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City Council Speaker Corey Johnson Wants To 'Get Sh*t Done'

Corey Johnson in his City Hall office
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Corey Johnson in his City Hall office

In his first four months on the job, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has publicly urged Mayor Bill de Blasio to shut down Rikers in under ten years, pitted Governor Andrew Cuomo against the mayor in a power struggle over public housing, expanded the Council's investigative powers, and caught heat from the tabloids for using the police lights on his SUV while traveling to a TV appearance (he was singing "Call Me Maybe" at the time, though usually it's Lady Gaga).

Johnson, who is 36 years old, HIV positive, and represents Chelsea, Greenwich Village, Hells Kitchen, and a part of the Upper West Side, is plain spoken about wanting to "get shit done" for New Yorkers, though considerably more circumspect when it comes to his relationship with the mayor and the governor.

In a 27-minute interview, we spoke to Speaker Johnson about affordable housing, criminal justice reform, and his dating life.

"You think I'm honest enough?" Johnson asked, as we stood up to go. "I don’t hold back."

Right after you were sworn in as Speaker, you said that you admired your predecessor, Melissa Mark-Viverito, for her work with the Lippman Commission and its recommendation to shut down Rikers Island. One of the Lippman Commission’s recommendations was to decriminalize sex work. Do you think we should decriminalize sex work?

The fact that there are many people in New York City, and I think it’s important not to stereotype or talk about all people in the same way, but there are many people in New York City who engage in what’s called survival sex. They engage in sex work because they are desperate and many of those people are victims, and they’re being taken advantage of, or are having to engage in that kind of work because they’re struggling to make ends meet in New York City and they’ve been victimized in the past. I think it’s really important for us to recognize that, and to help folks. I want to give praise to the New York Post and Yoav Gonin for a really great series they did on sex trafficking victims here in New York City, which, there’s a lot more of it than anyone would realize.

And I think it’s important to understand that there are certain people who engage in sex work where, there isn’t a victim. We saw a few years ago, a website raided that, people were adults, consensually engaging in something.

I also think that this is difficult, because, it’s hard to draw the line between, is someone doing this because they want to do it? Or is someone doing it because they’re being taken advantage of, because they’re vulnerable, because they’re victimized. Just like when we talk about the homeless population, it’s important for us not to stereotype and put everyone in one class, I think when we talk about sex work, we have to do the same thing. Understand the nuances around it, and why people either willingly choose to engage in this, or unwillingly choose to engage in it because of their circumstances.

So that’s a “maybe”?

It’s a nuanced answer. I think it depends.

BuzzFeed recently published a lot of secret NYPD disciplinary files that showed police officers committing a range of offenses—including lying under oath, being physically abusive. Do police officers who lie on official reports or commit assault deserve to keep their jobs?

Every circumstance is different. But it’s unacceptable. It’s unacceptable for people who are employed to protect the public safety in New York to engage in any type of violence against another individual they’re supposed to protect from violence, and lying. I believe that disciplinary records should be made public. I think that for there to be trust between communities and law enforcement, there has to be a greater level of transparency. And I think you can do these things without endangering the public safety in New York City.

We’ve seen a massive decrease in stop, question, and frisk, and while that’s happened we’ve seen crime rates drop, we’ve seen summonses drop. So you can change the way law enforcement does certain things in New York City and it still keeps our city safe. But when it comes to police officers who are engaging in this type of misconduct, it’s unacceptable, there needs to be a zero tolerance policy in place and I think that the police commissioner has talked about that pretty extensively after the release of these files through BuzzFeed.

You’ve described yourself and Mayor de Blasio as “left of center Progressives, so on big issues ideologically we agree.” What about Governor Cuomo? Would you consider him a “left-of-center Progressive”?

I think so much of what he’s done are some of the major issues that the Progressive movement has fought for. If you look at the Fight for 15 and raising the minimum wage, if you look at one of the most progressive family leave policies in the entire country, if you look at marriage equality and reproductive rights, if you look at a forward-thinking infrastructure program, which the federal government has not been able to land the plane on, I think these are things that were real points of contention during the 2016 Democratic presidential primary process. He’s been able to adopt some of the things that Bernie Sanders has talked about, whether it be Excelsior Scholarship program for young people who are trying to go to school here in New York State, and protecting workers and uplifting unions and working men and women. All of those things are totally in line with Progressive values and those are things I believe in.

I also think that Albany is a difficult place, and nothing is really done by fiat, so there’s always a compromise, a give and take, and a back and forth, and as they call it at the end of every budget session, a Big Ugly comes together of all these things which somehow affect each other even though they’re not really connected in any way. Sometimes things fall off the list in that Big Ugly that I wish were included. Like bail reform, like greater criminal justice reform, like the Dream Act, like ethics reform, like getting rid of LLCs being able to give money.

Those are all things that I think we still have to tackle, and the Governor has said he supports those things, but it’s going to be really important that through the end of this legislative session and in the years to come we actually get these things done.

Do you think that Cynthia Nixon’s campaign has nudged the Governor to the left?

It could be, but I also think that even before she announced she was running for governor, he had already being doing a variety of these things anyway.

What about creating a unified State Senate? He sat on that for almost two terms.

[Pause] It is shameful that the IDC was ever allowed to exist, at all.

I am very proud that in 2008 for two months in the fall, I took Metro North every single day up to Yonkers and worked on Andrea Stewart-Cousins’ campaign that she won when she was elected to the State Senate. I have said consistently for years that she should be the sole majority leader and leader of the Democrats, so I am glad that they have reunified. I think that we are going to see a blue tidal wave as it relates to the State Senate and the House seats that are Republican held here in New York State. I think we’re gonna pick up four to six seats in the State Senate, we’ll have a progressive Democratic majority, so all the things that I just told you about are things that we’ve not been able to get done, I think we’ll be able to get done a lot of those things with Andrea Stewart-Cousins as the majority leader.

You and other elected officials stood with Governor Cuomo when he signed an executive order that created an independent monitor to oversee NYCHA, but the Times reported that you hadn’t asked to see the language of the order beforehand, and now the city is on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars. Was that a mistake? Should you have looked at the order before standing with the Governor?

You know, what is most important to me, and you can see it through the Council’s budget response that we released two or three weeks ago, is that the residents of public housing not be a political football, but that we actually get shit done for them as quickly as possible.

I think that the fine print of the executive order matters and mattered, and things move quickly in government sometimes. We are still reviewing the executive order, having conversations with the governor’s office, having conversations with NYCHA, with the tenant leaders, with the Mayor’s Office, to try to figure out exactly what that means. It’s a complicated puzzle because [there's] huge delays in getting things done at NYCHA, a huge outstanding capital need that exists to even get the most basic things done. The Southern District of the Department of Justice is looking into mold concerns, lead paint concerns, and wondering what’s going to happen with that. I’m sure there’ll be some type of price tag associated with that. You have all these competing things.

The one positive thing I’ll say about it, is that I think all this agitation around NYCHA through the state budget process, through—and it should have never happened—through the most obvious stories around mismanagement and lack of heat and hot water, has gotten us a lot of money, which I don’t know we would have gotten if all that didn’t happen. Hopefully it’s put more of a spotlight on the tragedy of some of these buildings.

Do I still have questions on the executive order? Yes. Does it likely need to be fine tuned in some ways? Yes. But ultimately it’s about getting the money released that’s there, getting the money out the door, and getting the fixes made at NYCHA and that’s ultimately what I want to happen and that’s my goal.

You mentioned the Council’s budget [response], that includes money for Fair Fares, or discounted MetroCards for low-income New Yorkers. Why do you have to nudge the mayor on this? It’s almost like you’re Mayor de Blasio’s Cynthia Nixon. Is that a fair comparison?

[Shrugs, falls back into chair] You have me speechless. I don’t know if that’s a fair comparison, but what I would say is that, I’m a little perplexed because this is really in the mayor’s wheelhouse of his values. It’s what he talked about when he ran for mayor in 2013, about “a tale of two cities.” If you can’t get on the subway I don’t know what city you’re in, you’re not in either one of those cities. Because when the subway system works, it’s the lifeblood of New York City. You can’t live in New York City if you can’t get on the trains.

We’re talking about very, very poor people, and poor families. People that are under the federal poverty line. These are people in poverty.

And this budget that we’re going to be voting on, is over $89 billion. When the mayor took office, the budget was $73 billion. The budget has increased by about $16 billion. And some of that money has gone to really good things, an increase in education funds, instituting universal pre-K and 3-K, some really great social programs that are important.

I don’t understand why he hasn’t in many ways stolen this issue from us and run around City Hall with a banner touting it. Other cities have done it, it’s the right thing to do, it’s not subsidizing the MTA, it’s helping poor people be able to function and live and survive in New York City, and I’m hopeful that since it’s in line with his values he will get there by the time we vote on the budget.

On Brian Lehrer Tuesday morning you were talking about upzoning neighborhoods and how it’s a tricky issue, but that it’s ultimately a good thing because we need to build for the 9 million people who will soon be living here. But when has an upzoning lowered housing costs? And is this affordable housing plan truly enough when some people can’t even afford the apartments offered by the city’s affordable housing lottery?

That’s a fair question. I don’t say this in an evasive way, but I think it’s very, very tricky, because when we build affordable housing in New York City it’s very expensive to build. Construction costs are high, we want to try and use union labor, which makes the costs even higher but we think creates good jobs. And so much of the housing that we build requires direct subsidy from the city.

If we’re putting direct subsidy into new affordable housing, the real question that every New Yorker asks, literally, when you go to any neighborhood in the city is, “Affordable to who?” When you start to try and explain Area Median Income, this versus that, and how Westchester and Nassau are included in the calculation, people stare off into space. It’s not that they don’t care, but that seems academic compared to their own experience.

If we’re building affordable housing, which we have to build, we have to talk about “Affordable to who?” Given that we have a housing crisis, given that we have a homelessness crisis, we really have to build low income affordable housing, and that’s affordable housing that’s under 40 percent of Area Median Income. That’s for really low income families. That requires a lot of city money.

Well the way they built affordable housing is the past, it was a public investment, not for developers’ profit, but because people need affordable housing. Can we get back to that model?

I think we do need to do that, but we also need to understand that the world has changed, and construction costs are significantly higher than they ever were. The rules are different than they were back then, federal housing subsidy is not there the way it was in the past. When we talk about this we have to recognize all the things that have changed since Ed Koch was able to build the most amount of affordable housing that ever existed and rebuild the Bronx after it was burning in the 1970s.

I really believe there are two things we need to do. Number one—and I’m actually feeling for the first time maybe ever, very hopeful that we’re going to have a Democratic State Senate—fix the rent laws, strengthen the rent laws, get rid of the gaping holes that exist in the rent laws, maybe re-regulate some of the apartments that were lost by getting rid of vacancy decontrol, and figuring out ways to find apartments that were illegally deregulated and put them back in the system.

Number two, when we have city property, when we’re doing RFPs, when we’re negotiating individual lot rezonings and neighborhood rezonings, we really focus on the people who need it most, and that’s low income New Yorkers, formerly homeless individuals.

Another key part of the housing plan has to be supportive housing. People who are chronically homeless, struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction, and untreated mental health problems, who, we need to get them off the streets, we need to get them out of shelter, and supportive housing needs to be a major component of that affordable housing plan as well.

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Speaker Corey Johnson in his City Hall office (Scott Heins / Gothamist)

Have you ever swiped someone in the subway who has approached you and asked you for a MetroCard swipe?

Of course. Yes. Many times.

When was the last time you rode a bicycle?

Hmm. I think it was a year ago. I’ve owned many bikes, and I’ve done the Five Boro bike ride, but my apartment is so small, it’s 319 square feet. This room [his office] is much bigger than my apartment, so I’ve never had space for a bike. We have Citi Bike, and I have a Citi Bike docking station on my block, but every morning there aren’t enough Citi Bikes because everybody uses it.

I am pro-bike, but I am pro-bike where cyclists obey the rules of the road, use the protected bike lanes, do not ride on sidewalks, do not go against traffic, are respectful of pedestrians. I am pro-bikes so long as they do that.

Since you live in such a small studio, do you have any tips for maximizing your small space? People love those tiny apartment videos.

I wish my apartment was that interesting and nice. I’m lucky because my apartment is really small, but it has 14-foot ceilings, so it feels bigger than it is. And I have a loft bed, so I sleep up in a little cubby hole, and I had stairs built up to the bed.

I’m not in my apartment that much because I work so much. I get there after 10:00 at night, and I leave my apartment in the morning, so I kinda feel like all I do in my apartment is sleep.

And I have a cat who I share my apartment with. His name is Mousse. He’s the cutest cat alive, I adopted him from a New York City shelter. I chaired the Health Committee, and I realized there was a problem that so many of the animals that were being put down were adult cats, because people go in and adopt kittens and not adult cats, so I walked into the shelter in East Harlem, and I found him.

What’s dating like as the Speaker?

I don’t date.

Why not?

Find me a husband!

You’re not on Tinder or Grindr or any of the apps?

I’m not on Grindr, or any of those hookup apps. I have OK Cupid on my phone but I never look at it. I wish I was in a relationship. I wish I had kids, you know? I’ve had my heart broken many times.

Sometimes people—and I’m not complaining because I love what I do and I love my life and I’m very grateful, and I take my life one day at a time, that’s how I stay sober, taking everything one day at a time—but sometimes the public looks at elected officials and political leaders maybe not as human beings. They look at them as tabloid figures and people they see on TV or hear on the radio or read on Gothamist.

I feel like I’ve lost the loves of my life a few times, and that’s been painful. Once you get in this position, it becomes very hard to date because I’m not able to live my life in the same way that other people my age who are single live their lives. I don’t drink, so I don’t really go out to bars. It puts limitations on my ability to meet people.

What’s the most jarring change in your life since you went from Councilmember to Speaker?

How would I describe it? I’m kind of a wear-my-heart-on-my-sleeve type of guy. I don’t feel any different. I feel like the same person, I really do. I don’t feel like, oh wow, look at me, I’m Speaker! I don’t feel that way. I feel like the same kind of grounded guy who tries to talk to my mom every day on the phone, and tries to carve out some personal time for myself each week, and tries to stay as grounded as possible, and still enjoys music and bad reality TV, and walking around New York City. I’m still that type of guy.

So what’s changed? A lot of people recognize who I am so I get stopped a lot more, and I always try and be very respectful and engaging with New Yorkers who stop me and say hello, whether they’re angry or not. I am a lot busier, I feel like I’m even busier than I was as a Councilmember. I feel like this is a big responsibility but also a big opportunity.

[Pauses]

I feel less freedom. I don’t feel as free as I did as a Councilmember, before I was a Councilmember. And that’s okay, but I have to think about everything I do. And I haven’t been on a date since I became Speaker. I haven’t been able to visit home as much to see my new one-year-old nephew since I became Speaker, I probably don’t talk to my mom as much as I did, even though I do talk to her a lot, it’s not as much. I haven’t been able to go to all my friends’ birthday parties that I want to go to. If I go, I swing by and leave. I feel like my life as changed pretty significantly.

People always come up to me and say, “How is it? How is it to be Speaker?” Here’s how I would describe it: I am exhausted, overwhelmed, and stressed. At the exact same time: grateful, loving it, excited, with the world at my feet, feeling like this is the ride of a lifetime, and I really want to do a good job and I want to help people.

I don’t say this in a woe-as-me way, because I’ve had a lot of people help me, and I’ve had some good luck. I grew up in public housing in Massachusetts, we had no fucking money. My father was a good man but he was a gambling addict and an alcoholic. My mom worked two jobs, I cleaned houses with her. I didn’t go to college, I came to New York at 19 years old, not knowing how I was going to survive here, and I fell in love with the city on my first visit.

For me to become Speaker at 35 years old, and to have an opportunity to shape public policy, and to help 22 percent of New Yorkers living in poverty, to be able to help other gay teenagers who were despondent, who are despondent and clinically depressed and suicidal like I was, to be part of hopefully a progressive government in the age of Trump, I feel so lucky. I feel so grateful. I feel so fortunate.

Even though there’s the tradeoff of not being able to have the freedom and personal life that I wish that I could have even while doing this job, I feel like these four years of my life that years that I want to look back on and hopefully I’ve made some big impact on the City of New York, in a way that’s tangible and meaningful and helps as many people as possible.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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