'The rent is too damn high' steals show at New York governor debate

At New York governor debate, the fringe parties take center stage. The leading characters: a former madam making brothel jokes and the candidate of 'the rent is too damn high' party.

Audrey Tiernan/AP
New York gubernatorial candidates, from left, Republican Carl Paladino, Jimmy McMillan, of 'the rent is too damn high' party, and Democrat Andrew Cuomo, participate in a debate held at Hoftstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., on Oct. 18.

The people of New York might be forgiven for wondering if it was really a gubernatorial debate they were watching Monday night, or a comedy program that brought together New York’s nuttiest would-be politicians.

In the first (and perhaps only) official debate, issues took a back seat – not surprising in a campaign that has been largely about name-calling and personal attacks.

But what is surprising is that Andrew Cuomo, the attorney general and Democratic candidate, and Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate who is a regular headline-grabber, were not the stars of the show.

Instead, the buzz in the blogosphere the morning after is all about Jimmy McMillan.


The candidate for the “Rent is too damn high” party is running on a single issue, as his self-selected party name suggests: rent.

What he lacked in specifics of how to tackle this problem, he made up for in theatrics: a booming voice, fast-paced patter that includes asides like, “listen –someone’s stomach just growled,” and copious facial hair. He also wears black gloves – an accessory he says he wears due to Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

On gay marriage, Mr. McMillan drew laughs with this one-liner: “If you want to marry a shoe, I’d marry you.”

It’s actually not McMillan’s first time in a race. Back in 2005 he also ran on the issue of high rent, that time for mayor of New York City. He was criticized as anti-Semitic for blaming the high rents on Jewish people.

But, he wasn’t the only fringe candidate on the stage.

Kristin Davis, a former madam whose escort service was at the center of the Eliot Spitzer controversy, kept making brothel jokes.

Her party – the anti-prohibition party – advocates legalizing prostitution, marijuana, gambling, and gay marriage.

Ms. Davis said that she kept her brothel’s books better than the Metropolitan Transit Authority does its own, and at one point said that, “career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in this state.”

”I might be the only person sitting on this stage with the right experience to deal with them,” she added.

Also on the stage were Green Party candidate Howie Hawkins, who promised a government job to every unemployed person in the state; former Black Panther Charles Barron, who took the debate to task for not having more diversity on the panel of questioners; and Libertarian candidate Warren Redlich.

Mr. Cuomo and Mr. Paladino did try to inject snippets of substance into the debate, getting in pieces of their stump speeches and talking about tax cuts, jobs, and economic development.

If anything, the evening allowed Paladino – who has made headlines for his gaffes, threats, and the lewd and racist emails he has forwarded – to look like a more serious candidate.

But for the most part, the format let the debate to devolve into political theater, and gave viewers little chance to see any serious airing of issues between the candidates who stand a real shot of winning. At one point, even Cuomo simply succumbed to the bizarre atmosphere, responding to McMillan – and eliciting laughter – when he agreed that “the rent IS too damn high.”

Will New Yorkers get a chance for a more serious look at their candidates? Paladino apparently is up for another debate, particularly one upstate. Though his statement this morning calling for one mentions debating Cuomo “along with his rivals.” It’s hard to imagine that another seven-person debate would be much better.

The Monday night debate, at Hofstra University on Long Island, was hosted by Hofstra, Newsday, and News 12 Networks, a Cablevision subsidiary.

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