NEW YORK CITY — Corey Johnson, a longtime LGBT rights activist, won the chance to represent traditionally gay Manhattan neighborhoods with a wide Democratic primary victory Tuesday, filling the seat vacated by City Council speaker and failed mayoral candidate Christine Quinn.
Johnson, 31, first drew public attention when, as a 16-year old high school football star in Massachusetts in 1999, he came out as gay. He received almost 63% of the vote Tuesday. His opponent, Yetta Kurland, 45, a civil rights lawyer, campaigned on many of the same issues as Johnson, but fell short in the district that includes the traditionally gay strongholds of Greenwich Village and Chelsea.
Johnson ran — like Bill de Blasio, who came in first in the mayoral primary, and not Quinn, who came in third — on a broad set of progressive issues around inequality and the role of government in a city at the close of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's third term. Johnson, despite running against another out LGBT candidate, overwhelmingly won his race, while Quinn, according to exit polls didn't even carry a majority of the LGBT vote despite being the only out LGBT candidate in the race.
Johnson will face Republican Richard Stewart in the overwhelmingly Democratic-leaning district in the general election. A Democrat has represented the district since its creation in 1966.
"We need to make sure that all people can prosper and survive here because that is the heart and soul of New York City — seniors, actors, artists, teachers, small business owners, black, white, Latino, gay, straight, young, old — those are the ones who I want to represent in the council," said Johnson, who is chairman of the local community board. "We have to make sure there is a real social safety net and people can actually live and survive here."
Johnson's campaign heavily focused on protecting the middle class and a growing "affordability crisis" for residents who simply cannot afford to live in the neighborhood due to higher rent and more expensive groceries, his campaign manager, RJ Jordan, said.
Johnson said poverty and homelessness have risen to historic highs not because people aren't working hard enough, but because costs keep going up while wages are stagnant. He also campaigned hard on more local issues, and Tuesday promised to host affordable housing clinics and to fight to bring a hospital back to the Lower West Side after the closure of St. Vincent's Hospital Manhattan in 2010.
And Johnson ran a massive field operation in the district, with hundreds of canvassers reaching out to voters in the final days of the campaign. Among them was Johnson's mother, Ann Richardson, who made 2,500 calls from Massachusetts.
"Corey has worked for this since the day he came out to me," Richardson told BuzzFeed. "I am just happy that Corey will be happy and will be doing what he loves to do. New York is lucky to have him."
On Election Day, Johnson made several stops throughout the neighborhood to meet voters, appearing alongside his mother, TV personality Tim Gunn, and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a longtime friend who attended the victory celebration.
"It was clear in the first 15 minutes of passing out fliers that he was going to win," Black said. "People kept taking the fliers and about a third of the people stopped and said 'I voted for him.'"
"He was one of the few people I knew who had a vision for a more equal world," Black said in an interview. "He also had a vision to become a New York City councilman for the 3rd District. How many kids grow up dreaming of becoming city councilman of District 3 and actually get to? This one. He had this goal in mind for quite some time and he did the hard work and he achieved."
In his victory speech, Johnson thanked supporters including New York Sen. Thomas Duane, an openly gay man who represented the 3rd District on City Council from 1992–1999 and came out as one of Johnson's first major political endorsements.
"It's where I come from and who I am," Johnson said in an interview after the speech. "The people that have inspired me have been Tom Duane, and Harvey Milk, and Barney Frank, and Tammy Baldwin and all of these incredible people who are trailblazers. It's only possible for a 31-year-old guy like me to win a seat on the New York City Council because of all of the people who came before me."
CORRECTION: Johnson faces Republican Richard Stewart in the general election. An earlier version of this item misstated this information. (9/11/13)