On Thursday, City Council Speaker Corey Johnson announced that he would not be running for mayor next year. Johnson was by far the most recognizable candidate in the 2021 race, though his decision was not entirely unexpected given that he had been keeping a lower profile in recent months. In a statement, Johnson explained he had been grappling with depression, and wanted to focus on his final year as speaker, but he kept the door open for future runs for higher office.
We spoke with Johnson over the phone about his decision on Thursday afternoon.
When did you ultimately make the decision to not run?
It's been a process. I've gone back and forth and I wanted to make sure that I was making the right decision. So I ultimately decided, really last night was when I made kind of the final, final decision. Since the summer when I had sort of rested and relaxed, and spent time with family and my boyfriend, and was focusing on how to get better from this depression that I've been going through since about May, I realized that I needed to focus on getting better and also on the job that I have right now. And the thought of trying to launch a citywide campaign while doing those two things wasn't something that was likely good for me.
For me, it's probably one of the most consequential decisions I'll make in my life about my future. And so it wasn't like a black and white thing. It wasn't an immediate revelation. It was something that I thought of and I needed time to feel comfort in that decision, and I needed to speak to people who I trust and who I love and who I know love me and want what's best for me. I went back and forth because I love the city so much. And I don't think there's really a more impactful job as it relates to public policy, both in this city and across the country, as being mayor of the city of New York. But I also think it's important to realize that it may not be your time, and there needs to be a level of maturity that goes with making that decision.
Was part of it that you just didn't see a path forward?
No, it wasn't a political decision. It was that I couldn't balance focusing on being speaker for the next fifteen months, taking care of my health, and running the full-throttled citywide campaign for the next nine months. I couldn't do all three of those things. And so the thing that needed to come off that list was a campaign because I signed up for being speaker. I have to focus on my health and my relationship and my family.
How hard was it for you to decide that you needed to get help?
It was hard, because for me, depression has not been a linear thing. And you know, I would question it myself, like, am I overreacting? Or, can I just kind of self-motivate and feel better? And my therapist, you know, is very clear about what I was going through and the toll and effect that it was having on me. And I'm not looking for people's sympathy at all. But part of what was hard was, I started to feel this way in May. And then for the whole month of June, I worked seven days a week on the budget. I didn't take a single day off. I didn't really have time to, when I was initially feeling this way, to be able to step back and focus on it. After the budget was completed and I got into July, I really started to understand, you know, what I had been grappling with and how I needed to spend time to focus on myself and try to dig out a little bit.
How much did those really tense budget negotiations, particularly the fight over police funding, factor into your decision?
That's not why I decided not to run for mayor. I honestly believe that for the remaining candidates who are running, it's going to be a long campaign with lots of ups and downs. And everything that's happened in the city and in this country the last four years, a lot of people probably couldn't have predicted. So I don't think that one budget would have determined the trajectory of a campaign.
But also, I needed to just focus on getting well. And I've been able to actually do that the last few months. I'm in therapy. I take medicine. I have spent time with my mom and with my boyfriend and with friends, and it helped me. But I want to be able to speak openly and also to not have shame about it. I've always tried to be open and candid whether it was coming out at 16 years old, being the only openly HIV positive elected official in the state of New York, or talking about my sobriety of eleven plus years, or talking about the struggles of being single when I was single and now talking about this challenge. I've really just tried to always be human and to show that elected officials are just like everyday people with our dreams and aspirations, but also with the struggles that we have.
What do you want the rest of your term to look like?
I really want to focus on how to continue to help New Yorkers recover, and especially for marginalized and vulnerable communities, communities that have been the hardest hit by COVID-19, communities that have suffered from generations of racial injustice and systemic racism. I want to focus on how we can be a more just and equitable city when it comes to education and health and mass transit. I want to make sure that those issues and the communities that have suffered the most are centered in this conversation about how we recover.
I think it's fair to say one of the qualities that has defined your public persona has been your optimism and your boosterism of New York City. How does that part of your persona carry forward and what other avenues of public service do you see yourself in?
I haven't really thought about that yet on what's next for me, I'm just again, focused on getting better myself and also on leading the council through this trying time. But my advice, not just for the candidates running for mayor, but for elected officials and candidates who may not be in office yet is to just be yourself. Be candid. You know, you're only as sick as your secrets. And I've tried to live my life in an open way and try to even through some dark times, try to share some optimism and light. So I hope that people remember me for being that way.
And I'm not going anywhere. I hope to remain in public life in one way or another. I love this city more than anything. I moved here at 19 years old on a wing and a prayer. And I didn't know anyone. At 35, I became Speaker of the City Council. I want our city to continue to be a place where a 19-year-old from a small town can move to and can live out their dreams. And I'm going to continue to hopefully be part of the discourse in the city, not from the perch of mayor, but hopefully in other ways. I just don't know what that looks like yet.
Do you feel that the candidates who are out there right now offer New Yorkers a choice of the right types of experiences to help lead the city?
Yeah, I really think that there is a good set of candidates that are out there. And I think the campaign is really going to be about what are their ideas and what's their vision for leading New York City. One of the most difficult periods we've gone through in over a century. The campaign will test that: their vision, their values, the coalition they're able to bring together. And, you know, I look forward to seeing what those are and helping whoever the next mayor is to be as successful as possible.
Have you talked to any of them or have you heard from any of them since your statement came out?
They've all reached out to me today. I've heard from everyone who's running today. I better wait for the doorbell because there might be chocolates or roses that are on the way [laughs].
But, you know, I'll find time to speak with them. I haven't I haven't been able to actually reach out to everyone who's reached out to me. The outpouring has been really wonderful and moving, especially people who have been struggling with depression themselves and who have had a hard time speaking about it. I've been getting a lot of Twitter DM's from people I don't even know, thanking me for speaking about this in an open and honest way. And that was part of my hope. Part of my hope is that it will provide some sense of relief for me to be able to speak about this openly because I've been struggling with it and hiding it from all sorts of people. And I was hoping that it would also provide some sense of relief and open a door for many New Yorkers that may be struggling to talk about this or get the help that they need. I've gotten the help that I've needed over the last few months, and it has made a world of difference for me.
I take it that if they're still sending you flowers and chocolates, that you haven't openly decided to endorse any candidate yet.
No, no, I haven't made a commitment to anyone. I haven't had the chance to sit down and talk with all of the candidates that will happen in the weeks and months to come. But it's not my focus right now.
Is there anything else that you think is important for people to understand about how this experience manifested for you?
I would just say that depression is tricky and it's insidious and it plays games. It makes you question, are you actually going through something that makes you doubt if you're actually entitled to have some of the difficult, painful feelings that you're going through. And it's not easy for any of us to really sort that out by ourselves, which is why it's really critical for me to speak to professionals to help me through this process. That plus a loving boyfriend, and especially my mother, who is really, I don’t want to get emotional, but she's really been my rock throughout all of this more than anyone else.
There's a protest planned for outside your home tonight with people who are talking about defunding the NYPD and say that you've retaliated against member council members. I just want to give you a chance to respond to that.
I haven't retaliated against anyone. I've led the most open and fair and Democratic Council that I think the Council's ever seen. If you talk to the people that ran against me for Speaker, if you talk about the folks that supported other candidates for speaker, they'll tell you that the last three years they have been treated with respect and fairness and I'm actually really proud of that because that's the type of person that I am.
This interview has been edited and condensed.