Outsider takes another run at Senate

Ignored by the press and his party's electoral machine, a lone progressive struggles to reach out to like-minded New York Democrats.

New York State Senate candidate, Jonathan Tasini, at a west village cafe in New York City.
Photo by Michael Falco
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NEW YORK // Jonathan Tasini took on and lost to Hillary Clinton when he ran for her New York Senate seat four years ago. Undeterred, the labour activist is bidding again for the Senate, believing his progressive politics will resonate among voters agitated by the economic crisis. A consummate outsider, he has raised only about US$100,000 (Dh367,000) and is ignored by the celebrity machine of the New York Democratic Party. His opponent in September's Democratic primary, Kirsten Gillibrand, who replaced Mrs Clinton when she became secretary of state last year, has raised more than $7 million so far.

Mr Tasini is the only declared candidate to stand against Mrs Gillibrand after one other potential challenger decided last week not to run, raising his chances of eventually generating a higher profile and more funds. "The press ignores me," he said. "They decide who's credible by how much money you have. If I had $1 million, it would be different, but people don't see me as a threat." He sounds less like a man indulging in sour grapes than someone who has a point when comparing his media profile to the column inches devoted in the New York press to Harold Ford, a former Tennessee congressman with powerful Wall Street connections, who gave lots of interviews but then decided against a primary challenge.

Mortimer Zuckerman, a high-profile publisher, also decided this week not to run in the Republican primary even though as owner of the tabloid Daily News he had a head start in generating publicity. "If you want to run for the Senate, you have to have a powerful vision and run for the right reasons, not to promote your career," Mr Tasini said. "I'm the only voice willing to stand for the people." Mr Tasini, 53, was a journalist and union leader, has never held political office and stands on the left of the Democratic Party on a host of issues, from wanting government-run health care available for all to speaking out against what he called Israel's disproportionate use of force against its neighbours.

He did not make many friends within the management of The New York Times when he successfully sued the newspaper and other publishers a decade ago on behalf of freelancers who were not being paid when their work was distributed on the internet. He has long spoken out about what he saw as the excesses of Wall Street capitalism and his most recent book was called The Audacity of Greed: Free Markets, Corporate Thieves and the Looting of America.

He said he believes progressives such as himself are poised to reap support from ordinary voters fed up with the government's response to the financial collapse and rising unemployment much in the same way the Tea Party movement has managed to channel widespread frustration towards right-wing leaders. "Not everyone's crazy in the Tea Party, which is playing on people's natural fear of what's happening in the economy and around them," he said. "A lot of people are furious and are striking out at the most visible expression of what they think is power and big government and not at Wall Street. I think the Republicans are incompetent, but my fight is to change the Democratic Party."

He has won the support of some national progressive groups including Democrats.com, a left-leaning website that has launched a Jobs not War platform. As in 2006, when he ran against Mrs Clinton, Mr Tasini was clear about his desire to end the US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He remained equally outspoken about Israel, where he lived as a student but left after the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister in 1977. He was keen to encourage his fellow American Jews to speak out when wrongs were committed, such as the siege on the Gaza Strip.

"American Jews have a hard time believing Israel can do anything wrong, but we as Jews have to speak out," Mr Tasini said. "Israel is the greatest military force in that region and there's no way anyone would let it be destroyed." Mr Tasini registers barely five-per-cent support in polls, which also show minority support for Mrs Gillibrand, who was a little-known upstate congresswoman before her elevation to the Senate. In the Senate, she has appeared to have switched positions on such issues as gun control, which she now favours, to appeal to more liberal-leaning voters in New York City.

"Everywhere I go, I'm met with energy, particularly from students who totally understand the crisis and uncertain future they're facing," Mr Tasini said. "If I'm wrong about how people are feeling, then I can't win even if I had $20 million." @Email:sdevi@thenational.ae