Screen grab courtesy of Bill Pepitone
Jul 1, 2021
Meet the mayoral candidate no one is talking about: Conservative Party’s Bill Pepitone
Brooklyn-born Pepitone (yes he's related to THAT Pepitone) is a stop-and-frisk ex-cop. He may not stand a chance, but he's running
Only a month after protests demanding justice for George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin engulfed New York City, a very different demonstration took place less than an hour’s drive away in the Long Island town of East Meadow. Rather than calling to defund the police, this crowd was rallying in their support, pushing back against what they saw as growing anti-cop sentiment.
Bill Pepitone, one of the event’s speakers and a retired New York City police officer himself, appreciated the show of support.
“Some of my most vivid memories were in the days and weeks after 9/11,” the burly 53-year old in a sweat-stained “THANK YOU NYPD” t-shirt told the crowd. “I remember how demoralized we were, how disheartened we were, but how our spirits were lifted, and our morale grew stronger because of you.”
“But right now, law enforcement, our police officers, our cops, are under a different attack. Not from foreign terrorists, but from weak-kneed politicians who kneel and bow before anarchists and criminals,” he said. “Your support is needed now more than ever. Again, stand by our police officers, back them up, let them hear you. The silent majority can no longer be silent, that’s what this is about today. For those of you from New York City, there’s gonna be a change next year, I promise you.”
In order to keep that promise, Bill Pepitone and his supporters will have to wrestle with one simple but essential question: does a retired cop who wants to return to the tough-on-crime policies of Rudy Giuliani stand a snowball’s chance in hell of being mayor of New York City in a post-George Floyd world? As the city awaits the final tally of the Democratic primary, Pepitone has a brief window in which to claim some spotlight.
As the Conservative Party’s nominee for Mayor of New York, Pepitone has positioned himself as the champion of voters who think the answer to the city’s post-Covid, post-protest malaise is some good old-fashioned law and order. And on paper, he’s a post-Trump conservative’s dream: a dad-next-door who’s not afraid to dabble in right wing populist talking points, but one who does so in the calmest way possible. Even when he does get a little angry in his speeches, he comes across as firm, not manic, and in the few media appearances he’s made since launching his campaign in June, he comes off as gently concerned, not crusading. It’s easy to see why voters would be attracted to someone with Pepitone’s personality. Whether or not the famously Democratic city will embrace his pro-police policies, however, is another question entirely.
‘It’s not bluster’
Born and raised in Gravesend, Brooklyn, Pepitone joined the NYPD in 1989 after graduating from Xaverian High School. For Pepitone, becoming a cop was like joining the family business—his father was a police officer and later a firefighter, and his uncle was a detective (his other uncle is Yankees legend Joe Pepitone). He served for 14 years in the Brooklyn South Task Force, where he was active during the 1989 Crown Heights riots and was a 9/11 first responder. Eventually, he moved on to a teaching role in the police academy as a physical training and tactics instructor.
“He took it very, very seriously. He had a great rapport with the recruits,” says George Duquette, a retired NYPD lieutenant who was Pepitone’s commanding officer. Duquette says that Pepitone was tasked with identifying weaknesses in the academy’s training regimen that were leaving officers vulnerable to injury while in the field, and that he embraced the challenges of this ambiguous task wholeheartedly. “He has passion for everything. You know, it’s not bluster. It’s, like, a passion and a drive to just do what he’s got to.”
In 2009, Pepitone and his family moved to Morrisville, Pennsylvania, after his 22-month-old daughter was diagnosed with autism, to take advantage of the state’s special needs programs. While the move necessitated Pepitone’s retirement from the NYPD, it also marked the beginning of his political career. Concerned with what he called the mismanagement of Morrisville’s police department, Pepitone decided to launch a write-in campaign for mayor only six weeks before the election was held in November of 2013.
“It was very, very late,” he tells Brooklyn Magazine. “But we put together a really strong write-in campaign. We knocked on every door in [Morrisville], we spoke to people, we had meet and greets. We got our message out very, very quickly.”
Pepitone finished second in that race. Two years later in 2015, Pepitone ran as a Republican for Morrisville’s borough council, defeating the council president and serving for two years before moving to Staten Island in 2019 after his divorce.
After watching New York go through a summer of civil unrest and an uptick in crime, Pepitone decided to throw his hat in the ring to become mayor of America’s largest city.
“I decided that I could do a couple of things,” Pepitone says. “I could either go on social media and vent my frustration that way. Or I could step up and do something with my experience, both in law enforcement and politics. I felt that I’d be a perfect candidate to be the next mayor of New York. And here I am.”
‘Upset, but not angry’
Just as he did in Morrisville, Pepitone decided to run for mayor of New York as a Republican. But despite being the first to announce his candidacy for the party’s nomination last June, he failed to gain ground with New York’s Republican power brokers. The Bronx, Queens, and Manhattan Republicans all endorsed former Federation of Taxi Drivers head Fernando Mateo, while the Brooklyn and Staten Island parties endorsed Guardian Angels founder Curtis Sliwa.
Pepitone did, however, garner the endorsement of the Conservative Party of New York State, a third party that frequently cross-endorses Republican candidates (New York state law allows candidates to run on multiple party lines; in 2020, Donald Trump ran as both a Republican and a Conservative, while Joe Biden was nominated by both the Democrats and the Working Families Party). Looking to save money and avoid what he thought would be a “circus” of a race, Pepitone dropped out of the Republican primary and is instead running for mayor on the Conservative ticket. Because he didn’t have to face a primary, Pepitone was, for a time, the only candidate who was guaranteed to appear on the ballot in November.
As for why the Conservative Party chose to endorse Pepitone instead of the higher profile Mateo or Sliwa, some common themes emerged. The first was both candidates’ baggage—Mateo claims he covertly funneled donations to Bill de Blasio’s campaign to secure an acquaintance a job with the city, while Sliwa has admitted to faking his own 1980 kidnapping—but an even more important factor seemed to be Pepitone’s temperament.
“I never see him nasty to people, I never see him lose his temper with anybody,” says Nanci Roden, the Executive Secretary of the Kings County Conservative Party, and one of the party leaders who interviewed and assessed candidates for the party’s endorsement. “I mean, I’ve seen him aggravated and annoyed. But he respects people enough to give them enough time to really explain what they’re saying. He’s just interested in what people have to say.”
Indeed, the most striking thing about Pepitone is the way he’s been able to balance the kind of grievance politics that carried Donald Trump to the White House with a gentle, approachable tone that the former president lacked. In his appearances on conservative media like Newsmax and 77 WABC, Pepitone ends up playing the straight man to more aggressive and inflammatory right wing media figures. On Jerry Tomczynski’s YouTube talk show “My Political Truth,” Pepitone delivered as calm and reasonable a reply any candidate could have to the host’s jeremiad against blended learning and the COVID “plandemic.”
“Children’s safety and health comes first,” he said. “I don’t like [blended learning], I also believe that children should be in school for the socialization part, which is so important in their young lives. But again, I understand the safety aspect.”
While being associated with figures like Tomczynski could turn off New York’s overwhelmingly Democratic electorate, Pepitone’s supporters are hopeful that his amiable approach to campaigning will help him stand out in a political moment defined by anger and bitterness.
“It’s the right way to go about it because I think what happens is you get a lot of people who like to get up and scream and yell and scream and yell, and after a while it’s just screaming and yelling and screaming and yelling,” says Fran Vella-Marrone, the Chairwoman of the Kings County Conservative Party. “Here you have somebody who is upset with the way that the city is going, yet he’s not angry. He wants to do something about it.”
The plan that Pepitone does have for New York City is a blend of Conservative Party priorities and his own law enforcement-centric agenda. His designs on lowering taxes and loosening licensing and permit laws are nearly lockstep with the Conservative platform, as is his proposal to reintroduce testing for the city’s specialized high schools.
More populist ideas include his insistence that the next chancellor of the city’s Department of Education be a public school teacher (“we need a chancellor who’s been in front of school children, who knows the obstacles they face”) and his plans to proactively combat homelessness. Pepitone says that he wants to construct “permanent housing” for New York’s homeless and provide them with mental health and vocational training resources to help them “get back into society.”
The centerpiece of Pepitone’s platform is, of course, public safety. Frustrated by the rise in crime that New York experienced in 2020, Pepitone has vowed a return to the “proactive policing” strategies made famous by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, which includes cracking down on low level “quality of life offenses” such as vandalism, public intoxication, and fare evasion.
This may be the toughest policy priority for Pepitone to sell voters on. While the implementation of the “broken windows theory” of policing won Giuliani plaudits from some residents and law enforcement advocates during the mid-90s and early 2000s, the policy has since come under heavy criticism.
The most scrutinized of these tactics is stop-and-frisk, a policy that allows police officers to detain and search people on the street if they “have reasonable belief that the person is, has been or is about to be involved in a crime.” Popularized under Giuliani and expanded under his successor Michael Bloomberg, stop-and-frisk became a lightning rod for controversy when it emerged that African Americans and Latinos were stopped at significantly higher rates than whites. In 2013, NYPD officers testified that they were told to meet quotas for stops, summonses, and arrests, and a U.S. district judge ruled that the policy violated the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments. That same year, Bill de Blasio made opposition to stop-and-frisk a cornerstone of his mayoral campaign, and ultimately emerged from a crowded primary to become the first Democrat elected as New York’s Mayor since 1989. While the NYPD continues to use the tactic, the number of stop-and-frisks fell by 76 percent during de Blasio’s first term in office, and crime fell along with it.
While moderate Democratic mayoral candidate Kathryn Garcia has come out in opposition to defunding the police, she has not endorsed the reintroduction of stop-and-frisk. In fact, the only pro stop-and-frisk Democratic candidate with a serious chance of winning the primary is Eric Adams, who, like Pepitone, is also a former cop. While Pepitone maintains that stop-and-frisk is a necessary crime fighting tool, he also acknowledged that the use of quotas has helped create a feeling of distrust between the department and the city’s residents.
“When you pressure police officers to reach a certain goal every month, you wind up with unnecessary confrontations,” he says. “And this is why you have that division between police officers and the community right now. It’s been that way forever, but it needs to change. I don’t know if anybody else is willing to do so but I can do it, because I know the damage it’s done.”
It isn’t just Pepitone’s politics that make him a long shot. Sheer numbers and recent history are against him as well: the Democratic Party holds a two-to-one registration advantage over every other party in the city, and the Conservative Party hasn’t elected a non-cross endorsed candidate for office since 1976 (they’ve also never endorsed a successful mayoral candidate).
Despite these long odds, Pepitone and his supporters are hopeful that he can appeal to voters fed up with the two major parties.
“I don’t think we should give up on the fact that just because Democrats tremendously outnumber everyone else there will always be a Democratic mayor,” Vella-Marrone says. “I think that depends on the circumstances surrounding the city and what’s happening, and what people want to focus on. And if they find somebody that’s going to listen to them, they’ll support that person no matter what their political philosophy is.”
Right now, Pepitone’s top challenge is making sure that voters can in fact find him. Outside of his occasional appearance in conservative media and brief interviews with the New York Daily News, The Gotham Gazette, and The Tablet, most of the area’s major media outlets—including the right-leaning New York Post—have yet to give significant attention to the Pepitone campaign. While he maintains an active presence on social media, where he writes all of his own Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram posts, that dearth of free media could prove to be a problem when it comes to generating the level of name recognition needed for a successful third-party bid. But even though the lack of attention has frustrated Pepitone and his supporters, they still relish the idea of playing the underdog.
“He really is a unique candidate,” Roden, one of the Conservative Party leaders hoping Pepitone can defy the odds, says. “Do you realize, if he pulls this off, that it will probably be one of the most interesting political campaigns of our time?”
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