Sober and HIV Positive, New Council Speaker Has Weathered Adversity
Posted January 3, 2018 10:44 p.m. EST
NEW YORK — On the morning of July 12, 2009, Corey David Johnson woke up, as he often did, with a terrible hangover, a familiar remnant from his nights of excess at parties on Cape Cod and around New York City.
By the evening of that day, he acknowledged to a friend at dinner what he had resisted admitting to himself after years of bingeing on alcohol and cocaine: He had a problem, and he had to stop.
The story of becoming sober more than eight years ago is one Johnson tells with candor, a key element in the biography of a 35-year-old who gained national attention for coming out as gay to his Massachusetts high school football team, and who achieved the legislative pinnacle of New York City government on Wednesday, becoming the speaker of the New York City Council.
“I feel lucky to be alive,” Johnson said in an interview, before the council, including all four of its Republican members, voted to elevate him as their leader in a 48-1 vote.
Johnson, the city’s first openly gay male speaker, succeeded in the rough-and-tumble world of New York City politics despite completing less than a month of college, at George Washington University, and arriving in the city at the age of 19 without pedigree or money. He was, however, possessed with a preternatural talent for getting to know everyone, and an 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.
“The phone is largely an extension of his ear,” said Keith L.T. Wright, head of the Manhattan Democratic Party. “He’s an absolute political animal.”
“He’s a late-night person; our phone calls are usually at like 1 in the morning,” said Allen Roskoff, the president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, an influential group in gay politics, who helped Johnson get his start in government service on Community Board 4 in Manhattan. He rose to become its chairman by age 29.
Born on April 28, 1982, in Beverly, Massachusetts, Johnson grew up in nearby Middleton in a working-class family. His mother, Ann Richardson, who attended Wednesday’s vote for Johnson, worked a variety of jobs while raising him and his sister. His father, David Johnson, born in South Korea to an American father and Korean mother, was an alcoholic who left the family before his son was old enough to remember him, Johnson said.
“My mom dropped him off at work one day when I was 11 months old and he never came home,” Johnson said. They reconnected only by phone, years later; Johnson said his father died in 2014. His stepfather, Rod Richardson, played a more central role in raising him, but also struggled with alcohol and with gambling and died relatively young. “We always had problems with money,” Johnson said.
When an article of his coming out appeared on the front page of The New York Times and recirculated on national television, it opened up a new world to a young man who had never left the Northeast: paid speeches, trips to Europe and South America, and the world of New York City.
Johnson eventually made his way up the Democratic ladder, working for Mark J. Green, then the public advocate, before moving to Green’s failed mayoral campaign and then to a bid for governor by H. Carl McCall, who also lost. In 2004, Johnson was diagnosed as HIV positive.
“He’s always been very clear that he wanted to run for office,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist and former Democratic aide on Capitol Hill who befriended Johnson early in his career.
In 2013, Johnson successfully ran for a City Council seat representing Manhattan neighborhoods including Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Midtown West that had been occupied by Christine C. Quinn, then the speaker of the City Council.
“When he first got in it, it was perceived as an uphill fight,” Elmendorf said. “As with the speaker’s race, my sense is, he just outworked everybody.”
Johnson began lobbying to become the council speaker early in his first term, in September 2015, traveling the city by transit and taxis (he does not own a car). He had no white board of names, or a personal system of vote-counting, he said. “It was all in my head. Seriously,” he said. “My whole strategy was to become either the first or second choice of as many people as possible.”
For some, he was neither. A small number of council members tried to rally opposition during the contest, believing that Johnson’s ambition could lead him to promise one thing to one group of people, and the opposite to another. But none who felt that way would speak on the record, and on Wednesday all voted for him.
“The caricature that was spun about me — no one has been able to point to a single concrete instance or decision,” Johnson said. “It was a rough race. But I’m going to treat everyone with respect. Even the people who didn’t support me.”
During the vote, Rep. Joseph Crowley, who played a key role in the speaker contest as the head of the influential Queens Democratic Party, looked on from the balcony.
In a 22-minute address, Johnson described the council as “the voice for the voiceless, the champions of the most vulnerable,” vowed to back his colleagues — going through all 50 by first name — and ended with a story of coming out to his Irish Catholic grandfather.
“I said, ‘Grandpa, I have something to tell you,'” Johnson recalled to the room of about 200. “'I told Mom and Dad that I’m gay.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I thought you were going to tell me you were a Republican!'”