Richard Brodsky stood in the middle of Zuccotti Park one afternoon last week, surrounded by several dozen drummers, a quartet doing tandem tai chi, two Native Americans calling for the freeing of Leonard Peltier and a stack of Godiva chocolate donated to the Occupy Wall Street protests. He was trying to get some answers.
Earlier in the day, the Bloomberg administration announced that all of the demonstrators would have to vacate the park so that it could be cleaned, and a few minutes prior, police commissioner Ray Kelly told reporters that the demonstrators wouldn’t be able to come back with their tents or sleeping bags. The protesters were vowing to resist and were furiously scrubbing the ground and replanting flowers to convince the mayor to change his mind. If that failed, they were planning to link arms and keep the cops from entering the park. The sky above the park began to darken. A massive thunderstorm was moving in. Something bad seemed to be in the offing.
“Are they resting their position on they want to clean or are they wanting to go beyond that?” Mr. Brodsky barked into his cell phone. “Who is negotiating for you? Who is negotiating on behalf of the kids? … I’ve done it before. I can help you. I want to be helpful. But I don’t want to stick my nose somewhere it doesn’t belong.”
Mr. Brodsky was not hard to spot at Zuccotti Park. Built like a fire hydrant and with a wisp of white hair blowing in the wind, he was the only protester down there wearing a tie, which on this day he had paired tastefully with a yellow checked, Brooks Brothers, button-down shirt, and was one of the few present able to compare the quality of tear gas today with the quality of tear gas from the anti-Vietnam war protests.
It is perhaps for this reason that the Occupy Wall Street protests have been something of a rehabilitation for the career of Richard Brodsky. After nearly three decades in the New York State Assembly, capped off by a disastrous run for attorney general that saw Mr. Brodsky slink from the top tier of candidates to garnering just 10 percent of the vote on primary night, the pugilistic ex-pol has embarked on a new career: pundit. Or, more specifically, the kind of pundit who can explain to older television viewers and newspaper readers exactly what the hell is going on down at Zuccotti Park.
“They know me,” Mr. Brodsky said by way of explanation. “I’ve been on Fox News. I’ve been on ABC, NBC. They knew me. RNN [Regional News Network, a suburban digital television network]. CNN. I’ve done these shows on other issues.”
Mr. Brodsky could have included National Public Radio, The Wall Street Journal, WABC, the Daily News and Fox Business News, where he played the part he is often cast—curmudgeonly intellectual giving the on-the-ground view of what those crazy kids in Manhattan are up to.
“I’m a conventional politician. And when a conventional politician, early, was speaking about this and was understanding and sympathetic, it was newsworthy. I hope I am joined by thousands of others. But at the point in which I was doing this stuff there were a lot of mugwumps. Do you know what a mugwump is? Someone with their mug on one side of the fence and their wump on the other. So there was a lot of mugwumpery.”
In his 28 years in the Assembly, Mr. Brodsky developed a reputation as one of Albany’s angrier men. Representing some of the tonier confines of Westchester County, he took on both sacred cows like the New York Yankees and easy targets like the M.T.A.
“I had a great time in the Legislature. It’s a great job. It’s not dysfunctional. One of things I am finding liberating about not being there is my ability to listen to the liberal press and the liberal government organizations who are the leading bad-mouthers of the Legislature in New York telling them how full of shit they are. It’s been a pleasure.”
Mr. Brodsky wandered over to the information booth. A 6 o’clock press conference was planned and a host of elected officials were going to descend on the park to urge the mayor to reconsider
“Sir, I spoke with you up there two nights ago, didn’t I? Yeah?” he said, pointing at one dreadlocked protester. “When you were a facilitator?”
He got no response back.
“Is Malinia around? I want to figure out how I can be helpful with the Bloomberg stuff. I know there is a lot going on.”
He was passed on to the next person at the information booth.
“There is this red-headed gal with a thing, whose name I don’t know. Do you know who I am talking about?” he said to the next guy, making a swirling motion around the top of skull to indicate that the thing was some kind of headwear.
“My name is Richard Brodsky. I was down here two nights ago, among other times. I want to make sure everyone knows that the elected officials are having a press conference at 6. And want to make sure that they don’t step on whatever it is you are doing.”
He checked his watch. He was supposed to attend a cocktail party with Hamilton Fish that started at around the same time as the press conference. The press conference was going to mark the first mass mobilization by the political class on Zuccotti Park. At first, most pols had stayed away, waiting to see exactly who these protesters were and what they were up to, before getting hauled before the television cameras.
Not so for Mr. Brodsky. Judge Andrew Napolitano, the host of Freedom Watch on Fox Business News, said that he sent his two most aggressive producers down to Zuccotti Park and tasked them with “coming back here with somebody we could put on the air.”
That somebody was Mr. Brodsky, who has since been on the libertarian-leaning talk show twice.
“He was thrilled to be on the show,” the judge said. “And this is not a show that has a lot of his fellow liberal Democrats as its audience.”
In the green room for Freedom Watch, Mr. Brodsky met Kelly Heresy, one of the campers down at Zuccotti Park who likewise has emerged as one of the most visible voices of Occupy Wall Street. The two became fast friends, and often tag team their media appearances.
“He is really excited about it,” Mr. Heresy said. “I think it is nostalgic for him, for the ’60s. I am just a protester. I am just a young person. He was put on to give me credibility but he has taken on that role in a much larger capacity.”
Back at Zuccotti Park, Mr. Heresy was nowhere to be found, and Mr. Brodsky was looking worried. His absence meant he was part of the contingent meeting with some of the politicians, and Mr. Brodsky was worried in equal measure about Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to move in and the pols plans to horn in.
“This is one of those collision moments when well-intentioned and genuinely concerned public officials and the movement itself have to be clear they are in very close communication,” he said. “Bloomberg’s action has provoked the political class into an activist posture while going into this they had been a little unsure.”
A woman with a microphone who said she operated some kind of audio-visual website came up to Mr. Brodsky and asked for an interview. He accepted.
“I was a member of the New York State Legislature for 28 years,” he said when she asked who he was and what he was doing there. “I am a conventional pol. And to the extent that I can lend that face to people, it may be reassuring to people, that it’s not what some in the media are showing—kids with long hair sleeping in the park.”
“I walked into this and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I recognize this. This is what the ’60s were supposed to be,’” he added. “It’s more the yippies than S.D.S. It’s cotton candyish. It has a structure that is soft and sweet and it is unlike any other movement since the Paris Commune. That may scare the hell out of people but so be it!”
She asked to take his picture.
“Knock yourself out,” he told her.
Few in Albany thought Mr. Brodsky would actually go through with his run last year for attorney general. He was thought to be too much of a creature of the Legislature, someone who made sure to stamp his name on every bill that went through his committee and who was suspected of regularly leaking to the press. At one point he was considered a possible successor to Speaker Shelly Silver, but “everyone dreaded the idea,” one colleague recalled. His persona—an Oxford don crossed with Keith Olbermann meets Catskills tummler—was too much.
“He is a very smart guy, but he is always on, always doing Jewish accents and jokes, almost in a cartoonish way,” the ex-colleague continued. “The line about him was that he was the smartest, funniest guy in Albany, and you knew it because Richard told you himself.”
Mr. Brodsky made the A.G.’s race entertaining, with his comic asides and over-the-top attacks on his opponents, but most of the political allies that he had spent 28 years courting abandoned him for the front-runners. His biggest endorsement came from nonagenarian folk singer Pete Seeger.
Another woman with a microphone approached. She asked if he wanted to be on her podcast. (She turned out to be Irene McGee from season seven of MTV’s The Real World.)
“I don’t care,” he said.
“What’s your name?”
“My name is Spartacus.”
“Spartacus?” She looked confused.
“I am Spartacus. You don’t even know what that means. When they tried to kill Spartacus after he crushed the slave revolt he stood up and said, ‘I am Spartacus’ Then every other defeated Gladiator stood up and said, ‘I am Spartacus.’ That’s a historical reference for people who are under the age of 17.”
“Maybe I can Netflix it?” A Democratic committeeman—the only other person at Zuccotti Park in a suit and tie—came up and introduced himself.
“Ain’t it great!” Mr. Brodsky said.
The committeeman seemed unsure. “Yeah?” he said, stretching out the vowels.
“It’s what it should be. It’s what we were hoping for!”
After a few awkward and silent seconds, Mr. Brodsky dismissed him with a “Good to see you.”
A couple of old union guys come up to him next. They said that if the mayor is really serious about cleaning up the city’s parks, he can start with some of the parks in their neighborhood in the Bronx.
“That’s brilliant! How do we find out where the dirty parks are?” Mr. Brodsky asks.
“No, by now.”
“We could call the state senators in the area.”
“No! Don’t farm it out. I am going to do talk to these guys,” Mr. Brodsky, pointing at the protesters. “There is a central committee.”
He began to make his way back to the information booth, stepping over the furiously sweeping brooms.
A man in a suit stood up on a ledge and started addressing the crowd about corporate greed. Cameras and protesters surrounded him.
“You see that? Whenever there is a crazy guy, you guys gravitate to him,” Mr. Brodsky said.
The speaker later introduced himself as a Harvard graduate and a small businessman in Manhattan who came down to show solidarity with the protesters.
“Well, he certainly is an old-leader in a group that doesn’t want old style-leaders,” Mr. Brodsky said, walking away.
The widespread assumption about Mr. Brodsky is that he is anxious to get back into politics, that he loved too much the back and forth and the press attention to stay long at his current postings—as a fellow at a liberal think tank, a professor at N.Y.U. and private practice attorney.
“I think he still has the fever in his blood,” said one television producer who has had Mr. Brodsky on. “There is still a part of him that wants to give it another shot.”
He has been said to be exploring a possible run for Westchester county executive, a Democratic-leaning county where the seat is now held by a Republican.
“You may have to ask these questions because at journalism school they told you to,” he said when asked if he wanted to get back into politics. “I have a desire to fly. I have a desire to make a trillion dollars. I have a desire to play scratch gold. What’s the point? I am having a good time. I am doing something important.”
It was O.K. By that point a little rain had begun to fall, and a handful of elected officials had begun to gather at a corner of the park for a news conference. Despite no longer being in office, and despite his concerns about the co-option of the protests by the pols, Mr. Brodsky joined them, standing in the back.
“I am from Westchester County, and I am old,” he told the protesters and the press. “That park is clean. That park has never been cleaner. If the cops are sent in there tomorrow it is not for public health and sanitation. It is to crush a movement. It won’t work. It didn’t work in the antiwar movement. It won’t work for Occupy Wall Street. And it’s not just generational—it’s for people of every hair color to join in on.”
And with that, he faded back into the crowd of protesters and politicians.
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