For Ilario Pantano, a New Yorker from Hell’s Kitchen, it’s been quite a second act. The last time most New Yorkers heard from him, the Horace Mann graduate, former Goldman Sachs trader, and former media executive was a Marine lieutenant accused of premeditated murder in Iraq. Tomorrow he may be the Republican congressman-elect from North Carolina’s seventh district, a seat Democrats have held for more than a century. Polls suggest the race is a dead heat.
Pantano is running as a staunch conservative, proudly aligned with the tea party and endorsed by Sarah Palin. He has declared himself against gay marriage, abortion, and what he calls the “trophy mosque” in downtown Manhattan, garnering an endorsement from Pamela Geller, the anti-mosque, Islam-bashing crusader. Recently, he became a born-again Christian. His neighbors in North Carolina “like the things I like,” Pantano told me this weekend on his way to a gun show, “They believe the things I believe. This is a good fit.”
But to some of his old New York friends, the new Pantano is not the one they thought they knew. “Is this obviously a new and different phase in Ilario’s life? Yes. Has he made major changes in his life? Yes. Is this the guy I’ve known before? No,” said Noah Shachtman, a contributing editor to Wired magazine and a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution. He met Pantano at Horace Mann. “As a politico turned musician turned reporter,” Schactman added, ”I don’t begrudge anyone the right to reinvent themselves.”
Though Pantano moved to North Carolina about ten years ago, Schactman, like other New York friends who’ve kept in touch, believed Pantano a New Yorker through and through. His mother was a New York literary agent, though she now raises horses in North Carolina; his wife was a Jewish New Yorker and onetime model who posed for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Pantano never did drugs, but he loved to dance and loved the hot nightclubs of the nineties. “He went to Mars, the Palladium, Disco 2000. “He couldn’t have gone there and possibly have had any issue with gay people,” said Alex Roy, who runs Europe by Car, a family business, and who held a fund-raiser for Pantano when he was accused of murder. “He’s changed a lot. I am pretty surprised to hear that he’s against gay marriage, considering that we have gay friends in common. He’s 180 degrees away from the person I grew up with. Maybe it’s a function of where he lives, or having served in the military. If you’re running for office it sure pays to agree with people in your district.”
Vlad Edelman, who was Pantano’s partner in a digital media business for half a dozen years, called Pantano after his New York speech against the proposed mosque. “What’s going on with your politics? I don’t recognize them,” Edelman asked. Shachtman also worried about Pantano’s fearmongering — the candidate fears a Chinese attack via Cuba, as he told Schachtman in an interview for Wired.
Still, at least one New Yorker still finds Pantano acceptable: Rudy Giuliani recently endorsed him.
Pantano may have always been more conservative than his New York friends suspected, even if he kept quiet about it. He enlisted in the Marines out of high school, and fought in the first Gulf War. Then shortly after September 11, 2001, he told his wife he had re-enlisted. In Iraq he commanded a platoon. “I was always the most aggressive and the most paranoid,” he once told me. In 2004, he killed two unarmed Iraqis; he’d had them search their car and when they made a suspicious movement he opened fire. The charges were eventually dropped, but some questioned his judgment under pressure.
His wartime experiences may also explain his religious conversion. “Ilario called me one day. He was at another Marine’s funeral who had served under him. He was really in bad shape,” said Jeff DeJessie, a friend and fellow Marine who’s now a fireman in New Jersey. “I guess he’s found religion, and been big on his faith in the last year or two. I guess it kind of lifted him up and helped him through it.”
I last spent extensive time with Pantano when he faced murder charges. At the time, he was deeply anxious, not only about the legal proceedings, but about the cloud over his future, even if he beat the charges. And now? Over the weekend, he told me, “We’re planning the victory party.”