left when he was a baby, and his mother’s second husband struggled with alcohol. “We always had problems with money,” Johnson later recalled.
Johnson found an outlet in football, becoming the captain of his high school football team. To the surprise of the team, which ultimately supported his decision, Johnson came out as gay.
His decision to come out was a brave one, and catnip for the mainstream media enchanted by the idea of a gay high school football captain. As a result, Johnson first taste of media attention came in 2000 when he was 18, with a story in The New York Times and a segment on 20/20.
Johnson found himself the center of attention, and after just a month at George Washington University in D.C., he moved to New York City. He became immersed in politics and started working for local politicians.
In sharp contrast to his rising political star, his personal life was full of turmoil. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 2004, at the age of 22. “In the moment and for the days and months and even years following my doctor giving me that news I lived with shame and fear and anxiety,” he later said.
Not long after seroconverting, Johnson lost his job and health insurance. “My drinking and drug use took off after this,” he said. “After waking up one day in 2009 with a hangover, as he often did, Johnson confided to a friend that he had a problem. Johnson has now sober for nine years.
Johnson came through the dark period of his life with his charm and energy undiminished. The New York Times has described him as “possessed with a preternatural talent for getting to know everyone and the energy to call and call again, making him something of a ubiquitous presence for nearly everyone in the upper echelons of New York’s public life in recent years.”
In 2005 Johnson joined the district Community Board that includes the heavily gay Chelsea neighborhood, a perfect way to establish a political case. When out lesbian Christine Quinn decided in 2013 to vacate her City Council seat to run for mayor, Johnson threw his hat in the ring. He wasn’t considered the frontrunner, but as one political observer noted, “he just outworked everybody” and won.
On the Council, Johnson distinguished himself as an advocate for equality. He authored a bill that eliminated the need for transgender people to have surgery before they could change their birth certificates. Earlier this month, he demanded that the New York Police Department apologize for its behavior during the Stonewall Riots; the police commissioner made the apology the following day.
But Johnson also distinguished himself by his ambition. Early in his first term, he was already lobbying to become the Council President. Late in 2017, Johnson achieved his goal, becoming the first gay man to hold the position.
Along the way, Johnson earned a reputation as a happy political warrior. He knows how to ingratiate himself with voters (and the media) by having fun. For example, in 2018, he turned a cameo in a weather report on a local TV station into a chance to dance to Lady Gaga’s “The Cure.” The gig was so successful it became a regular feature on Tuesdays.
Johnson has also learned how to work the legislative machinery to appeal to New Yorkers disdain for hysterical homeboy Donald Trump. In 2017, he proposed a bill that would have required Trump to disclose his taxes. (The bill didn’t go anywhere, but the state legislature passed similar legislation this year.)
Between his charm and his drive, Johnson has become the most popular politician in New York City–far more so than Mayor Bill de Blasio. De Blasio is running for president, but a poll of city residents found that he is their last choice among the candidates.
That leaves Johnson well positioned to run for mayor in 2021. He’s already broadly hinted that he’s planning on doing so. Meantime, expect Johnson to keep having fun. All you have to do is look at his dance performance at the Pride Parade in Brooklyn on Sunday.
That is clearly a man who takes pride in his work–and in Pride.