A mysterious person in a hippopotamus costume helped Mayor London Breed get elected last year by calling her opponents “hungry, hungry super PAC hippocrites.”
It didn’t matter far more money was spent on Breed’s behalf than any other candidate. The hippo in a pink tutu was ubiquitous, defining a narrative that was catnip for social media.
“Never underestimate the power of street theater and comedy in politics,” said Conor Johnston, Breed’s former chief of staff.
Many thought Johnston was the hippo, given his starring role as the Styrofoam Monster in a humorous online video that touted Breed’s environmental record when she ran for re-election as Supervisor.
“I have met the hippo,” he said. “No one man can be the hippo.”
The Mayor’s “Guard Dog”
Who is the man that is one of Breed’s closest confidants?
SF Weekly noted Johnston “became known for his angry text messages and outbursts at community meetings.” In 2018, he was named the “Biggest Mayoral Race Troll” for his “daily rage-filled Facebook comments” and “furious responses to voters on Twitter” in his role as Breed’s “guard dog.”
“I was defending my friend and I don’t apologize for that,” Johnston said. “I would crawl through broken glass to bite an alligator for her.”
Johnston is certainly a fighter. When I went against his position once at the Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club, he texted me a screenshot of the horse head scene from The Godfather.
Johnston has a purple belt in Brazilian Jujitsu, which he credits for being able to survive San Francisco politics.
“Guys way bigger than me are trying to choke me unconscious on the Jujitsu mat,” he said. “After that, nothing seemed intimidating when I put on a suit and walked into City Hall.”
Path to City Hall
Behind-the-scenes political power is a family affair. Conor’s father was a City department head when Gavin Newsom was mayor. Conor’s cousin, P. J. Johnston, served as the press secretary for Mayor Willie Brown and currently runs an influential communications firm.
Yet Conor Johnston, 37, stumbled into local politics his own way. He grew up in Mill Valley, went to St. Ignatius college prep in the Sunset and attended UCLA. He returned to San Francisco in 2004 and worked at a couple failed start-ups.
Then in 2009, he found a calling to save the century-old Bay to Breakers foot race. Legendary antics like Tiki bars on wheels and naked runners were in jeopardy when a new owner wanted to sober up the event.
Johnston and the 15,000 people who joined his Facebook group won the day. While the run was eventually tamed, it remains more fun than the version Johnston fought against.
Johnston met Breed in 2012 when she first ran for Supervisor as a rebel candidate. The moderate establishment Breed now leads had initially passed her over in favor of someone else.
“I didn’t think she had a chance of winning, but I liked her,” Johnston said.
He put his all into Breed’s underdog race and became her legislative aide when she won. They passed CleanPowerSF, fixed an ambulance shortage, started the push for safe injection sites, and fought for new construction at all price points to address the housing crisis.
Johnston was president of his college fraternity and later became an extreme sports enthusiast. He ran with the bulls in Spain, swam with sharks in Australia and bungee jumped 764 feet off a tower in Macau.
The stunts are memorialized in Facebook videos with titles like “Europalooza” that feature fast cuts of high-fiving bros. Yet Johnston’s scenes have panache. He wore a sequined Elvis outfit when taking the leap in Macau. He also donned a top hat and recited the Gettysburg Address in Canada while wearing a beard of 50,000 bees.
The added flair was a hint to Johnson’s secret. He is a gay man in San Francisco who didn’t come out publicly until 2014 at age 32.
“I probably confounded a lot of gay stereotypes,” he said. “For a long time, I wasn’t sure about, or didn’t want to face, my own sexuality.”
Johnston described growing up in a homophobic Bay Area of the 1990s. “Gay” was a word constantly used by his classmates to denote anything negative, and he internalized it.
“I was terrible at sports and frequently laughed at as a kid,” he said.
At 28, Johnston tired of repressing his sexuality and met his first boyfriend online.
They lasted four years on the down-low — in more ways than one. The politically moderate Johnston was dating a firebrand progressive.
Like many gay men who didn’t get to experience their first loves and break-ups as teenagers, Johnston faced delayed adolescence while having to function as an adult.
“I was in my 30s, but emotionally 16,” he said. “I got way too upset about the fact a go-go boy wouldn’t text me back.”
Johnston also put a lot of effort into his Instagram-famous abs. He began showing them off every June in short shorts on Breed’s Pride parade float.
“I don’t quit”
A few days before last year’s Pride celebration, I met Johnston at a bar to talk politics. Deep into a month of calorie restriction to prepare his abs for public display, he was hungry. We walked to the nearby Safeway, where he bought a box of fruit popsicles — an allowed form of sustenance.
His determination was impressive, even if chasing perfectly chiseled abs will eventually become an impossible goal.
“I already have people telling me I’m too old to be doing this at almost 40,” Johnston said. “Maybe I’ll just spray the abs on.”
No longer in City Hall, Johnston is seeking fortune in the cannabis industry. He divides his time between San Francisco and San Diego, where his boyfriend Jeffrey is a doctor in an anesthesiology residency program.
He still craves attention and action, which is why he agreed to be on the CBS reality show Million Dollar Mile this past summer. Contestants run a brutal obstacle course against elite athletes.
Johnston’s opponent — who was 15 years younger — breezed past as Johnston struggled to rope climb a tall building.
The sight of Johnston’s legs flailing on national television might have given his local critics a feeling of schadenfreude. But they would be mistaken to think Johnston had failed just because he didn’t win the million-dollar prize.
What I saw was both a performance and a metaphor that ended with him on top of the wall. Through all grit and no grace, he made it.
“Call it stubbornness, but I don’t quit,” he said. “It’s a good attitude to have in politics. And I’ll be back.”