In a city where a prostitute-patronizing ex-governor and a pathological cybersexter can launch viable campaigns, Aaron Braunstein still manages to be one of the more singular candidates for public office this year.
Sipping a Red Bull and droning with a straight face about how he once won a Rolls Royce in a high-stakes Vegas card game, Mr. Braunstein is an unlikely City Council candidate for an even unlikelier district: the high-minded Upper West Side, where Mr. Braunstein, the father of Orange is the New Black actress Natasha Lyonne, lives alone in a cluttered apartment that once belonged to Mike Tyson.
“I talk to the biggest people in the world. I read Tolstoy, Hunter Thompson, I collect antiques … I mean, I’d vote for me,” Mr. Braunstein recently told Politicker, speaking in a Brooklyn rasp that conjured Godfather- era Marlon Brando. Mr. Braunstein was sporting a pencil moustache along with a three-piece suit, flowing scarf and silver tie peaking out from his vest. A gray ponytail flowed down his back, and on Mr. Braunstein’s plump ring finger was an ancient Roman coin the size of a silver dollar that he said had been fished out from the Mediterranean Sea.
Mr. Braunstein contends that his natty look gives him an edge in a race where he’ll need one. He launched a last-minute bid for the seat held by term-limited Councilwoman Gale Brewer, joining a pack of formidable Democrats–mostly with more traditional résumés–who have been plotting their bids for years. They include Noah Gotbaum (“Gotsbaum,” in Braunstein-speak) Helen Rosenthal (he calls her “Friedman”) and Ken Biberaj, the Albanian-American vice president of the Russian Tea Room, about whom Mr. Braunstein has this to say: “I saw these two pretty girls giving out fliers and I looked at the fliers and they said, Ken Bi-ber-a-jee or something. I said, ‘This guy can’t even spell English.’ I mean, I’m not making fun … he’s very good-looking guy. He looks like Ken from Ken in the Barbie dolls.”
Also in the race is District Leader Marc Landis, who has received most of the establishment support, Democratic State Committeewoman Debra Cooper and Mel Wymore, who, like Ms. Rosenthal, is a former community board chair. However, said Mr. Braunstein, “I’m the only one running who wears a tuxedo. If you notice, in West Point, the general wears the best clothes. If you’re a leader of anything, clothes make the man or woman, it’s very important. You lead by example.”
Mr. Braunstein, a boxing promoter, talk show host and businessman, is self-financing his run, though he refused, repeatedly, to say how much he is willing to spend on the race. He also declined to disclose his exact age, instead asking Politicker to feel his bicep through his shirt sleeve. “I’m like 60-ish… a drop over,” he relented afterwards.
What was clearer than Mr. Braunstein’s age, however, was the presence of his notorious and estranged daughter in his West End Avenue apartment, where an Ed Koch funeral pamphlet sat on the old piano, not far from the boxing historian Bert Sugar’s typewriter. Bright photographs, framed film and blown-up Broadway reviews of Ms. Lyonne dominated the walls, even as Mr. Braunstein implied that he and his daughter were not close.
“Poor Nathasha. She’s a movie star. Famous, rich, thin and a natural blonde,” he said, rummaging through pictures of Ms. Lyonne as a child. Several feet away lay a battered stack of American Pie video tapes, the film that helped launch her career. “Poor Natasha. Let’s all cry for her. What makes her be angry, angry at the father, that’s part of the thing, right?”
Politicker asked why Mr. Lyonne was angry at him.
“I don’t know, you gotta ask her,” he said, pausing. “I don’t know how someone can be angry when they have such a blessed life, right? In terms of always making a good living, being famous, never forgetting her lines …”
Mr. Braunstein raised Ms. Lyonne in Manhattan, Long Island and Israel, where he promoted boxing matches and claims part ownership in basketball team there. Ms. Lyonne was a ring card girl at Israeli boxing matches, “loved horses,” and even had a pet monkey. According to a 2000 New York Times story, the divorced Mr. Braunstein was not speaking with his daughter even then.
His daughter, though, had little to do with his rollicking bid for office. Plumping down on a footrest in the memorabilia-clogged living room, Mr. Braunstein, who made his small fortune cornering the market on the natural fiber jute, explained why he was attempting to upend a City Council race.
“They raised my rent here about a thousand a month six weeks ago and there was no one to talk to,” he grumbled. “My councilperson was Gale Brewer, a wonderful person, I just couldn’t get this young lady … I’m a real New York guy, I don’t like being horsed around.”
Mr. Braunstein’s job-creation plan for the West Side is to somehow build a football stadium there, though the idea was defeated almost a decade ago. “Why do the New York Jets and New York Giants play in New Jersey?” he asked.
While Mr. Braunstein boasts that he won’t call upon his “golden rolodex” of powerful allies to bolster his campaign–he claims the legendary attorney Benjamin Brafman and former Senator Joe Lieberman are buddies–he said his big-name associates will come in handy if he makes it to City Hall.
“I know how to get things done after being on the planet so long with some successful friends,” he said. “I know how to accomplish the mission.”