Corey Johnson was the name on everyone’s lips as the 35-year-old Democrat from the West Side of Manhattan officially became the speaker of the New York City Council.
Johnson’s ascension to the powerful position has seemed inevitable since Dec. 20, when most of his challengers conceded and announced their support for his candidacy. But Wednesday’s City Council meeting was no simple affair with a majority of “ayes” electing Johnson. Instead, each City Council member, alphabetically and one-by-one, had to voice their vote with his name: “Corey Johnson.”
Many simply said his name. But other council members used the opportunity to say something more, praising Johnson for his hard work, thanking him for his friendship, or noting his idiosyncrasies.
“Today is a day of celebration!” said Brooklyn City Councilman Mark Treyger, seconding the nomination of his “friend,” Johnson. “Everyone who knows Corey knows that he is hardworking, intelligent and unbelievably driven,” he said.
Newly elected Bronx City Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr. praised Johnson for his “human sensitivity,” noting that the new speaker visited him in the hospital despite their political differences.
And Queens City Councilman Barry Grodenchik recounted getting to know Johnson on a 2017 trip to Israel. “I learned that day that the most dangerous place in New York City is between Corey Johnson and a pomegranate juice vendor,” Grodenchik said. “He likes to drink juice.”
Johnson, in his acceptance speech, tried to fill up the council chamber with names other than his. He thanked many in attendance, including his mother, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins and his political mentor, former state Sen. Tom Duane. Johnson also acknowledged Rep. Joe Crowley, who holds immense sway over the speaker’s race, and union leader Peter Ward of the New York Hotel & Motel Trades Council, who has a close relationship with Johnson and supported his candidacy from the beginning.
Closing his speech, Johnson said the first names of each of the 50 other members of the council, from Adrienne (Adams) to Ydanis (Rodriguez), thanking them for their support and promising to always have their back.
Only one City Council member present did not say his Johnson’s name. Brooklyn City Councilwoman Inez Barron, who is black, voted for herself, in part protesting the lack of black politicians in leadership positions in New York.
Johnson won with a vote of 48-1, with two members not voting. City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who also expressed concerns about the racial politics at play, did not attend the council meeting, and instead went to Albany for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s State of the State address. Staten Island City Councilwoman Debi Rose was out of country on vacation, according to spokeswoman Robin Levine, but shared her support for Johnson over Twitter.
Johnson is white, and is the fourth white speaker of the five people to hold the position. But his supporters worked to draw attention to other aspects of Johnson’s identity, including his friend, Brooklyn City Councilwoman Laurie Cumbo, who officially nominated him for the position.
Johnson is a substance abuse survivor who comes from a single-parent household and never went to college. He is gay, and HIV-positive. “While many will say (these are reasons) that he shouldn’t be a leader, in my estimation those are exactly the reasons why he should be a leader,” Cumbo said. “Because he has overcome things that many of us would have had our whole world rocked by.”
While former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was an out lesbian, Johnson is the first gay male to hold the position since it was created in 1990. He is also the first openly HIV-positive person to be speaker, which helped make it “a historic day for those of us in the LGBT community,” according to the openly-gay Queens City Councilman Danny Dromm.
Johnson spoke to that history in his speech, recalling that, “in this very room,” the New York City Council passed legislation in 1986 outlawing discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. “Opponents said that the bill would lead to societal acceptance of the LGBT community,” Johnson said. “And guess what: They were right!”