Jimmy McMillan is no longer a one-issue candidate.
The longtime New York gadfly and founder of the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, who rocketed to Internet stardom last year with his performance in the New York gubernatorial debate, announced recently that he will run for president in 2012 — as a Republican. And the rent that is “too damn high” is no longer his sole focus.
“I’m registered Republican now,” McMillan told me in an interview this weekend (which I recorded on my phone and uploaded to YouTube). “I was a Democrat, but I changed my line so that I can get the issues to the front that Obama’s not addressing.”
Why did I interview McMillan? I encountered him on the street Friday night in New York City, where he was glad-handing and debuting a new theme song and campaign vehicle — an SUV adorned with Rent Is Too Damn High Party decals. He was on St. Mark’s Place in the East Village, and college students from nearby Cooper Union and NYU were mobbing him for tongue-in-cheek photographs. He referred to them multiple times as “my people.”
McMillan said he had switched his registration to Republican because “the Democratic Party sucked.”
“They’re talking about all kind of politics, but not the people,” McMillan said, adding of the NYU undergrads swarming him: “I’m here to represent these tenants who can’t afford to pay rent.”
McMillan made a surprise appearance last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., where he was celebrated as a hero by throngs of conservative college students chanting “The rent is too damn high.” But McMillan denied that he had become a conservative. He described The Rent Is Too Damn High Party as a “movement” that would be joining the GOP to force President Obama to focus more aggressively on economic issues.
“Basically I want him to talk about how we’re going to reduce the deficit and create jobs,” McMillan said. “Remember when the president said ‘change is coming to America?’ But what he didn’t say is ‘spare change.’”
“The deficit is too damn high,” he added, perhaps unveiling a new slogan.
Not everyone, however, was convinced that McMillan’s change of heart was authentic. After I interviewed McMillan on the street, a gentleman who was clearly partial to the Rent Is Too Damn High Party’s original platform accused McMillan of “selling out” for money and said I should press him more on why he decided to join the Republican Party.
I wasn’t as surprised that McMillan was trying to extend his 15 minutes of fame. I used to cover City Hall in New York, where he was a fixture, showing up at bill signings and City Council hearings to rage against whatever injustice was being imposed upon him that week. Regardless of the issue at hand — for example, when he testified against Mayor Bloomberg’s bid to extend term limits in 2009 — McMillan always ended his speeches with his signature catchphrase, which has since become a national rallying cry for those who — legitimately — feel the government has failed them.
At the very least, McMillan might bring a little showmanship to national politics. He described his chances of winning the Republican nomination for president with a bravado rarely seen among contenders for elected office (at least publicly, anyway). “We may get nominated by the Republican Party,” McMillan said. “We’re the strongest person right now in the race.”
He added that, since 1995, “the Republicans have been in office, they just don’t know what to do. But I do. And I’m going to help them.”