Stephen Reader covers politics for It's a Free Country, WNYC's interactive politics site. He joined the station in 2010 and has also worked for Studio 360, WNYC's Peabody Award-winning show about art, culture, and creativity.
That's right. Founder, patriarch, and perma-candidate of the Rent is Too Damn High party, has found a new home: the GOP.
Jimmy McMillan became New York's hottest commodity (emphasis on "oddity") during his campaign for governor last fall. The black leather gloves, the 19th-century beard, the rap album, the website, and the uber-populist party name, which doubled as a slogan, made McMillan a star. Here was an outsider among outsiders in a city full of them, seemingly running just for the hell of it and winning hearts in the process, if only for his sheer pluck rather than his politics.
But the politics that McMillan does tout—namely, direct, immediate and drastic government intervention in the economy—don't seem to be of the Republican stripe. So, is this just about getting attention?
Sort of. Make no mistake: Jimmy McMillan is entirely sincere. He wants to hold an elected office, and honestly believes that he knows how to fix our government. During his campaign, he proclaimed that he had the answers to problems facing New Yorkers. Now, he says he's got answers for the rest of America. With a failed bid for governor behind him, McMillan has his sights set on—what else?—the presidency.
"I'm here to wake the Republican Party up and tell all these Republicans who keep running for office that you have nothing to offer the American public," McMillan said. "Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Donald Trump is my dog, don't get me wrong...but they have nothing to offer. They're just talking."
That, more than anything else, is why Jimmy McMillan is now a Republican: joining the party gives him the large, national platform that the Rent Is Too Damn High party can't offer on its own. It's a safe bet that were the incumbent president a Republican, McMillan would register Democrat.
"The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are like twins," he said. "Neither have any policies. They have nothing to offer the American public. I'm going to bring this platform I have, it's more than just talking about rent—people are going to portray it as being just about rent, but the rent being too high has caused this country to be jobless."
"If the Republican Party addressed these issues," McMillan said, "they will steal America."
Last fall, McMillan campaigned on a promise to declare an economic state of emergency for New York, which he said would allow him to arbitrarily lower everyone's rent. The less citizens spent on housing, he reasoned, the more they would spend on food, clothing, and other necessities.
The only thing that's changed about McMillan's politics since joining the GOP is that he's expanded his vision for New York to include the rest of the country.
If McMillan couldn't become governor of New York, what are the chances that he could win the highest office in the country? Even latching on to one of the two major parties, McMillan's is a niche appeal, and not necessarily because people agree with his policies.
What's more, to be frank, the eccentric McMillan offers a punching bag to his adversaries. He knows this. On the other hand, he also knows that young people, that perennially-untapped wellspring of support, love him. And when you look at what he was able to accomplish in the gubernatorial election, virtually without help, his resume is...well, kind of impressive.
"They're trying to portray me as a crazy man, as an idiot," said a defiant McMillan. "Let me tell you what this idiot has done. This crazy man got on the ballot with just sixteen dollars and ninety-one cents. This crazy man was able to sit on the highest stage in the world with just sixteen dollars and ninety-one cents in his political accounts. Who is trying to portray me as a crazy man and an idiot? Because they realize that the people and the children right now have embraced me as a movement, as a rockstar, whatever.
"The young people are going to take this country over," McMillan finished, citing the recent success of youth energy in toppling Middle East regimes. "And the revolution has begun through the Rent is Too Damn High movement."
Note: He's in a Starbucks, so there is some background noise.