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Filler: Jimmy McMillan, New York's political jester

New York politician Jimmy McMillan speaks to an

New York politician Jimmy McMillan speaks to an attendee at the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce meeting on June 24, 2014, at the Akropolis diner in Nesconset. Credit: Lane Filler

As members of the Nesconset Chamber of Commerce held their monthly meeting Tuesday at the Akropolis Greek Restaurant, the mood was festive. They were excited, after last month's dopey speaker, to have a fun one: the Rent Is 2 Damn High Party's Jimmy McMillan. I shared their excitement, tempered by the fact that I was last month's dopey speaker.

McMillan had spoken to the Nesconset chamber in 2011, and was a hit, so having him back was a big deal. Tuesday he told the crowd that he's now a registered Republican and wants to help the Republicans beat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in November, but they won't call on him. So he's running again as the Rent Is 2 Damn High candidate.

He didn't talk long, but people enjoyed it, particularly when the microphone started screeching during introductions and he bellowed, "The volume is too damn high."

McMillan has been running for office -- president, governor, New York City mayor -- under the Rent Is 2 Damn High banner since 1993. He wasn't much better known than most fringe candidates, though, until the 2010 gubernatorial debate, when he became virally beloved.

The candidates in that debate were, in order of finish, Democrat Cuomo, Republican Carl Paladino, the Green Party's Howie Hawkins, Libertarian Wayne Redlich, McMillan, the Freedom Party of New York's Charles Barron and the Anti-Prohibition Party's Kristin Davis. Polls that week, 15 days before the election, showed Cuomo leading Paladino by 30 points, making the wisest debate strategy for the soon-to-be governor "Don't say anything stupid." Paladino was getting creamed both because he was too conservative for New York and because his campaign had an odd "You kids stop playing ball on my lawn, listening to that hippie music, and being gay" vibe. The surrealism crescendoed when he left the stage during the televised debate to go to the bathroom.

So the sideshow candidates became the show worth watching. McMillan was at the forefront, but all had moments: Redlich and Hawkins were thoughtful guys with the kind of great policy ideas no one listens to. Barron, a New York City councilman, kept upbraiding Cuomo, in an enraged tone, for saying "hydrofracking" rather than "hydraulic fracturing." Kristin Davis, the "Manhattan Madam," had the best line of the evening: "The career politicians in Albany are the biggest whores in this state. . . . I might be the only person sitting on this stage with the right experience to deal with them."

And then there was McMillan, who told us the rent was too damn high, again and again. With his sculpted hair on both scalp and face, black gloves, booming voice and broad smile, he was serious about having fun. He also told us that people could marry shoes as far as he was concerned, and that everybody was talking about the grades kids weren't getting in school but nobody was talking about the food they weren't getting to eat.

He said property taxes were too damn high, and the government had plenty of money to help people, if only it would. He was like your favorite uncle at Thanksgiving: nutty, yet lovably and notably wise, too.

I asked folks Tuesday why they like him and I got answers like "underdog," "he shakes things up" and "he brings an element of excitement."

How did McMillan explain his appeal? "I'm a Vietnam veteran who happened to come home, a dad, and the biggest clown you ever saw."

Our politics are a circus. We love McMillan because it's nice to have one clown who doesn't make the audience sad, and squirts seltzer down his own pants instead of ours.

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.