Corey Johnson will be your friend – whether you like it or not

Celeste Sloman

Corey Johnson will be your friend – whether you like it or not

The new New York City Council Speaker is "charismatic" and "engaging."
January 12, 2018

It was sure to be one of Corey Johnson’s most tense meetings. His first move as New York City Council speaker was to host one-on-one meetings in his new City Hall office with each of the other 50 council members. That meant time alone with Helen Rosenthal, the straightforward Upper West Side councilwoman who had backed Johnson’s chief rival, City Councilman Mark Levine, for most of the speaker’s race. Though Rosenthal ultimately joined the rest of the council in a nearly unanimous Jan. 3 vote for Johnson, her earlier opposition was a real source of worry for the councilwoman. Backing the wrong speaker candidate can get members shut out of desirable committees, and a bad relationship with the leader can keep favored legislation bottled up. Even though Rosenthal’s district borders Johnson’s, the pair had never really gotten to know each other during their first four-year term, and the new speaker didn’t owe her any favors.

But Johnson texted her a comforting note ahead of their meeting.

“He has gone out of his way to assure me that I’ll be treated well, fairly, and that we are going to have a great working relationship and that he is going to fight for my legislation and the things that I care about in City Hall. That’s incredibly meaningful,” Rosenthal said. “He sent it to me in text. He went out of his way, even after he and I met together, to call me and say it again.”

The text message is Johnson’s tool of choice, but it’s just one of many in Johnson’s social arsenal. In interviews for this story, colleagues called him “charismatic,” “gregarious,” “engaging,” “enthusiastic” and “friendly.” They talked about a man who would text you just to see how you’re doing, and was quick with a public thank you – valuable currency in politics. In the early days of his term as speaker, Johnson has gone on a grand tour of New York City, shaking handskissing babies and taking Lady Gaga lip-syncing selfies in between. In all, Johnson has taken pains to set a fun, sociable tone, standing in stark contrast with his more buttoned-up predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito.

“I think the mood has already begun to change. There’s a sense that there is a breath of fresh air,” said City Councilman Rafael Espinal, who has had a close relationship with Johnson since they met while both running for the council in 2013. “Corey is a lot different than any speaker that has taken office in the past. He is very approachable. He is very charismatic.”

“I think Melissa Mark-Viverito had her fun side,” Espinal added. “But she was down to the point and just focused on getting the job done. I would say that Corey is looking to get the job done, but he’s also looking to make real friends here in the body.”

Another colleague, City Councilwoman Karen Koslowitz, said that Mark-Viverito and Johnson “have totally a different style. Corey is more open. He’s friendlier.”

Corey Johnson with David Dinkins and Peter Vallone Sr.Corey Johnson speaks with former Mayor David Dinkins and and former Speaker Peter Vallone Sr. on the day he was named speaker. (William Alatriste/New York City Council)

That’s not to say Mark-Viverito, who could not be reached for comment, was boring or bland. After all, a Puerto Rican band played her out of the Council Chambers on her last day. And to be fair, women in leadership often feel compelled to hide their emotions to be taken seriously.

Another City Council member, who asked for anonymity to speak frankly about the former speaker, said Mark-Viverito is just a more private person. “I think Melissa maybe didn’t think of fun as something to show visibly and demonstrate as part of her speakership. That was more like something she would do in private, and as speaker she would be more serious.”

But Johnson, the source said, is different: “I think Corey is fun, and he clearly values it and wants people to be having fun. Not only to dance down Fifth Avenue, but to promise it as a feature of the speakership – that’s different than Melissa for sure.”

Johnson, for his part, has all but made dancing a campaign promise. “This is an important job. I’m taking it very seriously, but also, we’re going to have fun,” he enthusiastically said on “The Brian Lehrer Show” this month. “You can be serious. You can tackle the issues. You can do it with a smile. And you can still go out and dance and eat and do all those things. That is what I’m going to do.”

All this fun and games isn’t just a show, said Evan Stavisky, a political strategist and partner at The Parkside Group, who has known Johnson since before he ran for office.

“He’s famous for talking about how he likes to dance. He’s famous for going to events and dancing and socializing and just having a good time with his colleagues,” Stavisky said. “He will go out and he’ll engage because it’s actually fun for him. God bless him. He’s in a calling that fits.”

Johnson, however, barely fits into his own apartment, a 319-square-foot studio on West 15th Street in Chelsea, as he told Lehrer. The openly gay 35-year-old moved to Manhattan when he was 19 years old, finding a thriving nightlife and a bustling political scene. Sober since 2009, Johnson became consumed with local politics, spending countless nights outside of his tiny apartment attending community board meetings, gathering signatures and dancing at holiday parties.

Johnson is extremely close with his mother in Massachusetts, Stavisky said, “but Corey is a transplant to New York. He doesn’t have family here the way some elected officials might. And really his colleagues and the political class of New York have become his adopted family.”

Johnson, who declined to comment for this story, often goes out to dinner with council colleagues like Espinal or Laurie Cumbo. He attended the funeral for the mother of City Councilman Daniel Dromm on Jan. 9, and he’s celebrated Rosh Hashana at Koslowitz’s home in Queens.

Koslowitz, the septuagenarian who represents suburban Queens, and Johnson are not an obvious pairing, but each speaks glowingly about their close friendship. “I just think he’s a wonderful person,” Koslowitz said. “I liked him from day one.”

Johnson just seems to have a way with getting close to people, finding what makes them tick and using it to build a relationship.

“He and I have a running joke,” said Mark Weprin, a shareholder at Greenberg Traurig who used to serve with Johnson in the City Council. Johnson would call and leave a message saying it was Mary Anne Krupsak, or Ralph Marino, Weprin said. “And my staff would write it down dutifully.”

Weprin, who has been around politics for decades, would know that it was Johnson calling, and not former Gov. Hugh Carey’s lieutenant governor, or the state Senate majority leader who died in 2002. But the joke impressed Weprin.

“He called me a savant on political history, but the truth is the shoe’s on the other foot,” Weprin said. “I lived it. He has no right to know it!”

Corey Johnson with Brad HoylmanCorey Johnson speaks with state Sen. Brad Hoylman. (William Alatriste/New York City Council)

Of course, Johnson has had detractors. A coalition of unions endorsed three other speaker candidates before the race was decided in December – the most visible sign of the rumored “Anybody But Corey” caucus that had been working behind the scenes to deny him the post. Opposition seemed to largely stem from Johnson’s all-in, aggressively friendly style, but few would speak openly during the campaign, and even fewer are willing to denigrate the newly elected speaker now, before he’s had a chance to lead.

The personal and political are mixed for Johnson. While some thought that was a bug, others consider it a feature.

“He’s really going to put the effort in to really know each member and know the buttons to push on each member,” Weprin said. “And if he needs their vote, at some point, he’ll know how to get it. And he’ll do it not necessarily with a stick, but with a carrot – knowing what they need and what they want.”

Sure enough, on Jan. 11, Rosenthal was appointed chairwoman of the Committee on Women – the very committee she wanted. 

Jeff Coltin
is a staff reporter at City & State. He covers New York City Hall.
20180618