Not Like Mike

Posted by Lysandra Ohrstrom

New York City's oddball mayoral candidate Reverend Billy is mobilizing young voters in droves in his race for City Hall. He might not be able to beat the billionaire Michael Bloomberg, but he's up for the fight.

Reverend Billy Talen bursts onstage wearing a white tuxedo and a black priest's habit, his platinum hair sprayed into an Elvis bouffant. A 35-member gospel choir breaks into a soulful hum and within seconds, the packed New York City auditorium erupts in shouts of "Amen" and "Hallelujah.""I know some of you are shopping too much," Talen bellows to a room packed with aging hippies and twenty-something hipsters. "Consuming too much, sneaking off to the big box. You gotta push back!" And with that, his back-up singers launch into their first anti-consumerist anthem of the night. "Who are these politicos? Have you ever seen one lie?" the choir sings, as the Reverend wings his head up and down, his arms reaching to the heavens. "They gotta live uptown. Somewhere where they can hide. Who buys them all that TV time? He's the one who broke your lease. Officials slick their palms with grease."This is tried-and-true material for "the Rev," as William Talen, 59, is known. Ever since he founded the Church of Life After Shopping, after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001, he has been spreading the gospel that Americans cannot buy their way out of their problems. In the years since, Talen has amassed hundreds of followers and become arguably the most entertaining champion of embattled mom-and-pop retailers in the city. But this year, he upped the ante.A few months after New York City's two-term mayor Michael Bloomberg drafted a bill to extend term-limits so he could run a third time, the Rev vowed to take that oddball activism all the way to City Hall. And in late August, he became a bona fide New York City mayoral candidate on-what else?-the Green Party ticket.Talen is obviously a fringe candidate. But as New Yorkers' frustration with the status quo grows, it's not so easy to write off Talen's candidacy as a stunt. With the presumptive Democratic opponent William C. Thompson continuing to lag in fundraising and recent polls even as the mayor's approval ratings slide, Talen has emerged as one of the loudest opposition voices in a race that many called before it even began.
"Electoral politics in New York seems to be mostly boomers and older people. We think backing Billy sends the right message to young people."
By the end of July, Talen had collected the 7,500 signatures required to be included on the September 15th primary ballot, and had doubled that number by the time the August filing deadline rolled around. Whether those numbers will mean anything at the polls is another issue altogether, but no one on Talen's team expects him to beat Bloomberg. Still, after the election on November 3, it will be clear if a serious politician lingers beneath the priest's habit, and whether his nascent constituency will stick by him without another four years of Bloomberg looming on the horizon."The reason we said yes to a quixotic campaign against a $100-million candidate was to introduce new ideas into a political system that's become conservative," explains Talen. "The mainstream parties here are like Coke and Pepsi; McDonald's and Burger King."So Talen represents an alternative. "We're activists, and as activists you have to broaden your idea of success to include the fight itself," says Savitri D., Talen's wife and the director of the Church. "In a city where eight million people are rolling over for a guy who said he was going to spend one hundred million dollars of his own money on the campaign, just putting up a fight is a success in itself." (So far, Bloomberg has spent $37 million on this campaign, and $150 million combined on his previous two. Thompson has spent just $2.6 million in the same period. Savitri says Talen has raised between $60,000 and $70,000.)Talen's platform is about supporting community-based growth after a decade of breakneck residential and commercial development. Bloomberg has rezoned 16 percent of the city since taking office, paving the way for the chain stores, high-rise condos, and gleaming office towers that line the sidewalks. Talen, meanwhile, wants to keep the city's parks and plazas public; support small businesses with commercial lease protection and retail zoning reforms; and would like to green the city from the bottom-up with neighborhood-based initiatives. (Talen argues that Bloomberg's much-heralded environmental reforms focused disproportionately on corporate incentives, rather than community programs.)Beyond the anti-Bloomberg rhetoric, a utopian vision emerges. Talen would like to see a socio-economically and ethnically integrated city where rich and poor mingle in parks, greet their local beat-cop by name, and plant community gardens together. The vision is at times vague and unrealistic, but it's clearly tapping into something some New Yorkers have been missing. Talen has recruited more than 850 volunteers-many of them young people who typically steer clear of municipal elections.Take David Schwab, a 23-year-old who volunteered for Talen's campaign as an online organizer while spending the summer in Oslo and St. Petersburg. Schwab also convinced his boss at the website Greenchange.org to endorse Talen's mayoral bid because, as Schwab puts it, Bloomberg's environmental record shows that he is not as Green as he claims to be. "Bloomberg disregards democracy and social justices," Schwab says, "which are important parts of being green."Fighting is in Talen's bones. This is a guy who stormed all three Astor Place branches of Starbucks so many times that in 2000 the management circulated an internal memo to Manhattan employees titled "What Should I do if Reverend Billy is in my Store?" At that point, he had already made a name for himself around town-known for his trademark ensembles, his street-corner sermons against the sterilization of Times Square, and for heralding an impending "Shopocalypse" outside the midtown Disney Store.Mowgli Holmes, a longtime supporter of Talen's, remembers those days well. He recounts when he first saw him out of character at the legendary St. Mark's Church in the East Village. "All I remember are his bare feet, which he kept stomping on the ground..and he did this long, totally brilliant strange monologue about walking through the streets talking to people. I can't remember exactly what he said, but I remember my jaw was just hanging open on the floor."This sort of performance activism kept him busy for some time, but after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Talen sensed that New Yorkers' were searching for something more; a sense of spirituality, perhaps, outside of organized religion. That year, he founded the Church of Life after Shopping, and began to hold regular Sunday worship services at St. Mark's Church.It was around that time that the self-described "theater refugee" became the Reverend Billy full-time, and his vision of the "Shopocalypse" started to materialize. The church now has about 450 members, and many of Reverend Billy's parishioners have joined him in activism as well as prayer over the years. Talen characterizes himself as a "public-space tactician" whose goal is to reclaim the dwindling commons spaces of New York City."You have to go on the street," he says. "You have to go to places where different kinds of people are; where there are unexpected results; where people who can't afford theater tickets might show up; where you are not operating at the whims of grant makers, government agencies, or real estate itself."Talen's attention-grabbing antics belie a relaxed, reasonable, and reflective person. He is as comfortable sprawled out on a picnic blanket in Brooklyn as he is dressed up in his costume onstage-but does he make him ready for the Mayor's Office in the largest city by population in the country?To his supporters, that isn't really the point. "We approached Billy because … he was able to reach out to be people that we hadn't reached out to before, especially young people," says Karen Young, a Brooklyn Green Party member. "Electoral politics in New York seems to be mostly boomers and older people. There are a lot of young people who are politically conscious and work on political issues, but they don't see electoral politics as a way to get things done. We think backing Billy sends the right message to young people. Our chances of beating [Bloomberg] aren't the greatest, but we're annoyed that people anointed Bloomberg the winner before the primaries."It was Bloomberg's about-face on term limits that pushed many younger volunteers into Talen's camp. After vocally opposing the extension of the law limiting elected officials in New York City to two terms, Bloomberg introduced an amendment in City Council that would allow him and 35 other members of the 61-seat council to run for another four years in office. Despite two public referendums in the past 15 years in which New Yorkers overwhelmingly supported the existing two-term limit, the City Council passed the bill last November.Not all Bloomberg's supporters remain faithful, though. After voting for Bloomberg in the 2004 election, Eric Forman, 35, plans to cast a ballot for the Rev in November. The term-limits extension is one of the reasons Forman switched camps, but not the only one."[Talen's] whole anti-consumerist thing, who he was pitching it at, what he was doing with it was more of an antagonistic poke to the mainstream that wasn't going to convince or do anything positive," says Forman, adding "even though it was hilarious and totally called for. Now, he's trying to do something that's more constructive and less mocking."If that late July fundraiser was any indication, it seems to be working. There were 650 people in the audience that night, and Joan Baez headlined. But once Talen took the stage after 9 p.m., it was clear people hadn't forked over $30 a head to see the iconic 1960s folk singer."I had a moment in there where I was like this guy, he's a saint," Holmes said. "He's so powerful that I don't believe anymore that he couldn't get elected. I believe that if he keeps doing this, if enough people saw him in this crazy city, New Yorkers would just be like ‘Fuck it. Let's vote for this guy. He's brilliant.'"Top photo by flickr user (cc) BraveNewFilms, lower photo by flickr user (cc) crizzirc.An original version of this story contained a misspelling of Talen as Tallen.