Even when he’s not sporting his trademark cowboy boots, it’s tough to take U.S. Senate candidate Jonathan Tasini seriously.
In the hours before an open-air viewing of Rocky at Bryant Park on Monday evening, Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the Democratic primary was prancing around on the grass barefoot, catching pretzels in his mouth and singing the movie’s theme song with his arms pumping in the air.
Nevertheless, this week, Mr. Tasini has been transformed into an exalted champion of the city’s fourth estate.
On Aug. 21, The Times scolded Mrs. Clinton for ignoring Mr. Tasini, an eye-opening editorial that came just a few days after the New York Post weighed in in favor of a position-clarifying debate between the two.
Like Mr. Tasini, the two ideologically divergent editorial boards professed to have grown frustrated with Mrs. Clinton’s parsimoniously articulated explanations of her position on Iraq, and with her reluctance to allow her views to be challenged in a public debate.
And in Mr. Tasini, an anti-war candidate short on cash, charm and mass appeal, they have found a willing and eager instrument to pry some answers out of the often inscrutable and ever more untouchable Mrs. Clinton.
For the candidate himself, their motive—to use him to get Mrs. Clinton to answer their questions—is immaterial. He is, he says, only too happy to be used.
“Every politician is a tool, and I think of myself as a tool for a movement of voters,” Mr. Tasini said after two solid hours of campaigning barefoot in the park. “There is a huge, huge number of people that are angry about the war, who want a debate about the war and want a debate about other issues, and she is trying to avoid it.”
The editorials aren’t likely to change the dynamic of a primary contest in which Mr. Tasini has come within 64 percentage points of Mrs. Clinton in the polls. But it seems, at the last, to have given him a sense of relevance.
“It’s good,” he said, smiling broadly.
On Monday evening at the park, Mr. Tasini tirelessly picked his way through a patchwork of blankets and sheets upon which movie-goers sipped wine and nibbled cheese. He wore his thinning hair slicked back, tortoise glasses, black pants and a blue shirt with sleeves rolled to the elbows.
“Registered Democrats?” he called out into the crowd as a couple of real live reporters recorded his every conversation about the war in Iraq and Hillary’s vote for intervention. After months of trailing Mrs. Clinton by scores of points in the polls and dozens of millions of dollars in the bank, Mr. Tasini’s camp was obviously reveling in, and unaccustomed to, all this attention.
“We were wondering where you guys were all this time,” Gwendolyn Chambrun, a 52-year-old volunteer said to the reporters hop-scotching around the park behind Mr. Tasini. “Is it for that little blurb in The Times?”
That little blurb packed a wallop. “Mrs. Clinton has successfully ignored Mr. Tasini all summer,” the editorial said, adding: “She has not been forced to discuss in great detail exactly what she thinks should be done now that things have gone so far awry in the Middle East.”
Mr. Tasini recalled that he met with Gail Collins and other members of The Times’ powerful editorial board on Aug. 17. During the nearly hour-long meeting, he said, he emphasized the injustice of Mrs. Clinton refusing to debate or even acknowledge him. Most recently, he was ruled out of a televised candidate forum on NY1 News because he had not raised more than $500,000, a measure set by the station in order to weed out nuisance candidates.
But what Mr. Tasini says he got from The Times, in contrast to his marginal treatment by New York’s political establishment as a whole, was a serious audience.
“I felt there was a good reception there; they were very respectful,” said Mr. Tasini, with a hint of pride at making the big leagues. “We had a good, long discussion about the issues.”
Ms. Collins, the Times editorial-page editor, said in an interview that the paper’s call for debates was fairly standard.
“We are always in favor of debates in elections,” said Ms. Collins, who downplayed the idea of using Mr. Tasini as a literary device to talk about Mrs. Clinton. “I’m sure you could find a trillion editorials over time calling on people to debate, so it’s not at all unusual in these circumstances to do this.”
But The Times wasn’t advocating for Mr. Tasini in a vacuum. A week earlier, on Aug. 15, Mr. Tasini’s cause was adopted by the conservative Post—which has barely acknowledged the existence of the Tasini campaign in its news pages, but which argued nonetheless that the unapologetically left-wing activist deserved a chance to debate Mrs. Clinton on television.
“Her stance on Iraq—always adaptable to changing circumstances—could stand a little clarification,” the editorial read.
Tom Elliott, a member of the Post’s board involved in writing the editorial, said the purpose behind the Tasini article was in part to try and force Mrs. Clinton to better define her position on the war.
“Her position on Iraq is largely dependent on current circumstances and whatever audience she happens to be speaking before,” said Mr. Elliott. “Just by having that side, that kind of argument, put in contrast with whatever Hillary believes, she would just be forced to contend with an unequivocal position. She has for the most part been hedging her stance.”
Mr. Elliott echoed the Times editorial—and Mr. Tasini, for that matter—by pointing out that Connecticut’s Democratic primary for Senate, the most dramatic political story of the summer, shares certain dynamics with New York’s one-sided contest. As the world knows by now, anti-war candidate Ned Lamont staged a successful campaign against Senator Joe Lieberman—who, like Mrs. Clinton, is an incumbent who voted to invade Iraq.
Of course, the analogy only goes so far. Mr. Lieberman faced deep dissent, thanks to the perception that he was too close to President George W. Bush. Mrs. Clinton, on the other hand, is a candidate to lead the Democratic Party into the next Presidential election. And unlike Mr. Tasini, who is essentially broke, Mr. Lamont had millions of dollars in personal funds to spend on an anti-incumbent advertising campaign.
“A lot of people would say that the reason he hasn’t reached those levels is because there hasn’t been a lot of media access,” said Mr. Elliott. “I guess we thought: What harm could come from seeing her debate the guy who is going to be on the primary ballot?”
Officials at NY1 News, the cable channel that banned Mr. Tasini for not raising enough money, stressed that there was no debate in the first place, because Mrs. Clinton never agreed to one. “We haven’t proposed a debate. We haven’t prevented him from doing anything—Hillary Clinton will not do one,” said Steve Paulus, the general manager of NY1 News. “The bottom line is that we are not the ones preventing him from debating—that’s the incumbent.”
Mrs. Clinton declined to comment on the editorials or the idea of debating Mr. Tasini, and her office referred calls to her longtime consultant Howard Wolfson, who offered this statement: “Senator Clinton’s position on the war has been clear and consistent. She has spoken out on the Senate floor, in Senate hearings and in interviews, making clear that this administration has badly mishandled the war and that 2006 should be a year of significant transition in Iraq so we can start to bring the troops home.”
Meanwhile, Mr. Tasini is doing what he can to leverage the rare moment in the spotlight, play the role of underdog for all that it’s worth.
“They are showing Rocky,” said Mr. Tasini upon discovering the evening’s scheduled film. “Perfect! Perfect! I should stay for inspiration.”
But before long, things went wrong. A number of viewers scolded Mr. Tasini and his dirty shoes for stomping on the blankets they had laid upon the grass. One woman, Elisha Osherowitz, a 28-year-old dog-walker dressed in a floral halter-top, stood on a white sheet and confronted him about it.
“Everybody takes off their shoes,” she said. “This way, you can walk on the blankets.”
After some resistance, Mr. Tasini capitulated and, to considerable applause, removed his black and lime Tevas. He handed the sneakers to his pretty campaign manager, Anna Mumford, whom he found on Craigslist, and continued to yell out, “Democrats? Any New York Democrats out there?”
Mr. Tasini, who without his footwear is 5-foot-8 and chubby, had an extra spring in his step. He dashed up and down the park like a bespectacled Jack Russell terrier. He traipsed the slivers of grass between the linen and let a bunch of teenagers toss pretzels into his mouth.
When he found a potential voter, he crouched down on the balls of his feet and gravely whispered his position about the war (pull out immediately) and reconstruction (cut some checks.)
He perched above the head of Willow Rossetti-Johnson, a 27-year-old singer who had white hair and white pants and lay next to sheet music for “I Say Hello.”
“What made you get into politics?” she asked him.
He said he had heard the call to challenge Hillary Clinton on Iraq.
“You rose to the occasion,” she said, without getting up. Many people laughed incredulously when they heard who he was running against.
He moved on, chatting with conspiracy theorists eating crackers and yuppies sipping wine. He argued with Mark Sattinger, a 30-year-old law student tapping the ash of his cigarette onto the lawn, about the fracturing of the Democratic Party and on criticizing Israel during the recent war in Lebanon.
“Israel’s action was disproportionate—that’s the key,” said Mr. Tasini.
“Yeah, yeah—good luck wasting everyone’s time and money for your 10 percent,” said Mr. Sattinger.
But he kept skipping. A girl in a red dress waved at him. He hopefully waved back.
“Is this yours?” she said, pointing at an empty blue blanket.
It got darker, and people grew anxious for the movie to begin. Mr. Tasini navigated his way off the lawn. A couple gestured to Mr. Tasini for flyers. He looked around, but didn’t see them.
“I need my shoes,” he said. “I want to walk on the gravel.”
Mr. Mumford delivered the Tevas, and Mr. Tasini slipped them on. On the dusty path, he encountered Amy Levine, a 36-year-old affordable-housing advocate. He explained that he was running against Hillary, and must have expected another burst of laughter.
“I don’t care for her,” said Ms. Levine.
Mr. Tasini’s eyes lit up.
“I’m actually where the majority of New York voters are,” he said of his position on Iraq.
“Why is this the first time I’ve seen your name?” she asked. “Do you need money for media? Is that it?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Tasini.
A few minutes later, the opening chords of Rocky sounded and the audience cheered. Mr. Tasini had already left.
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