On a Wednesday evening in mid October, John Mangelli, independent candidate for United States Senator from New York, was speeding west in my rental car on I-90 toward Rochester, where his family was waiting in a Marriott hotel room. It was the end of a long twenty-four hours for Mangelli. The previous night, he and his wife Valerie and their three young girls had headed straight for Rochester from a town hall meeting in Queens, making it as far as Albany before calling it a night. They were back on the road at 5 a.m. so Mangelli could keep a 10:30 TV appointment in Rochester, before making the hourlong drive east to Buffalo, where he would participate in two meet-the-candidate events. Now, back behind the wheel once more, Mangelli was munching on barbecued chicken breast from a nearby high-school fundraiser and talking about kudzu, an invasive vine species.
“People don’t understand the vines,” he says, the passion evident in his voice, although he quickly acknowledged that his father had tried to discourage him from discussing kudzu on the campaign trail. Mangelli easily works himself up over the issues he’s passionate about, and environmentalism is a core cause, has been ever since he first saw “Wild Kingdom” and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau on TV growing up in Suffolk County, Long Island. Kudzu, colloquially known as “the vine that ate the south,” is a parasitic species that grows on top of other plants and buildings to reach light. Left unchecked, it can snap an oak tree in half. Now spreading north at a rate of 150,000 acres per year all along I-90 in upstate New York, a rolling biomass of knotty vines and broken trees is evidence of its lethal persistence. Mangelli is convinced kudzu presents one of the biggest environmental problems in the country, and seeing 80-foot tall trees on the forest floor with their roots exposed like wires, it was hard to disagree with him.
“The vines prevent the tree from conducting photosynthesis!” Mangelli said, his voice rising. “We need the trees to breathe! And we’re deforesting the planet by hectares every minute. If we don’t have trees to breathe, if we don’t have water to drink, how are we going to live in a hundred years?”
You will be forgiven if you haven’t heard the name John Mangelli: the most recent poll for the New York Senate race, conducted October 22-24 by Siena College, shows Democratic incumbent Kirsten Gillibrand trouncing Republican challenger Wendy Long 67% to 24%; Mangelli and the other two long-shots on the ballot aren’t even listed in the results. But Mangelli, 46, is eager to make himself known. He is a third-generation Italian-American who, aside from attending college in Maryland, postgrad stints in Korea and Japan, law school in Michigan, and a couple dozen workweeks in Tampa, has lived all his life in Long Island. He has run his own law practice since 1999, specializing in foreclosure defense, personal injury claims and bankruptcies, always “on the side of the little guy.” Following the housing crisis several years ago, he worked nights as a limousine driver to provide for his family. Like most people, he is fed up with the political status quo, but unlike most, he decided to take the most righteous action he could think of — running for the Senate. “I refuse to accept the notion that things are not able to be changed for the better,” he says. He sounds like a Tea Partier when holding forth on taxes and immigration, but his environmental opinions could get him Green Party support, if he were looking for party backing. (He’s not). He’s maybe six feet tall, with slicked-back silvering hair and a sharky smile, and he fills out a sharp suit like an N.F.L. linebacker, much wider at the shoulders than the hips. He is a disciple of the Horatio Alger myth, but he is not running for United States Senator for riches or fame but because he is trying to do the right thing.
“Each of our eight children had their own niche,” says his father, Ralph, “and John’s was trying to save the world.”
Earlier that morning, I’d met Mangelli and his family at the downtown studio of WXXI, Rochester’s public television station, where he was filming a free two-minute campaign commercial. Between takes, Valerie Mangelli straightened her husband’s tie, advised him on posture and phrasing, and offered words of encouragement. “Just do it like you do at home,” she said, after one halting attempt. “Nice and easy. All your friends are here.”
Reading from a teleprompter, Mangelli rolled off his main selling points:
“I am the only true independent candidate.”
“I’m a devoted Catholic, husband, and father.”
“I will fight for affordable health care, lower taxes, seo services everyone can use, social security, converting welfare into workfare, and converting consumption to conservation.”
“I will vote according to majority opinion, not special interests.”
It’s this last pledge that sets Mangelli apart from other candidates. When he says he will vote according to majority opinion, he is referring to his plan to put Senate bills on his website and allow New Yorkers to cast their votes. The winning majority will determine how Mangelli votes on the bill in the Senate. “The main reason I am running is that the politicians make decisions without ever asking us,” Mangelli writes on his website. “Once they are in office they forget the people. They don’t forget the companies that gave those millions or the party that sponsored them.”
“An immigration bill passed a few years ago that really annoyed me,” he said after the TV shoot, on the road toward Buffalo. “I called Chuck Schumer, called [Hillary] Clinton, no response. There were no press conferences, no public forums — so how is it that they’re representing us, when we don’t have a say?” Mangelli says this was the moment he started to think about running for public office, eventually deciding to take aim at Sen. Gillibrand’s seat. “If I run for assemblyman and lose, nobody’s going to remember me,” he reasoned. “But if I run for United States Senator…” A smile breaks across his face. “And not for nothing, but the fact that I’m a Senate candidate makes me feel good.”
For a candidate outside the two-party system, getting on the ballot is itself a Herculean task. A third-party candidate for the Senate from New York must present a petition for ballot access, with a required 15,000 signatures. No more than 3,500 signatures can come from any one district, and at least half of the state’s twenty-nine congressional districts must be canvassed. So this summer, Mangelli scrounged up a team of volunteers and got to work.
“I was out there every day,” he said. “I went to street fairs, events, Central Park, Eisenhower Park. I went into Brooklyn, the Bronx, into Manhattan, Staten Island, I went into Yonkers, went into Albany, I went everywhere, working hours in the hot sun, sweating my ass off, just introducing myself.”
“John is a great guy to work for,” said Leanna Kirschen, a junior at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and one of Mangelli’s summer interns. “When he gets passionate about something, there is no stopping him.”
When Mangelli got his signatures — the final count was more than 27,000 — he named his political party the Common Sense Party, and put a banner on every page of his website that reads: “I made the Ballot!!!!!!!!! I made the Ballot!!!!!!!!!” He did not run with any political backing; except for a couple hundred dollars in donations from friends, his campaign is entirely self-funded.
“That’s the difference between me and everybody else — I did this one-hundred-percent on my own,” he said, pounding the steering wheel for emphasis. “I did not want to be beholden to anybody. Nobody’s gonna tell me what to do except the general public.” His to-date filings with the Federal Election Commission list the same healthy five-digit number in the receipts and disbursements columns. “If Kirsten Gillibrand has $11 million in her war chest, are you telling me she’s not beholden to anybody?”
“Special interests and lobbyists can’t corrupt him,” said Tara Wood-O’Brien, Mangelli’s volunteer campaign manager. “He’s kept himself accountable. Just think if all Senators did this!”
A few dozen miles west on I-90 in the Buffalo suburb of Getzville, approximately one-hundred employees of GEICO Regional Office 8 were taking advantage of the free sandwiches at a company-organized “Meet the Candidates” lunchtime mingle. According to Paul Giglio, an “Emerging Leader” in GEICO’s management department, seventeen of the twenty-one invited candidates showed up. Mangelli was the last to arrive, and one of only two, as far as I could tell, who was running for federal office. (The other was Mike Madigan, Republican nominee for U.S. House Congressional District 26, in upstate New York). Despite a palpable lack of energy in the room by 1:30 p.m. (the vibe was “last moments of high school lunch period”), Mangelli dispensed business cards and fervently recited his stump speech, venturing into the general cafeteria area where GEICO employees shuffled sandwich remains on paper plates.
At one table, Mangelli laid out his plan to offer $10-per-hour jobs to at-risk youth, clearing vines and cleaning parks as a way to keep them off street corners. He decried New York’s onerous taxes (head nods all around). He even humorously lamented the rising cost of pizza.
“Well, you got my vote!” said Brandon Palmer, a GEICO employee.
“He seemed like a realist,” Palmer said a few minutes later, after Mangelli had moved on to another table. Amanda Tierney, another employee, added that Mangelli “seems honest.”
The event seemed to energize Mangelli, who had an added swagger as we walked back to the car. Next stop: another meet-the-candidate event at Western New York Independent Living, Inc., an advocacy organization for disabled individuals. There, a succession of candidates took five-to-ten minutes to make their election cases and answer questions in a drafty ground-floor room overflowing with concerned citizens.
In the hallway outside, one of the organization’s workers prepped the candidates on some of the special issues they might be asked about by this particular crowd. Mangelli, whose entire raison de la campagne is predicated on being a cipher for the people and not pushing his own policy ideas, was suddenly unsure of the endeavor. He considered leaving, but repressed the urge.
After two hours of frequently-prickly Q&As — and wouldn’t you be somewhat captious, if the issues closest to your heart were never publicly debated, never featured in campaign speeches? — it was Mangelli’s turn at the podium. He removed the mic from its stand, like a crooner readying for his big ballad, and immediately circumvented his lack of specific policy knowledge regarding the disabled community. “I’m definitely not going to have the answers to some of these hard questions you have. I’m not running because I have the answers — I’m running because I want you to have a say about the decisions being made by your elected officials. Everybody has a good story to tell during the election year, but once the elections go by, nobody’s listening.” Nodding heads, sympathetic “yep”s.
Mangelli segued into his Catholic/father/lawyer biography, using anecdotes about his own financial struggles, including one about how he sold vacuums door-to-door to pay his way through college. Odd jobs are to the Mangeli narrative what cans of tuna fish and rusted out cars are to the Romney and Obama stories, respectively; the candidate’s (or his wife’s) symbol of choice in getting real with the American people.
Mangelli filibustered in this vein for another twenty minutes, ignoring the appeals of two staff members at the back of the room making first the “speed-it-up” finger motion and then the throat-slashing gesture. He outlined his plan to give people the vote. He stoked class resentment, pointing out that Kirsten Gillibrand and Wendy Long are multi-millionaires. He railed against the federal government’s encroachment on state rights. He lightened the mood with self-deprecating humor. The vines were mentioned. His reluctance to turn it over to questions bordered on comical.
But the crowd was receptive to Mangelli, and like the GEICO employees, seemed to find him honest, real. Afterward, Mangelli thought the event was “excellent.”
On the drive back to Rochester, Mangelli preempted the question I’d been afraid to ask.
“I know my chances of winning this are so astronomically unrealistic,” he said. “But at the same time, I would hope people are sick of voting for the same two parties.”
If he ever finds his way to elected office, time will tell how the pressures of money, lobbyists, and the two-party system will play on him. But at this moment, it is hard not to respect and admire what Mangelli is doing.
“I used to look at people passing out signs and flyers in public and think, ‘that’s embarrassing.’ And now I’m doing it! People must think I’m an asshole,” he said, “but you try to do the right thing. This is something I can look back on and say, ‘OK, I wasn’t an armchair quarterback. I tried to make a difference.'”