Chatting With Kirsten Gillibrand’s Primary Opponent, Who Exists

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Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty Images

Harold Ford Jr. may have decided not to challenge Kirsten Gillibrand, but that doesn't mean she's running for the Democratic Senate nomination unopposed. Unbeknownst to most New Yorkers, Jonathan Tasini, a labor activist, has been in the race since June. It's his second Senate campaign — he received 17 percent of the vote in a primary against Hillary Clinton in 2006. We talked to Tasini about why he thinks he can win, why nobody else does, and why legalized marijuana is inevitable.

You told the Times the other day, referring to your primary run against Hillary Clinton in 2006, "There was not one day that I thought I would win." Do you really think you can win this time?
Absolutely. I can win. I think the moment is right, I think the people are sick and tired of insiders like Kirsten Gillibrand. I got into the race because of the moment in time, because of the crisis in the country, and the firm belief I had that people are fed up with, frankly, both parties, and the dysfunction in politics.

That kind of sounds like a tea-party philosophy.
Well, I would argue that it depends how you define tea party. There are a lot of people angry in the country because they feel like they've been robbed, for the last 30 years — of their wages, retirement, they have no health care. Some of those people are being drawn into what you call the tea party. A lot of people are angry and don't have a home. And I think there's a legitimate and very powerful movement out there of people who want the country to function.

Why are you targeting Kirsten Gillbrand instead of Chuck Schumer?
Kirsten Gillibrand does not have the temperament or the vision to be a United States senator. She's an accidental senator, she's never been elected by the people. And her views, which they're quickly trying to cover up — being for the NRA, anti-immigrant, never speaking out against marriage equality during her House tenure until she needed the gay community's votes. This is someone who has no principles. But in some ways, Kirsten Gillibrand is not the point. It really is a question of the insiders versus the outsiders.

Well, Kirsten Gillibrand would certainly qualify as the establishment candidate between the two of you, and yet the latest poll only has you at 3 percent support.
She is awash in corporate money, and that does come back, unfortunately, to the corruption of the system. She is the beneficiary of legalized corruption. I am not. And the biggest challenge is clearly fund-raising. Unfortunately, money buys you a voice, particularly with what I see as the incompetence and irresponsibility of the media. And I speak particularly of, certainly, the mainstream, traditional media that basically decides who is viable based on how much money they have.

How much money have you raised?
$100,000 as of the last filing, and then we've raised more since. The last filing was January 31, so we've raised more. And look, I'm very forthright about this: It's a very difficult time to fund-raise. Because of the economic crisis, I can't tell you how many conversations I've had with people that do fund-raising, who want to help, who just say that all the people they want to bring in are just really stretched thin. And I do not have Wall Street money, I don't have corporate money, because those aren't the interests I've represented.

You do have union connections, though. Have they gotten behind you?
We have not had endorsements from unions, and I'm having a lot of conversations with them. They are very interested in this race partly because they're very frustrated with the Democratic Party. I was talking to one president of a national union last week, who said, "We thought the Nirvana was a Democratic president, a Democratic House, and 60 votes in the Senate. And yet we can't get anything done."

What grade would you give the Obama presidency so far?
I'm not into grading, so if I could answer it a different way — look, there's no question in my mind that we had to get Obama elected. Where I part with progressives and liberals and people who express dissatisfaction with the president is that they weren't listening to him during the campaign. Candidate Obama said, "I am going to go in and do Afghanistan, that is the war we should be fighting." And in fact he's doing that. So progressives who are mad at him about that just weren't listening to him. And the people who surrounded him, in terms of economic policy in the campaign, they're of the same ilk of the people who are making policy now. So people should not be disappointed. He is who he is.

You've said you would vote against the health-care reform legislation being considered by Congress right now.
That's correct ... At some point, no bill is better than a bad bill.

New Jersey recently legalized medical marijuana, and an effort to do the same in New York is under way. You support decriminalizing all marijuana. Do you think that has a chance of happening?
Eventually, yes. I think that society is moving on things like marijuana, on marriage equality. And part of that is, it's an inevitability. As younger people become more and more part of the voting population — people in their 20s and 30s don't think twice about people smoking marijuana responsibly. And I'm for 100 percent decriminalization of marijuana but I want to treat people who smoke pot the same way I would treat people who drink alcohol. You get in a car, and you smoke pot, you should go to jail. You should be no threat to someone else.

Has there been any pressure on you not to run?
You know, my phone keeps ringing all the time with this 202 area code, and when I answer it, they hang up, so I think that they're probably trying to just harass me [laughs]. No, there's been no pressure, frankly. And I understand why. Their calculation is, that if I don't have the money to raise — because that's the way people analyze it — then I'm not seen as a threat.

You were endorsed in 2006 by people like Susan Sarandon and Howard Zinn. Do you have any celebrities onboard this time around?
Richard Dreyfuss is a big supporter, Barbara Ehrenreich, Ed Asner. But the people who are supporting this campaign are many of the same kind of people who would support any progressive campaign. They're not necessarily famous people but they're active in their communities, active in their political clubs, and that's the way we're going to build this campaign. It's not going to be with the machine.