In New York, an Underdog for Senate Rails Against Wall Street

In his quest to gain New York's Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate, Jonathan Tasini isn't expecting much financial support from Wall Street power players. After all, he thinks many of them should be in jail.Instead, this former reporter and labor organizer is hoping to tap into the deep well of anger toward Wall Street, two years into a financial crisis that has cost more than 250,000 New Yorkers their jobs.

He's facing an uphill battle. Sipping coffee at a bookstore a block from the New York Stock Exchange, Tasini, 53, looks like he might have walked out of a corner office himself: neatly coiffed, nice suit, tie and scarf. But then he starts speaking. "Wall Street banks have robbed Americans," Tasini says. "They've been driven by greed, foolishness and incompetence."

Tasini has demanded that Manhattan County Democratic Chairman Keith Wright delay Thursday's endorsement vote for Senate, widely expected to go to incumbent Sen. Kirstin Gilibrand, whom Gov. David Patterson appointed to succeed Hillary Clinton after she became Secretary of State.

"Instead of having an open debate about the race, County Leader Wright has created a sham process," Tasini said in a statement after we met. "The attempt to ram through an endorsement is being done for one reason: The appointed Senator continues to attract little enthusiasm among the grassroots of the Democratic Party."

I ask Tasini what he thinks of Gillibrand and the other prospective Democratic opponent, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr., both fighting at the trough of Wall Street campaign money in the midst of a Wall Street–fueled recession and ongoing efforts to rein in the banks. "It's corruption," Tasini responds. "Pure corruption."

Being an Underdog Would Be an Improvement

With so many voices opposing the bank bailouts from the right, Tasini is a lonely voice of criticism from the left -- especially in New York. A former reporter and head of the National Writers Union, Tasini is running on a populist platform, opposing what he describes as the corrupt relationship between Wall Street and Washington, and the "spinelessness" of national Democrats who refuse to stand up for progressive principles.

To call Tasini an underdog is an understatement. In 2006, he ran against then–Sen. Hillary Clinton on a platform primarily opposing her support of the Iraq war, which he argues cost her the presidency. Tasini won 125,000 votes. A recent Marist poll showed that while 36% of New Yorkers back Gillibrand, 40% said they were undecided; 4% said they'd vote for Tasini. But he's not fazed by his 2006 loss, or by his deep-longshot status now.

With public antipathy toward Wall Street at an all-time high, and Democratic politicians contorting themselves wildly to appear tough on the banks while simultaneously hitting them up for campaign money, Tasini thinks he's found a winning issue. He's hoping to top his 2006 performance by tapping into populist rage, arguing that Wall Street firms caused the financial crisis, got a sweetheart bailout and are now back to business as usual -- minting profits and doling out huge bonuses. "I'm aiming to win this year," he says. He intends to vigorously seek a place during the upcoming primary debates.

In a state seemingly beholden to financial interests, Tasini is challenging his fellow Democrats to reject financial institution money. "I don't believe any Democrat who's supposed to stand for the common person should take a dime from Wall Street," Tasini says. "There's nothing stopping the Democratic Party from saying, 'We won't take this money.' But they're addicted to it."

New York Candidates Lead Cash Race

Even as Washington weighs new banking regulations and a tax on some financial firms, Ford and Gilibrand are racing to see who can raise the most money from Wall Street moguls and their networks of wealthy friends. The New York Times described the situation vividly last week from "inside Manhattan's sprawling penthouses and boardrooms, where wealthy families and titans of finance are being stroked, wooed and pressured to choose sides in what could be the marquee political battle of 2010."

Indeed, Wall Street money is flowing faster than an upstairs leak from a Park Avenue penthouse. Already this year, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, who is up for reelection, has accepted more than $2 million from financial-industry donors -- more than any other U.S. lawmaker -- according to the Center For Responsive Politics. Schumer is basically a lock for victory, so his donors are making a safe bet.

Sen. Gilibrand is also off to a lucrative start. After Schumer, she's the second-biggest financial-industry beneficiary in Congress, having raised more than $1 million from Wall Street in the six weeks since the New Year. Her donors include Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and a prominent supporter of Barack Obama during his presidential run, and Gary D. Cohn, president of Goldman Sachs (GS).

"Kirsten Gillibrand is absolutely awash in Wall Street money," Tasini says.

But in Ford, Wall Street may have hit the jackpot. Since he arrived in New York three years ago, the former U.S. Representative from Tennessee has served as a vice chairman at Merrill Lynch, where he consolidated a network of powerful backers including influential financier Steve Rattner and Anson Beard, the former chairman of Morgan Stanley (MS) (and Ford's stepfather-in-law).

Ford's devotion to Wall Street may backfire against him, however. "There are certainly some voters who will be turned off by Ford's Wall Street connections," New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf told me recently. Gilibrand has already started to hammer Ford's Wall Street ties. Last week, she demanded details about Ford's Merrill pay package.

Democratic Tea Party?

As Ford and Gilibrand vie for financial firm contributions -- even as they try to to distance themselves from Wall Street's taint -- Tasini hopes to reach out to new voters. He argues that Democrats have failed to capitalize on the populist anger underlying the Tea Party movement in the wake of the financial crisis and recession. With so many layoffs and bankruptcies, Tasini doesn't understand why the national labor movement hasn't sought to capitalize on voter fury.

"There were millions of people who had believed in the system and were told, 'You don't have to have real pensions, you've got your IRAs. Trust in the market, trust in your IRAs,'" Tasini says. "And then it was gone overnight. So all of a sudden, we had this huge audience -- and we've blown it, at least until now. That's a huge embarrassment to the Democratic Party."

Tasini differs with the Tea Party activists who gathered in Nashville this month, in several key respects. A self-described Keysnian, Tasini faults Obama for not going far enough with the government stimulus program -- he advocates spending another trillion. "We actually should be spending more money at a time of crisis, not less," he says, adding that in the short term, the federal deficit is not a problem. "The fearmongering about this is completely misplaced, and it's a shame that too many Democrats don't have the spine to take it on."

Tasini supports the administration efforts to crack down on the biggest financial institutions. "I believe we have to break up the big banks and go back to a system of smaller regional banks," he says. "A banker that's more concerned with Joe Smith down the street is a better thing for the community than someone thinking how much they can make from selling derivatives halfway around the world. That's just common sense."

"I'm Pro-Business Because I'm Pro-Labor"

Tasini also supports Obama's controversial "bank tax," which the financial services industry has vehemently opposed, but he doesn't think Obama goes far enough. "I am for a financial transactions tax, the so-called Tobin tax -- I have been for a long time, long before I ran. The mistake we're making is casting it as a penalty on Wall Street. This tax is an investment that Wall Street should be making back to the community."

New York City is home to the financial industry, so it's unlikely that either of the two top candidates will heed Tasini's call to reject such contributions from it. Most voters are aware of the key role Wall Street plays in New York's economy. Tasini says he is, too -- and that he's the best candidate to represent most workers on Wall Street.

"There will be no better advocate for the tens of thousands of secretaries, people who clean the buildings and the people who actually make Wall Street companies run," Tasini says. Referring to the CEOs of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, Tasini says, "I don't believe that I should be defending [Lloyd] Blankfein, Jamie Dimon and the other people who have robbed Americans. Some of them should be in jail, and they certainly shouldn't have their jobs."

"I'm pro-business because I'm pro-labor," Tasini says. "I want businesses to expand, I want people to have jobs, and I want them to have good-paying jobs. What I'm against is greed and foolishness."
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