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In the Spirit of Paine (and Pleasure, too!)

59 Grove Street, the house where Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809. Photos by Miller Oberlin.
59 Grove Street, the house where Thomas Paine died on June 8, 1809. Photos by Miller Oberlin.

It’s an early Saturday evening in mid April and SoHo is full of people doing their usual SoHo things: carrying shopping bags; stumbling around in heels; chatting over expensive fare. But in a storefront gallery on Lafayette Street, Reverend Billy and his entourage are hatching big plans. They are opening the headquarters for Billy’s mayoral campaign. Most such events would be filled with political operatives who don’t exactly know how to cut loose. That is most certainly not the case here.

A flotilla of bikes, one of which holds speakers, clamors up Lafayette. The honking, yelling and clapping segues into dancing, the speakers blaring James Brown. People get down. Passersby are perplexed—there’s not supposed to be free fun in SoHo. The beats continue. A taxi pulls up. Out of it climb two fully uniformed cops. Apparently it’s against the law to have fun on the streets of SoHo. The action moves inside.

Not in 40 years, since the Mailer-Breslin campaign of 1969, has the city seen such a creative and artistic character run for mayor. Mailer and Breslin were scrappers, ready to fight their way into City Hall. Reverend Billy is also looking to mix it up, but as a man of the cloth, he must use more peaceful means. Rather than tangle, he is ready to exhort, inspire, and cajole.

Like his predecessors, Billy advances plenty of good ideas. Mailer and Breslin’s campaign is most remembered for advocating secession for New York City (the “51st state”), but the duo also put forth several innovative policy positions, including the creation of neighborhood housing banks. Reverend Billy’s similar call for a return to community banking has already found reception in surprising places. In a mid April column, the Wall Street Journal’s David Weidner wrote favorably about Billy’s proposal to expand small banks and credit unions, noting that “Basic economics are on the Reverend’s side.” On this issue, among countless others, Billy’s view is the exact opposite of Mayor Bloomberg’s, who believes that Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner “walks on water.”

Unlike the mayor, Reverend Billy comes across as anything but “cold and businesslike.” His challenge, though, is to make people see him as a sincere and viable candidate. When I asked him about his campaign strategy, he replied simply, “the neighborhoods.” In political insider talk, that could also qualify as his message, his plan for the field, and so on. But viewing the city from the street level, rather than the boardroom level, is the right place to start. He’s running as a Green, one advantage of which is that he doesn’t have to contend with the city’s Democratic Party machine. Still, plenty of things need to happen for the other parties in the race to take his candidacy seriously, not least signature gathering for the ballot and fundraising.

After all, SoHo headquarters do not come cheap. But they make for a good place to experience what Billy’s campaign definitely will provide: a whole lot of fun.

You might not know it from reading the papers or following the local news, but there are two Democrats in the race for mayor, not one. Tony Avella would not win any popularity contests among his colleagues on the City Council, nor will his campaign get any support from the Democratic Party machine. But that’s the price Avella has gladly paid in order to stand against the City Council and its slush fund scandal, term limits overhaul, and backroom dealing of all sorts. Avella’s campaign thus promises to illustrate the extent to which the principles of good government can still attract media attention and also inspire voters.

He’s no showman, but Avella conveys similar views to Billy regarding the overdevelopment that’s swept the city during the Bloomberg years. At various political club meetings in April, Avella spoke of his work with Muncipal Art Society in pushing for “bottom-up planning,” in which neighborhoods create their own blueprint for development, which would then be compiled into a borough-wide master plan, one with “real power.” As Avella stated in these pages two years ago, “the real estate industry controls the agenda in the city.” His current campaign aims to reverse that equation. Avella’s basic message, says his campaign manager Christian Schneider, is that “The city is not for sale.”

Fighting the real estate industry is indeed a tall order, and it’s a primary reason that Avella’s campaign coffers amount to only a fraction of Comptroller Bill Thompson’s, the current Democratic frontrunner. At the same political club meetings, Thompson made mention of the overdevelopment issue, and argued for strengthening community boards. But, other than in the West Side stadium battle, as comptroller over the past eight years Thompson mounted no visible opposition to large development plans even when they involve significant sums of public money, such as the Atlantic Yards project. Avella, meanwhile, has worked with community groups across the city, including the Harlem Tenants Council in fighting the 125th Street rezoning, and he has spoken at Develop Don’t Destroy Brooklyn events against the Atlantic Yards.

All of those efforts have helped Avella forge alliances well outside of his own district in Northeast Queens, which is about as Outer Borough as there is. Whitestone, where he lives, is also a mighty long way from Wall Street. His campaign maintains that other city residents share the same political, if not geographic, distance. “New Yorkers are sick and tired of Mike Bloomberg only paying attention to Wall Street,” says Schneider.

To take on the daunting task of unseating Bloomberg, and thus weakening the grip of the real estate industry and Wall Street over the city, Avella must first get by Thompson (or Anthony Weiner, should he revive his campaign). Without the support of the Democratic Party, ballot access and fundraising can be difficult. But Avella is nothing if not earnest in his desire to bring a new perspective to City Hall, one that “separates politics from governance,” as he puts it. By politics he means insider access, horsetrading, and all the various forms of pay-to-play that influence what happens at City Hall. By opposing business as usual, Avella has very few friends in high places. Which is just the way he wants it.

June 8th marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Thomas Paine, who spent his final days in a rooming house at 59 Grove Street in what’s now known as the West Village. Published in 1776, Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense helped ignite the American Revolution—“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth,” he famously declared. Fifteen years later, Paine’s Rights of Man stoked the fires of the French Revolution. In both cases, his primary target was the concentration of power in the hands of a king.

During his twilight years Paine devoted much of his time to theological matters, refining his own variation of deism. But he still had plenty of passion for politics, and directed much of it against the Federalists, at one point referring to them as “scribbling and witless curs.” In the first decade of the nineteenth century, Paine spent most of his time in New Rochelle, mostly broke and living on a farm. From there he continued to issue fiery screeds, assailing various state constitutions, including New York’s, for granting too much power to the executive branch.

After moving down to the city in 1806, Paine filled the pages of the New York Public Advertiser with a steady barrage of attacks on the Federalists in their own backyard. Ill with apoplexy, Paine bounced around, living at various places, including 309 Bleecker Street, before settling into Grove Street in April of 1809. Upon his death (at age 72) two months later, the Federalist newspaper, the Evening Post, observed that Paine “had lived long, done some good, and much harm.” From Paine’s perspective, such was not a bad way to go out at all.

Two hundred years after Paine’s passing, it would be an obvious exaggeration to call Mike Bloomberg a king—but he is definitely a modern Federalist and has repeatedly demonstrated that he thinks democracy is a nuisance. Consider the term limits debacle or the mockery he has made of the city’s public campaign financing system. Recall his efforts to thwart the protests against the Iraq War in 2003 and then against the Republican National Convention one year later. And look at his ongoing defense of Wall Street bonuses and his preference for raising sales taxes on everyone instead of income taxes on millionaires. Whatever party he now belongs to, Bloomberg is fundamentally not a democrat.

If you’re cool with that, so be it. But if you’re seeking more creativity and more participation in our city politics, check out grassroots campaigns like those of Reverend Billy and Tony Avella. The spirit of Tom Paine is on their side.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2009

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