Two years ago, Thomas Lopez-Pierre promised uptown Manhattan’s political insiders that he was going to quit being so outrageously offensive.
The longtime gadfly, who once called a New York State Assemblywoman a “$20 political slut,” was convincing enough in his vow to reform that he drew a donation from a prominent uptown Democrat who had once called him out for his “sexist, homophobic and racist comments.”
Now, thanks in part to his promises of moderation, Lopez-Pierre is on the brink of gaining access to tens of thousands of dollars in public matching funds.
He’s also back to blaming the displacement of Harlem’s black and Hispanic residents on “greedy Jewish landlords,” in comments that have gained national attention in recent days.
“Harlem was 90% black and Latino,” Lopez-Pierre told the Forward. “And now it is 65% black and Latino. So what we’ve seen is black and Latino people be forced out of their apartments by greedy landlords. Eighty percent of the landlords are Jewish in Harlem.”
City political activists are piling on with condemnations of Lopez-Pierre. Obie Bing, a prominent uptown Democratic activist who sits on a local community board that overlaps with part of Lopez-Pierre’s district, said that Lopez-Pierre’s anti-Semitic rhetoric “really doesn’t play up here.”
Yet some say Lopez-Pierre’s pitch has reached some receptive ears in fast-gentrifying Harlem and upper Manhattan, where he is running to unseat incumbent City Councilmember Mark Levine.
Lopez-Pierre has vowed to ride the controversy to a win in the Democratic primary in September.
“What do they think is going to happen when I run in the black and Latino community?” he said. “I’m going to be unstoppable. Because my message is powerful.”
Levine, the incumbent, acknowledges that bad landlords are a problem. He says he’s been active on the issue, helping pass legislation to provide lawyers for tenants facing eviction in housing court.
But he said that Lopez-Pierre’s remarks are classic anti-Semitism.
“It’s a centuries-old tactic of, where a community is struggling, demagogues find a scapegoat to blame it on,” he said. “Far too often that’s been Jews. Particularly the narrative of Jews controlling things. That’s exactly the playbook he’s following here.”
It’s true that Jews historically have owned plenty of real estate in Harlem. It’s also true that many of the city’s worst landlords, to judge from lists published annually by the city’s Public Advocate, have been Jewish. But observers say that Lopez-Pierre’s language is blatantly anti-Semitic.
“What [Lopez-Pierre] is saying is that these landlords are greedy because they’re Jewish,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of the rabbinical human rights group T’ruah, who has written about the Jewish community’s obligation to confront Jewish slumlords. “That’s classic anti-Semitism, and it’s not true. That’s very different than saying there happen to be some landlords in our community, and some are behaving badly.”
Lopez-Pierre’s bizarrely insulting rhetoric has kept him on the sidelines of political life in Harlem and the Upper West Side. Yet in 2015, after dropping out of a City Council race and losing two races for low-level Democratic Party offices, he insisted he was starting fresh.
“He told me he was changing his approach,” said Cheryl Pahaham, who ran for City Council in a district just north of Lopez-Pierre’s in 2013. “He wasn’t going to be engaging in offensive rhetoric. We had met and he talked a lot about changing his strategy, how he was going to be a new man.”
Pahaham had attacked Lopez-Pierre in 2013 over his language. Yet she believed him in 2015 when he said he was making a change, and so she donated at the time to his 2017 City Council campaign.
“I said OK, because he’s actually intelligent, he has something to say about entrepreneurship,” Pahaham said.
That year, Lopez-Pierre raised nearly $7,000, more than he’d raised in his entire aborted 2013 effort to win the same office.
Donations came from prominent mainstream uptown political activists, including Bing, a member of the local Community Board in Washington Heights and at the time the president of the Barack Obama Democratic Club, of which Lopez-Pierre is a member. Bing says he donated to every club member who ran for office and that he never supported Lopez-Pierre.
Since then, Lopez-Pierre raised a few thousand more dollars, and says that as of the next filing period, he will have reached the donor threshold to qualify for public matching funds.
Yet so far, his promises to change his ways appear to have evaporated.
Last August, Lopez-Pierre sent out a fundraising email with the subject line: “SAVE HARLEM from Greedy Jewish Landlords.” He’s repeated the theme in public forums and online in recent months, as he ramps up his efforts against incumbent City Council representative Mark Levine, who he hopes to take on in the September primaries.
Pahaham, for one, feels burned. “I regret making the donation,” she told the Forward.
Still, uptown activists acknowledge that his arguments have gained some traction.
“He has a support base,” said Pahaham. “You may not realize it, but he has people who vote.”
Bing said that while members of his community dislike Lopez-Pierre’s rhetoric, they are compelled by his charges that Levine takes too much money in political donations from real estate interests.
“People certainly are concerned about supposed donations Mark has taken from unscrupulous landlords,” Bing said. “Matter of fact, a couple of these unscrupulous landlords have been involved in evicting blacks and minorities.”
Of the $235,000 Levin has raised so far for his reelection bid, $12,000 has come from people who identify themselves in disclosure forms as being involved in the real estate industry. Not all donors identify themselves by their industry in disclosure forms, so the actual amount is likely higher. Lopez-Pierre says he has counted $37,000 in large donations to Levine’s campaign war chest from people in real estate.
“It’s absurd to think that my legislating on tenant issues had been bought and paid for by landlords,” Levin said.
Lopez-Pierre says that he has moderated his tone. “I was referring to my use of foul language to attack political opponents,” he said of vow to change in 2015. “I decided I wasn’t going to do that anymore.”
Asked to elaborate, Lopez-Pierre said: “It means I’m not going to call Brian Benjamin a cocksucker,” referring to a 2013 incident in which he sent an expletive-laced email to Benjamin, now a Democratic Party-backed candidate expected to win a May special election for State Assembly, attacking him for supporting Levine.
“My political supporters asked me to behave myself,” Lopez-Pierre said. “I agreed that I would. But that never included not being direct and honest about the terrible things that Jewish landlords are doing to push black and Latino tenants out of Harlem.”
Lopez-Pierre’s knack for grabbing media attention predates his involvement in politics. In a 2004 piece in the now-defunct New York Sun, the political journalist Errol Louis outlined a litany of fly-by-night projects Lopez-Pierre had been involved in, going back years.
“The projects typically appear to raise money and promise great success, but often dissolve into the wind without explanation,” Louis wrote.
In recent days, a new wave of reporting has crashed on Lopez-Pierre. The New York Observer wrote on April 24 that Lopez-Pierre pleaded guilty in January for violating a family court restraining order taken out by his ex-wife.
Meanwhile, local paper The Manhattan Express reported on unusual connections between a Lopez-Pierre and a new candidate entering the primary contest for Levine’s seat. The paper reported that real estate agent Matthew Gros-Werter, who is Jewish, will run for council in the district. An employee of Gros-Werter’s is Lopez-Pierre’s campaign treasurer, while Gros-Werter’s sister has donated to Lopez-Pierre’s campaign.
The paper quoted an email newsletter sent out by Lopez-Pierre, in which he wrote: “These two Jewish candidates will divide the Jewish vote!”
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported that Brian Benjamin is currently a member of the State Assembly. In fact, he is the Democratic candidate in a May special election for State Assembly._
Update: This story has been updated to provide additional context to the Forward’s analysis of Levine’s fundraising.
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.