Mover, Shaker, Dancer: City Council Speaker Corey Johnson

"Leadership means...checking your ego at the door to do the most good for the most amount of people."

Photo: New York City Council.

Like many people these days, I find myself battling bouts of despair as I’ve watched my country’s steady slide into surreal and heartbreaking circumstances. At this point, my psyche has had enough. Rather than continuing to expose myself to the ongoing negative news cycle or further fan the flames on social media, I have made it my mission to focus my energy on finding ways to ignite hope. Call me naïve, but I prefer to believe that in the long run we will eventually recover our country’s civility, morality, and equitable political policies. Another person who holds this vision is Corey Johnson, Speaker of the New York City Council. (Full disclosure: I live in Johnson’s district, and I am one of his appointees to Manhattan’s Community Board 2.)

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The 36-year-old Johnson has been an activist and advocate for progressive change since he came out of the closet, in 2000, as a 17-year-old high-school football captain. After moving to NYC from Massachusetts, he joined one of NYC’s 50 community boards. He became, citywide, the youngest Community Board chair ever. In 2013, Johnson was elected to the 51-member City Council. After his re-election in 2017, he was elected Speaker.

Johnson is, of course, an outspoken critic of President Trump.

After much patience and persistence, I pinned down the Speaker, who is not only a mover and a shaker but also a dancer. I wanted to know how he sees America as we head into the midterm elections and what lies ahead for Johnson after he’s term-limited out in 2021. This interview is lightly edited for clarity and style.

Robin Rothstein: What sparked your interest in local government and politics, and how did you find your way to serving on your community board?

Corey Johnson: A desire to make life easier for people who are struggling is what pushed me towards public service. Growing up, I lived that reality. I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where my mom was my school’s lunch lady and I was raised in one of 12 public housing units in my town. I had two hardworking parents, and we still struggled at times to make ends meet. Seeing that happening all over, I realized society could be fairer and I wanted to help.

When I graduated high school and I had come out of the closet and it was a national news story, I saw the opportunity to help other people like me. I thought sharing my story could make it easier for others, so I got into LGBTQ+ and community activism. When I moved to NYC and saw the issues people faced on a daily basis, especially with regard to affordable housing, joining my local community board seemed like an obvious way to help.

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RR: As chair of Manhattan’s Community Board 4 (CB4), what initiatives were you most proud of? 

CJ: When I was chair of CB4, we made a difference by really listening to the people around us. It wasn’t difficult, either. The people I was working with were my neighbors; they lived their lives every day in the district and had for years. I knew the issues the community cared about every day because I lived them. On the community board we did a lot of work taking on illegal hotels and trying to address the affordability crisis that exists throughout NYC. But what I’m most proud of is we did it in a way that gave everyone in the community a voice.

RR: NYC is a performing arts hub and a tourist destination. Now, as Speaker of the City Council, how do you keep the importance of the arts on people’s radar when there are so many other key issues and day-to-day business vying for your attention?

CJ: The arts are a crucial part of the city’s identity and our unparalleled cultural offerings are a cornerstone of NYC’s character. In my district alone we’re fortunate to have the Whitney Museum, the High Line, the Intrepid, the countless galleries in Chelsea, and we have the Theater District, so I can barely leave my apartment without feeling the presence of arts and culture — and I love that! Citywide, it gets even better; from the Queens Museum to the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx and the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to El Museo del Barrio — culture is everywhere in the Big Apple, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Cultural institutions are absolutely invaluable for what they offer New Yorkers and the tourism industry they power.

I think most New Yorkers would agree that we live in the culture capital of the world, and to imagine NYC without arts and culture is basically impossible. I love movies, theater and, of course, dancing. No matter how busy I am, I always try to make time for things like this — I have to balance work and play somehow!

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RR: As a Council Member and now as Speaker, which of your top initiatives have succeeded? What are you working hard to push through now — and why?

CJ: My goal is to fight for New Yorkers and to help make NYC a city for everyone, where people can afford to live, work and raise a family. In these past few months since I’ve been Speaker, we’ve taken great steps towards that. We did that with the inclusion of Fair Fares in our FY19 budget — that’s half-price MetroCards for those who need it most, which could help up to 800,000 New Yorkers get around our city. We made sure the City won’t profit from charging incarcerated persons to call their families, and we made headway in fighting illegal hotels that take up invaluable affordable housing stock.

RR: You’re not shy about criticizing our president. How can your voice and actions make a difference? What keeps you awake at night?

CJ: We wake up every single day to turn on the news, or read the news on Twitter, and we’re met with what seems like an endless stream of horrors from the White House. I hope that my speaking out, combined with the great progressive work that the New York City Council is doing, will give people hope that we can get through this. Since our national nightmare of a president took office, my goal has been to try and keep people’s spirits up, to keep pushing good progressive policy, and to show people — look, not everything is decided by politicians in Washington. No matter what goes on in Washington, we can still do good here at home. And, most importantly, I hope people get engaged and get active and that we win this year’s midterms, heading into 2020. Everyone should commit to getting involved.

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RR: Let’s unpack that. Tell me how average citizens can make a meaningful difference.

CJ: Volunteer! Go vote! [We can] win these battles through hard work and a commitment to activism. Anyone who feels pessimistic about our country’s political outlook should volunteer. Find a candidate that inspires you, or find a tight race near you and volunteer. Sitting on the couch screaming into our TVs, or getting on social media and posting may be cathartic — I know, I do it too — but it isn’t enough.

I’m in a long term relationship with this city.

To bring about the change we want, we have to win back the House, the Senate, the White House and state legislatures (including our own State Senate here in New York) and governor’s mansions across the country. Great moments in activism come from desperate times. We’re in one of those times now, and I hope everyone will join me in taking up the fight, because it’s too important not to. And vote in local elections, up and down the ballot! Primary day in New York is Thurs., Sept. 13, and the general election is Tues., Nov. 6.

RR: As Speaker, What does leadership mean to you?

CJ: Leadership means fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves, and doing so in a way that is principled, that entails working with others, and checking your ego at the door to do the most good for the most amount of people.

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RR: You will be term-limited out of office as Speaker, as a Council member, in 2021. Any idea what may lie ahead for you?

CJ: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I’m in a long term relationship with this city, so I won’t be going far. Whatever comes next for me, I expect will be some form of public service to the City. But for now I am focused on my current role and on doing the best I can as Speaker.

RR: What do you think America should be? What is our country’s future?

CJ: I think America should live up to its ideals — and, despite all the horrible words and tweets and policies coming out of Washington these days, I really do think we can get there. We can get to a place where diversity is celebrated, where different cultures are welcomed, where healthcare is a human right, where housing is affordable, and where things are a bit fairer. I want America to be a place of liberty and justice for all, but also equal opportunity for all, where working people get that little bit of extra help they need to succeed. I believe we’ll get there.