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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Meet Corey Johnson, who wants to have fun in perilous times

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson summarizes his

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson summarizes his approach to politics in one simple sentence: "We live in these dark perilous times. Have some goddamn fun." Photo Credit: Craig Ruttle

NYC is now approximately seven weeks into the City Council speakership of Corey Johnson. And in the seventh week, he rested.

Presidents Day was Johnson’s first day off since Thanksgiving, the middle of his campaign to head the city’s legislative body.

The job so far? It’s “harder than I thought,” Johnson, 35, told amNewYork’s editorial board on Wednesday. However, Johnson points to other parts of the work: “We live in these dark perilous times. Have some goddamn fun.”

That’s emblematic of how Johnson is settling into his role at the top of city government, with a personal and political style different from that of some of his predecessors and colleagues at City Hall.

Johnson’s election as speaker in November was the culmination of a swift rise through the ranks of NYC government that started when he arrived in New York at 19 to intern on a political campaign. That was after he drew national attention as a high school football player who came out as gay. He has been similarly open in recent years about being HIV positive and his past struggles with substance abuse (he says he has been sober for nearly 9 years).

During his campaign for speaker, he pitched himself as independent from Mayor Bill de Blasio, a winning argument in a council always eager to flex its muscle.

Since then, he carefully supported the mayor on a number of issues, but broke decisively with de Blasio on Wednesday over funding emergency subway repairs. Johnson is “very, very open” to the city pitching in on a one-time payment requested by the MTA.

De Blasio has consistently suggested other ideas for funding, and also said the state should pay the full bill because it controls the MTA.

Johnson’s distinction here might be an insight into his approach to government: He says he understands the “intellectual, academic” argument about the state’s responsibility for the MTA, but “in the end, we’re in a crisis.”

His thinking is that the subway needs the money and perhaps NYC can get something from making the offer, particularly now that Albany is in the give-and-take of budget season combined with looming federal funding cuts.

Johnson appears to be happy to carry out the glad-handing in Albany that has at times eluded de Blasio. Johnson says he has Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie “on speed dial” and spent 90 minutes one-on-one in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office earlier this month. He and Cuomo have been talking “a lot,” Johnson says. Meanwhile, de Blasio and Cuomo take shots at each other.

Evidence of Johnson’s political sensibility were on display during his campaign for speaker, when he put together a coalition of support from council members partially by courting county party leaders such as Rep. Joe Crowley in Queens. Crowley took the time to watch Johnson win the vote from the Council chamber balcony.

Johnson’s strategy was different from Melissa Mark-Viverito’s path to speaker in 2013, when support from de Blasio and Brooklyn progressives helped outweigh the traditional power of often-transactional county parties. That route set up Mark-Viverito to pursue a progressive agenda of her choosing.

Johnson says it’s “un-nuanced” to assume that he got his position thanks to party leaders alone. But his path to victory and relationship-building in Albany since then at least indicate a practical streak.

“I just want to get stuff done,” Johnson says. Among his priorities: attacking poverty in NYC by stabilizing key social safety net institutions such as the city hospital and university system, the subways and the New York City Housing Authority, about which the Council held a withering oversight hearing this month.

Johnson added another goal: “I am going to have fun,” Johnson said. “I’m gonna dance the night away when I want to.”

Johnson, who like de Blasio grew up in Massachusetts, says he’ll be a “cheerleader for New York City.”

He promises visits to Gravesend for pizza and other spots in the five boroughs to enjoy the theater, food, and museums of New York — trips which may serve him well when he’s running for a new job in 2021.

Such a run is a near certainty. He’s currently term-limited, and 35. And he wants to keep working in government.

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