The Preacher Who Would Be Mayor

11/02/2009 4:00 AM |


Back at headquarters, speakers pump jazz. Someone changes the keg. Most of the party has moved to the street. Roughly a dozen dancers have co-opted the parking space in front of the storefront, gyrating in the flashing siren lights of an FDNY van to the James Brown pumping out of portable speakers (which are strapped to a bicycle and powered by a car battery.)

“The streets belong to the people!” a supporter shouts at the reverend, raising his beer. Billy pauses and bends over. “I think I’m having an acid flashback!” he responds. (Later, the supporter tells a friend, “So I said, ‘acid flashback’-that’s not as bad as acid reflux!”) James Brown hits a shrieking high note and the crowd howls.

A Times reporter cozies up next to me. “I can’t believe the cops haven’t come,” she says. “All my life, I’ve never seen this. And right in front of the cops! Well, the FDNY.”

Word makes it outside that the reverend is about to speak, so the crowd of about 100 tramps back inside. “Church is about to begin. Welcome to crazy mansion!” Billy says. “We will be in Gracie Mansion in just a few months.”

“Just two terms,” he adds, “I promise.”


The Green Party first approached Billy with the idea of running for governor, which he and Savitri rejected. State politics isn’t really their thing. But running for mayor? That was something they were interested in. Especially now, with their antipathy for Michael Bloomberg. “We felt someone had to” run, Savitri says, aside from a “sacrificial Democrat.”

“And we had the skills, the tools, the flexibility and the stones,” she adds. “The cajones!”

The couple had also begun to tire of pure activism, which Savitri called “insular”. By running for mayor, the reverend is expanding his network of supporters; they currently have 1,000 volunteers working on the campaign. “The format and frame of a campaign inspires a certain type of person,” Savitri said, who might not otherwise participate in activist politics.

Running for mayor was an idea they’d toyed with for a while, at least as an intellectual exercise: what would we do if we had the power? But politics is notably different from activism. As activists and artists, Savitri says, you’re always marginal, you’re an antagonist. In the interior world of politics, you’re a protagonist; you’re no longer simply oppositional—you need to have solutions to the problems. You need to think through all of your policy proposals in great detail.

Actually getting onto the ballot, treating the idea of running as more than hypothetical, required the help of experienced politicos—like Gloria Mattera—to help deal with the legal, procedural and bureaucratic obstacles to running for office, of which there are many.

Billy doesn’t respond well to this sort of minutiae. At one meeting I attended, heavy on matters of housekeeping, procedure and fine points, Billy did stay alert, taking notes, but he jumped up every time a latecomer strolled in, fetching them a chair. “It got a little too fucking wonky for a minute there,” he told me afterwards. “Sometimes you need a little inspiration. I guess that’s my role.”

3 Comment

  • It’s easy to dismiss a campaign that has the look of self-promoting parody. When you open it up though– it’s a huge mistake. 95% of what Billy advocates is EXACTLY what this city needs WAY WAY more of. Hoory for this heroic campaign. Let’s hope he gets enough votes to get someone’s attention.

  • A long and worthwhile piece, kind of a definitive piece on the Rev. Really good, thanks.

  • Excellent piece. I agree with the first commentator. It can seem like an ackward marriage until you actually discover the depth and value of the Reverend’s vision and policy directions. I think he’s done a great service by putting this together and showing how an integrated message can be delivered–even without hairdo’s and choirs. May it bring benefit to the future and influence future candidates! Thanks for putting this out there.