Johnson — a Manhattan Democrat who is gay and HIV positive — was chosen in a 48-1 vote. Councilwoman Inez Barron, who mounted her own last-minute bid for speaker to protest the lack of black candidates, was the lone no vote.
The new leader is expected to pose a challenge to Mayor de Blasio — saying he won’t hesitate to push through bills over the mayor’s veto, which never happened under his predecessor — although their progressive ideological views largely align. He takes over from Melissa Mark-Viverito, who left the job because of term limits.
The Massachusetts native, 35, recalled moving to New York at age 19, with two bags and no idea where he was going to live.
“I want New York to be a place where you can still be 19 years old and come here and still survive. And it’s becoming more and more difficult if you don’t come from a wealthy family to be able to do that,” he said.
“It should be a place where you can come as a young person and stay here and go to school and get a good job.”
Johnson worked aggressively to shore up support in what had once been a wide-open field of eight candidates. He was all but assured of the job after he got the blessing of the Queens and Bronx Democratic parties, particularly Queens boss Joe Crowley, who reclaimed his traditional role as Council kingmaker four years after being shut out when Mark-Viverito was selected for the job.
Many of his first seven rivals quickly dropped out, though Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-Brooklyn) did not concede before Wednesday, and his last opponent, Barron (D-Brooklyn), mounted her challenge late last month.
Johnson stressed he will be “independent” of the mayor — and unlike de Blasio, supports congestion pricing, as well as giving more city money to the MTA if there are assurances on how it will be spent. He also said there’s little appetite on the Council to revive Hizzoner’s push to ban horse carriages.
“I’m fine with overriding vetoes,” he told reporters after the vote. “I’m more than willing to do that.”
The biggest controversy over Johnson’s selection centered around race, with some Council members and civil rights groups objecting to giving the job to a white man. Three of the four citywide officials are now white and male.
“Black, Latino and Asians are the majority in this city, yet we have never, ever had a black speaker,” Barron said on the steps of City Hall Wednesday, before nominating herself for the job. “It’s our turn now.”
Barron blasted it as “unconscionable” that the Democratic Party in 2018 would “conspire” to block a black candidate from capturing the job. But while several members applauded her bid, she did not garner any votes from the 51-member Council besides her own.
Another black candidate for the post, Brooklyn Councilman Robert Cornegy, stayed in the race for more than a week after the deal to anoint Johnson. Cornegy objected to the selection of a white candidate, but he eventually offered his support — and seconded Johnson’s nomination Wednesday.
“The black community is the base of the Democratic Party. And we were given short shrift,” said the Rev. Jacques Andre DeGraff, associate pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church, who backed Cornegy.
Johnson said he understood the racial concerns, and would make sure leadership and powerful committee posts go to a diverse group of pols.
“I am never going to compare my experience to that of a person of color in New York City,” he said. “When I walk into a Duane Reade, I don’t get followed around by someone because they think I’m going to shoplift.”
Johnson, who has spoken openly about his past struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, has chaired the health committee for the last four years, and represents Chelsea, the Village and Hell’s Kitchen.
The future speaker first made headlines while still in high school, when he came out as gay while co-captain of his football team.
With his mother, Ann, looking on Wednesday, he said he was “suicidal, despondent, and I didn’t want to live” when he first told her he was gay.
Then he had to tell his 82-year old, Mass-attending Irish Catholic grandfather.
“He said, ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, I thought you were going to tell me you were a Republican. You can be gay, but you have to be a Democrat,” he recalled his grandfather saying.
Besides supporting congestion pricing to raise money for the crumbling subway, Johnson — who has never owned a car, but will get a car and driver with the post — said he’ll continue to ride the trains regularly as speaker.
“I actually like the subway when it works,” he said. “It’s good people watching.”