A few hours before the Rent Guidelines Board’s major public hearing on June 17, out on the plaza at Cooper Union, a landlord and a tenant activist had just traded curses. One renter wrapped up a speech in Mandarin about the ever-higher rent she’s paying, then another tenant delivered a similar salvo in Spanish. The crowd was chanting “Rent freeze now! Rent freeze now!” And City Councilman Tony Avella of Queens was explaining to a man in the audience why he wasn’t getting more Council support for his proposal to halt any hike in stabilized rents in New York. “He’s told everybody, ‘Don’t help Avella,'” he said. “Bill Thompson has. Because he’s afraid of me.”
Though he may have won the support of some tenant activists, it’s not clear that Avella – who’s running for mayor on a shoestring budget and trailing in the polls – is all that fearsome to Comptroller Thompson, the presumptive frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. (Thompson’s campaign wouldn’t say.) But Avella could yet be a factor in the 2009 New York City mayoral race. Avella’s volunteers are circulating petitions to get him on the ballot and force a Democratic primary on Sept. 15. He will likely meet the funding and polling qualifications to participate in televised debates against Thompson. And he’s getting the backing of a few political clubs and civic organizations. At the very least, Avella could make this year’s campaign—generally portrayed as a token contest along the way to thumping by Mayor Michael Bloomberg—a little less drowsy.
So could the Green Party candidate for mayor, the activist performance artist Rev. Billy Talen, who leads his own Church of Life After Shopping. While the Greens usually mount a mayoral campaign that attracts but a hint of voter support, they’ve never had a candidate armed with a blonde bouffant, a gospel choir, and the supposed power to exorcise demons from Starbucks shops, Wal-Marts and even personal credit cards.
On paper, neither candidate has a chance. The most recent survey of city voters, conducted by Quinnipiac University, finds that among Democratic primary voters, Thompson earns 36 percent to Avella’s 8 percent (with the majority saying “don’t know”). In a separate question about the general election, Talen didn’t even get a mention by the pollsters, who found only 1 percent of respondents saying they were looking to vote for “someone else” other than Bloomberg or Thompson come November. As Thompson has spent $1.8 million to date trying to stay afloat amid Bloomberg’s more than $18.6 million in campaign outlays, Avella has mustered a mere $117,000 outlay and Talen has spent only $33,000.
But while Avella and Talen lack name recognition and money, they both have one advantage over the mayor and comptroller. If there has been an undercurrent of dissent and dissatisfaction during the Bloomberg years, it’s been about the city’s support for real estate developers over neighborhood opposition, and centralized decision-making over community control. And on street corners and in public hearings, the councilman and the preacher have been among the most visible faces of that discontent. If there’s a rationale for ousting the popular two-term mayor this fall, Avella and Talen have spent most of this decade articulating it.
Avella’s campaign slogan is “The Revolution has begun!” Talen raises his hand to the heavens and prays for “Change-alluiah!” And they both really mean it.
Not playing nicely
Avella is not modest about what he sees as his role in the 2009 race: The man with the guts to speak truth to power. “It’s a fight every day to do the right thing in this city. I’m doing this because somebody has to do it. Somebody has to stand up,” he says.
And beyond taking a stand, someone has to enact a new agenda. That’s why he’s running: “If you want to make real change, you’ve got to be the mayor.”
“I’m not a political person. I hate politics,” he adds. Yet the Queens native has spent most of his life in politics. After graduating from Hunter College with a B.A. in political science in 1974, Avella wanted a city job but there were none to be found, so he took a gig running a warehouse for a soda company. Two years later he signed on with then-Council Majority Leader Peter Vallone as a part-time staffer, and quickly moved to Mayor Ed Koch’s community affairs operation. He stayed there into the Dinkins administration until 1991, then served as chief of staff to the late State Senator Leonard Stavisky and his wife and successor, Toby Ann Stavisky, and became a leader of several neighborhood groups, like the Preservation Alliance of Northeast Queens and the North Shore Anti-Graffiti Volunteers.
He first sought election to the City Council in 1991 and lost. He ran and lost again in 1993. In 2001, he finally prevailed—winning with 29 percent in a five-candidate primary and eking out a 415-vote margin in the general election. In that race, for a district comprising Bayside, College Point, Auburndale, Beechhurst, Whitestone, Bay Terrace, Robinwood and parts of Flushing, Douglaston and Little Neck, Avella was the choice of the Democratic establishment. But it was not a title he held for long. Avella’s tenure in the Council has been a long wrestling match with the power structure.
In 2003, Avella bucked then-Speaker Gifford Miller and opposed the mayor’s 18 percent property sales tax; he was punished by losing a committee assignment. During the first three years of the current term, Avella voted “no” in the Council 119 times – second only to Brooklyn firebrand Charles Barron. He and Manhattan’s Melissa Mark-Viverito are the only members whose salaries remain at $90,000, having refused the 2006 pay hike taking Council salaries to $112,500. Avella is the only member who refuses a stipend for committee leadership; he would receive $8,000 for running the zoning subcommittee. He boasts perfect attendance at Council hearings and meetings. When the Council’s leadership balked at a proposal to ceremonially rename a street after the polarizing 1960s black activist Sonny Carson, Avella backed the renaming—it was, he said, an issue of community control.
His independent streak manifests in many ways: Despite representing a largely suburban and fairly conservative district and being a member of the Knights of Columbus, a conservative Catholic fraternity, Avella supports abortion rights and the right of gays and lesbians to marry.
But on the Council, his independence has sometimes taken the form of frustrating his colleagues. In opposing the 2002 property tax hike, Avella broke Council etiquette by going into other members’ districts to denounce their support of the increase—infuriating Council leaders who felt Avella had proposed no realistic alternative for closing the massive post-Sept. 11 budget gap. (Avella says he’d called for a mix of measures, including legalizing and taxing sports gambling.) When Avella opposed the recent rezoning of 125th Street in Harlem—which local council members supported—his colleagues paid him back by voting to block a noncontroversial zoning change that Avella supported in his own neighborhood.
Sometimes it sounds like he feels he’s only honest man in government. “I’m not the only one, but I’m the most vocal,” says Avella, who is 57 and married to Judith Cashman. “There are some who tell me off the record that they wish they could be as open as I am. There are some who don’t like that I am truthful, and I embarrass some of them.” None have endorsed him, and even fellow Council rebels Barron and Letitia James would not comment on Avella’s race.
Avella’s transformation from political operative and establishment candidate to Council rebel has puzzled some observers, who see some of his stances as counterproductive. “The moment he had to work with his colleagues, he all of a sudden resented them. He turned on folks who helped him,” says one lobbyist. “He’s impossible to deal with.” Another councilman’s aide says Avella’s outsider status has become an obstacle to his getting legislation passed. “With the speaker’s office, he’s persona non grata. He’s toxic. Nothing he sponsors ever becomes legislation,” the aide says. “He has so not played ball.” Avella has complained for years that the Council’s centralized legislative offices fail to even draft his bills. Of the nine bills he authored that did make it into draft form in 2008, only one received the necessary step of a committee hearing. None came close to a vote.
But as much as the political class dislikes Avella, a sprawling network of community activists seems to like him very much. At a recent press conference on the steps of City Hall devoted to accusations of rent gouging by commercial landlords, Steve Barrison from the Small Business Congress mocked the Bloomberg campaign ads that depict the mayor as a friend to small businesses. “When you see those ads, remember: not helping small business – screwing small business!” he yelled. “And Tony Avella is absolutely right to bring it up.”
Brooklyn neighborhood activist Philip DePaolo is another backer. “Tony has done a really good job in the past seven years of getting his name out to neighborhoods,” DePaolo says. On a recent visit to 125th Street with other rezoning opponents, he said, “Everybody up in Harlem was talking about Tony. They weren’t talking about Bill Thompson. This is word of mouth among the community.”
Avella can point to some accomplishments on the Council despite his lack of popularity there. In 2005, the mayor signed Avella’s “Demolition by Neglect” bill that empowers the Landmarks Preservation Commission to prevent owners of historic properties from letting them fall into disrepair. He also pushed through a tightening of zoning rules affecting community facilities like churches and medical offices, whose size has rankled residents in some neighborhoods. Paul Graziano, a Queens-based planner and preservationist who is supporting Avella, says he has actually been effective as chairman of the zoning subcommittee in getting many downzonings through Council. “He knows how to compromise. He also knows when not to compromise,” Graziano says.
Avella’s mayoral platform includes a call for better police and firefighter salaries, more manpower in precincts and firehouses, and an end to “teaching to the test” in city schools. He says property tax increases ought to be avoided in favor of other revenue-generating policies, like forcing “vandals who damage city property to foot the bill,” and he promises that “he will finally reduce the enormous tax burden that we all face.” A passionate animal rights supporter—one of only four Council members to earn a 100 percent rating this year from the New York Council of Humane Voters—his platform also mentions his call for a ban on horse carriages and for a new law to clarify the rights of pet owners (so they’re able to replace a deceased pet in the face of a hostile landlord, for example).
But opposing “overdevelopment” and community preservation are the real heart of Avella’s platform. When he announced his candidacy in March 2008, Avella said, “Overdevelopment is destroying the residential character of every single community in every single borough and that must stop.” Avella wants New York to adopt a community approval process like the one used in Seattle, where neighborhoods more substantively influence zoning and development decisions. Avella rejects the idea that he is merely the NIMBY candidate. “Obviously there are citywide needs that have to play into the process,” he says.
Preaching to the converted
In his recent movie “What Would Jesus Buy?” the Rev. Billy Talen gets arrested at Disneyland, baptizes a baby in a Staples parking lot, and manages to preach his gospel of “stop shopping” at the Mall of America. Somewhere along the way, his wife and manager Savitri D confesses: “I feel a need for what we do to have some impact on someone, soon.”
After all, it’s been 10 years since Talen, a performance artist who moved back to the city from San Francisco, adopted the character of Rev. Billy, an old-time preacher favoring white or azure suits and trumpeting an anti-corporate message. With his trademark refrain, “amen hallelujah,” and his warnings about the coming “shopocalypse,” Talen has been a figure in some of the city’s big battles of recent years: rezoning the Brooklyn waterfront, homeless policy, Coney Island redevelopment, and renovations of Union Square Park. In 2007, he was arrested for shouting the First Amendment at police officers at a bike rally at the park; he sued the city and won a $23,000 settlement.
Whether running for mayor produces the impact Savitri D and Talen are looking for depends first of all on whether he gets on the ballot. Talen must collect 7,500 signatures to qualify, but campaigns usually collect three or four times that to avoid disputes over the legitimacy of their petitions—no small feat for a campaign whose biggest expenditure to date was the security deposit for their campaign office. Talen, whose candidacy grew out of conversations with the Brooklyn Greens last year, also has to convince even friendly voters that his candidacy, like his preacher act, might be funny—but it’s not a joke.
“It is a candidacy and a performance. It must be both because we have a way of communicating with the public that involves humor and music, sermons and prayers. I’m not putting on a power suit and stating into a teleprompter to put on a new character,” Talen says. After all, a healthy portion of politics is nothing more than theater—John Kerry in a hunting vest, billionaire Bloomberg in shirtsleeves talking to “average people” in commercials, President Bush descending onto an aircraft carrier, rival factions of the state senate conducting competing meetings in the same chamber. “There’s a little bit of an opening here, an appeal to reporters to take us seriously, but in a new way.” The “reverend” is not a Christian, but his church is no fake; it’s what he believes, and like all rites, its rituals bring other believers together.
In fact, Talen—who did not speak in character in an interview—said he initially thought he would conduct his mayoral campaign according to custom, attending candidate forums and shaking hands. But after a recent trip to protest big-box stores in England (the trip was underwritten by foundations, individual donations and ticket sales at performances—the funding mix that sustains his “church” in its domestic activities, too), Talen says he realized that approach was wrong for him. “We just don’t think we express the defense of the neighborhood with the same energy, the same vividness, trying to imitate [conventional politics],” he says. So the stump speech is gone, and the campaign is now hyping a youtube video of a “singing endorsement” by New Yorkers who like the Rev.
But Talen is not singing exactly the same song as he did, say, two years ago. His group changed its name from the Church of Stop Shopping to the Church of Life After Shopping once the recession took hold and “we looked at each other and said, ‘Wait a minute, we’re all so broke, what are we doing shouting at each other to stop shopping?'”
“There’s still people that think we can shop our way out of this. Bono thinks we can shop our way out of African hunger. But many thousands of Americans have retreated entirely from credit cards, sweatshops, fossil fuels, overpackaging, over-advertising, sitting in traffic jams, trying to get to the mall, the complete distortion of rituals like Christmas,” he says. He briefly slips into preacher tone: “It’s killing you, it’s killing this neighborhood, it’s killing the earth. Amen!”
According to his website, which describes Bloomberg as “the corporation in human form,” Talen’s platform calls for expanded green energy retrofit programs, “tax policies and retail zoning reforms that will protect, support and encourage local, community-owned businesses,” an end to NYPD stop-and-frisk policies, free mass transit, congestion pricing and making college affordable to all. It adds: “All new developments must be community-driven and community-approved.”
The Green Party’s platform shares a lot with Talen’s church doctrine of environmentalism, anti-corporatism and economic justice, says Green Party state committee member Ron MacKinnon of Manhattan. In interviews with Talen, “We saw more than the performer. He demonstrates a real seriousness about policies and problems,” MacKinnon says.
But for the Greens, the 2009 race is also about rebuilding interest in the party for 2010, when a strong showing in statewide races could allow the party to regain the automatic ballot status they lost because of a poor showing in 2002. Julia Willebrand, the Green Party’s 2001 mayoral nominee, says the reason Talen makes sense as a candidate is because people are interested in him. After all, “you never called when I was running,” Willebrand notes to a reporter.
Talen, who is 58 and lives in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, does not expect to be the next mayor – though if he did, he says he’d retain the current transportation commissioner Janet Sadik-Khan, “the wonderful bike lane guru”.
“Our slogan is ‘the rise of the 500 neighborhoods.’ I want that idea to win,” he says.
If he gets on the ballot, Talen might be competing with Democrats for anti-Bloomberg votes. He says he’d avoid that, vowing, “I would never be a spoiler.”
The impact of outsiders
Even if Talen doesn’t make it onto the November ballot, Bloomberg and the eventual Democratic nominee will not be alone. A handful of third parties almost always cross the hurdles onto the general election ballot. The Libertarians are running Joseph Dobrian, a freelance writer and editor, for mayor. Dan Fein, a sewing machine operator, will be on the ballot if the Socialist Workers Party can put him there. Self-described “independent undercover private investigator” Jimmy McMillan, who achieved cult fame in 2005 with his “Rent Is Too Damn High” party, will run for mayor under that banner again; his website offers a new and funkier theme song this time around.
According to April statistics from the state board of elections, only about 3 percent of city voters are registered as members of parties other than the Republicans or Democrats. Were Avella to beat Thompson, he’d have the powerful Democratic line. But while insurgent candidates have run before in the Democratic primary, few can point to any success. In 1997, Rev. Al Sharpton nearly forced frontrunner Ruth Messinger into a runoff, but fell short. Mayor Ed Koch crushed primary challengers in 1981 and 1985. In 1969, author Norman Mailer ran advocating New York City statehood and using the slogan “No More Bullshit.” He placed fourth with 5 percent. Fordham University political historian Bruce Berg wrote in an e-mail: “While there certainly is a history of long shots/non-traditionals running for mayor, there is no history of them winning or even having an impact on the race.”
There are two schools of thought on what Avella’s impact on Thompson might be. One is that, with Bloomberg’s $100 million arsenal locked and loaded for the fall campaign, Thompson can ill afford to spend money on or suffer any bruises in a primary against Avella. If he had no primary challenger, Thompson could be raising money for the general election with a higher matching rate and no spending limit, since he is facing a self-funding billionaire. An alternative analysis is that Avella’s challenge boosts Thompson because it gets the mayoral race into the headlines earlier, shortens (i.e., makes less expensive) the campaign against Bloomberg and, if Thompson wins the primary, will allow him to ride into the fall campaign as a winner. Avella’s fans don’t buy the argument that he could torpedo the Democrats’ hopes. “If Bill Thompson can’t stand up to Tony Avella, why are we even talking about him standing up to Mike Bloomberg?” asks Phil DePaolo.
That’s if Thompson wins. “Personally, I think he’s afraid that I can beat him,” Avella asserts, insisting he is running to win, not just as a message candidate. Avella contends that his fundraising is just starting get serious and he points to endorsements from the New York Community Council, the Three Parks Independent Democratic Club and Brooklyn Democrats for Change. In what might have been considered Thompson territory, Avella fought the comptroller to a tie in the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats endorsement vote. An Avella ally says he is aiming to collect some 25,000 signatures to get on the ballot. Only 7,500 are needed, but campaigns collect more than that in case their opponents challenge the validity of any of the names. In 2005, Bloomberg used that tactic to get another insurgent, Thomas Ognibene, off the ballot and avoid a Republican primary.
Planner Paul Graziano says in his district, “Lots and lots of Republicans are changing their registration to Democratic to vote in the primary and carry petitions for Tony. I’ve never seen anything like it.” The September vote is likely to be a low-turnout affair, giving an advantage to candidates whose voters are more fired up, as Avella enthusiasts are. Against a two-term incumbent billionaire with steadfast editorial board support, an unconventional campaign might be the only one with a chance to succeed. In that recent Quinnipiac poll, conducted in mid-June, Avella didn’t fare appreciably worse against Bloomberg than Thompson did. Bloomberg led Thompson 54 percent to 32 percent, and the mayor led Avella 57-27. Eighty-seven percent said they hadn’t heard enough about Avella to decide if they liked him or not.
Avella was asked by party insiders to consider a state senate or assembly seat in 2006. But he’d already decided to run for mayor instead, telling a friend: “I’d rather go down in a blaze of glory than go into early retirement in Albany.”
To detractors, Avella’s candidacy looks precisely like that kind of personal crusade. “This whole thing is just an ego trip with no basis in reality,” says one political strategist. “He’s not a factor. New York City is the most expensive media market in the country. He’s not raising enough money to go on TV citywide.”
But at the Cooper Union rent protest, Avella’s Council colleague Robert Jackson had to give him this much: “Those who say Tony doesn’t have a chance, it’s not true. Tony is running for mayor and he is taking on some of the fights that tenants have been fighting for decades. This is the democratic process. So Tony, go for it!”
Meanwhile, a feisty race is underway for the Council seat that Avella is vacating. At least seven candidates are in the mix, and a recent forum in the district attracted twice as many observers as there were seats. Of course, no one is running to replace Rev. Billy – if he becomes mayor, he doesn’t need to abandon his flock.