Jonathan Tasini Carries a Democratic Torch Against Gillibrand

Rebel in a pinstriped suit

Jonathan Tasini Carries a Democratic Torch Against Gillibrand
Johanna Goodman

One by one, those who thought they could do a better job in the U.S. Senate than Kirsten Gillibrand have dropped by the wayside. First, there were several veteran Congress members who felt they were entitled to a crack at this crown and planned to run to Gillibrand's left. These tents quickly folded amid strong gusts from White House and Democratic party powers who want Gillibrand smoothly anointed.

Then there were the snazzy imports from the right: Harold Ford Jr., from Wall Street by way of Memphis; Mort Zuckerman, real estate and publishing billionaire. Not worth it, both decided. A TV pundit, Dan Senor, a former Bush aide who once assured America that all was well in post-invasion Iraq, considered it. He also took a pass.

There are three Republicans still insisting they will give this unelected senator, hand-picked by an unelected governor, a run for her money: There is an ex-congressman from Yonkers, an ex-aide to Ronald Reagan, and an ex-husband of Paul McCartney's current girlfriend. None of them have the incumbent senator quaking in fear.

All is now quiet on the Democratic front for Gillibrand. Quiet, that is, if you don't count a relentless radical in a pinstriped suit and wire-rimmed glasses named Jonathan Tasini who brings a strong dissenting voice on everything from the economy to the Middle East. Tasini, 53, is a former union organizer who is waging a fiercely serious, if longest-of-long-shots, campaign for the nomination: "If I can get into the primary, I can win," he insisted last week. "She is weak and has no principles. She was for the National Rifle Association, now she is against it; against immigrants, now for them. I think if Kirsten Gillibrand is the nominee, we lose the Senate seat."

This is the kind of fighting spirit you like to hear, particularly from candidates who find themselves stuck in neutral thanks to the rigged dynamic of political campaigning: You cannot run without real money, which you can't raise until you get noticed. You cannot get noticed until you raise real money. The balance sheet so far: Tasini, $100,000; Gillibrand, $5 million.

This underdog, however, is a greyhound. He is used to traveling second-class, and it does not slow him down. In 2006, he ran against Hillary Clinton because he believed that someone had to say out loud what every Democrat knew to be a fact: that Clinton behaved disgracefully when faced with the invasion of Iraq. She went quietly along with the plunge into an immoral war based on faulty information, never asking tough questions of the warmongers.

We can do better, said Tasini. His slogan then was "Vote for what you believe in." He borrowed the phrase from his hero, the late Paul Wellstone, the fiery Minnesota senator who came out of nowhere in 1990 to topple a veteran Republican incumbent who outspent him 7-1.

Lacking money for a campaign bus, Tasini did his statewide tour by bicycle. He pedaled 600 miles, from Manhattan to Buffalo. He billed it as a "Ride for Peace," holding rallies along the way. He drew 17 percent in the Democratic primary that year. Who knows how many more votes he might have pulled had Clinton been willing to debate him, which, of course, she did not dare.

He is back running again for that same seat, now held by Clinton's minor-league replacement. He is the last progressive left standing of those who said Gillibrand's go-along and get-along brand of politics deserved challenge. Gillibrand goes into this race with positions softer than putty. Before her government jobs, she spent years as a lawyer vigorously defending cigarette companies against charges that they were selling cancer. She has never apologized for this, and it has the makings of devastating campaign ads. Since Republicans tend to be allied with cancer merchants, they are unlikely to air them. Tasini would. If he can raise the money.

His slogan this time around speaks to impatient Obama supporters: "Change can't wait." He has even written a book, the way serious candidates are supposed to do, which offers his take on the price that average Americans have paid for decades of Wall Street control. It, too, ratchets up the Obama doctrine: The Audacity of Greed, he titled it.

He campaigns the modern way, blasting away in video broadsides posted on his website (jonathantasini.com). He also works retail in the tradition of hardy salesmen, trudging from meeting to meeting with anyone willing to listen. Last week, he wore his business suit to an evening get-together of Downtown Independent Democrats, the Lower Manhattan political club that often goes its own way on party strategy.

The last time he was there, the club endorsed him against Clinton. "You had a lot of courage to do the right thing, even though you knew we wouldn't win. I am very grateful," he said. "Now I am asking you to do it again." He then launched into his stump speech, a populist rap that hits the mostly low notes of recent economic history. "The number one problem in this country is how we share the wealth, and what our priorities are," he told the room. "We need an equitable society, in which the rules ask the following question: How do we do better for the people?"

His radicalism sometimes carries him a bridge too far. Asked about the landmark health care bill, he responded: "I would have voted against it. It's just a way to enrich insurance companies." This must be why they spent tens of millions fighting to kill the measure.

But he brings unquestioned credibility when he talks about the Middle East, the kind that neither Gillibrand nor her mentor, Senator Charles Schumer, can ever muster, no matter how much they flail away on the subject. Tasini lived in Israel for seven years in the 1970s. He speaks fluent Hebrew. Much of his family still lives there, near the West Bank. His mother survived the holocaust in Poland; his father fought in the underground Haganah army to create a Jewish homeland. A cousin, a close friend, was killed in the 1973 war. As a young medical orderly, Tasini tended to victims of deadly Palestinian terror attacks.

It is time, he says, for the killing to stop: "Half my family lives there, so there can be no doubt when I am arguing this that I am concerned for their safety and well-being," he says. "Continued warfare and occupation is endangering Israel's security, not helping it. The longer it continues, the more people will die." The blockade of 1.5 million in Gaza, he says, "is a humanitarian crisis that violates international law. Children there were killed by planes and rockets. I don't care what you say—that was a disproportionate amount of force. What Israel is doing is not good for Israel."

Such talk is generally fatal to local political ambitions. Tasini calls it "the third rail of New York politics." He learned this the hard way when he caught heavy flak in 2006 after criticizing Israeli tactics. Then-Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson dubbed him "outrageous, offensive, and beyond the pale."

Last week, Tasini posted a new video on his website in response to Israel's decision to build 1,600 new housing units in East Jerusalem. "It does one thing and one thing only," he said. "It pushes the prospects of peace further into the future, which nobody can afford." He then did the kind of thing that mature political figures do when the occasion arises: He praised the presidential appointee who has spoken against the Israeli expansion policy, a Secretary of State named Clinton.

trobbins@villagevoice.com

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