Streams

Tasini Who?

An Underdog Candidate Takes on Sen. Clinton

Friday, September 01, 2006

Until last December, Jonathan Tasini was a full-time labor organizer and strategist. But the Iraq war so infuriated him that he decided to do something about it. Tasini is now a U.S. Senate candidate in the Democratic primary and he has challenged the party's biggest star, Sen. Hillary Clinton. WNYC's Elaine Rivera spent time with Tasini on the campaign trail.

REPORTER: It is an overcast Saturday morning and Jonathan Tasini, dressed in a blue shirt, black slacks and scruffy black sneakers, is standing in the middle of the Union Square green market in Manhattan. He beckons possible voters. But most people stare blankly at the bespectacled Tasini as he passes out his campaign literature. They have no clue who he is.

TASINI: New York Democrats. New York Democrats. New York Democrats by any chance? I'm John Tasini I'm running for U.S. Senate nice to meet you. Hope you consider voting for me Sept. 12 in the primary I'm running mainly because I'm opposed to the Iraq war and the occupation.

REPORTER: The 49-year-old labor organizer appeared to have come out of nowhere. At a recent Clinton campaign event, veteran New York Congressman Charlie Rangel was asked about Tasini. Tasini who? Rangel responded wryly.

With only a $200,000 budget, compared to the $44 million that Sen. Clinton has raised, Tasini says it's been difficult getting out his message. He is campaigning hard so people remember that Clinton voted for the Iraq war. He speaks angrily of the devastating human loss of thousands of American soldiers and Iraqis. He also cites the large numbers of military personnel coming home who have been seriously wounded, many with brain injuries.

TASINI: Think about that. That's something they will live with the rest of their lives because Democrats like Hillary Clinton voted for this war. And I think people have to be held accountable for those kinds of acts.

REPORTER: Tasini says he is not following the anti-war political newcomer Ned Lamont who defeated Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman in the Democratic primary last month.

TASINI: I was against the 91 Gulf War - my initial reaction is war is not the solution. I'm not a pacifist but generally speaking I think war has never solved any disputes between countries.

REPORTER: But Tasini points out that there are other issues that separate him from Sen. Clinton. He is against the death penalty, against the Nafta free trade agreement which he believes has hurt the American economy, and is for a single-payer health care system.

He says he qualified for the ballot by getting volunteers to gather nearly three times the requisite 15,000 signatures. He doesn't understand why the Clinton camp has not been willing to hold a debate so voters could see the differences between the two candidates.

TASINI: It's sad and it doesn't speak well of her to run and hide everybody runs around talking about polls and you know she's so far ahead so if that's true what's her fear...what is she running from?

REPORTER: Doug Muzzio, a public affairs professor at Baruch College CUNY, says Tasini doesn't have a chance - debate or no debate.

MUZZIO: Tasini is no Ned Lamont. He didn't have the resources to communicate his message that Lamont did and Hillary Clinton is no Joe Lieberman. Hillary Clinton's view on the war has been far more nuanced and in fact thoughtful than Lieberman.

REPORTER: With less than two weeks away from the primary election, a Clinton spokeswoman said they are waiting to see how the campaign develops before they decide whether to hold a debate.

To run for the campaign, Tasini had stopped working as an independent organizer. From 1990 to 2003 he was the head of the National Writers Union. He lives alone in a one-bedroom apartment in upper Manhattan. How he can support himself and run for national office?

TASINI: You sound like my mother asking these questions. Just kidding. Basically I'm spending what I've saved from my meager modest savings. I actually have income from a blog that I run that's separate from the economy about labor and economy so I have advertisers.

REPORTER: Tasini is not a native New Yorker nor is he Italian as people often mistake him to be. The child of Jewish immigrants, he was born in Houston. His mother's family escaped the Nazis and were in a work camp in Russia during World War II. His father fought for independence for the emerging state of Israel.

He said his parents' experiences framed his anti-war stance. He recalls a conversation with his father about the Vietnam War which the elder Tasini had opposed.

TASINI: It's not like he was a left winger or had any clear ideology he had just experienced it himself what it meant to be occupied when the British were occupying what was then Palestine.

REPORTER: Throughout his youth, he lived in various places including Los Angeles and Israel. He moved to New York in 1985. A self-described political junkie, he is a huge C-Span fan and once subscribed to Roll Call.

TASINI: On the other hand, I think I have a fuller life, too. I'm a crazy baseball fan, and love good food love to dance, love cycling...

REPORTER: With a staff of only five people, Tasini has spent countless hours circling the city and the state to introduce himself. He says he has put on weight since he's not had time to exercise regularly. He also has developed a pain in his upper right arm from shaking so many hands. He hopes it'll go away after the election - the general election that is. He then winks. For WNYC, I'm Elaine Rivera

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