If you don’t know who the North Brooklyn Democratic District Leader is at this point, well, then you probably haven’t attended too many Community Board 1 meetings, and it’s also safe to say that you’re definitely not a member of the Brooklyn Young Democrats. But if you live in or around Greenpoint or Williamsburg and care to be involved in the future of the Democratic Party or the Progressive movement, rest assured there are easier ways to get to know Nick Rizzo than crashing a tedious land-use committee hearing.
For one, you could always convene with Rizzo on the Lower East Side, where you’ll find him working behind the bar at 151. It was clearly a slow night when I stopped by last week (he’d just finished doing the glamorous work of juicing some oranges), so Rizzo had some time to chat about Bernie Sanders, Elena Ferrante, and a rather awkward encounter at Vito Lopez’s wake, among other things.
“Everyone here is a musician, except me,” Rizzo explained, pointing around to the other employees at 151. And yeah, now that he’d said so, it was kind of strange to see an elected official moonlighting at a bar. The fact that Brooklyn’s 42 Democratic Party district leaders are unpaid might have something to do with it, but it’s also because Rizzo, in many ways, isn’t your typical politician.
Since his election in 2014 was met with headlines like “Cool Running: Bearded, Tattooed Bartender Vies to Run W’Burg Politics,” Rizzo has lived up to the hype by proving that he’s Brooklyn’s ultimate Millennial politician. And that’s not only because last spring he tweeted out an account of getting punched in the face at Tommy’s Tavern in Greenpoint after the owner grabbed a female employee and Rizzo stepped in to defend her. (“He left in handcuffs. It was fucking awesome,” Rizzo tweeted, subsequently posting a selfie showing off his black eye.) Policy-wise, Rizzo also shares some concerns with the Brooklyn hipster constituency (the security of nightlife, for one), and like many liberal-minded people of our generation, he also cares a great deal about issues of equality (e.g. affordable housing) and is frustrated with (pardon the overused word) the establishment.
In short, Rizzo is reform-minded (even if he’s trying not to use the term “reform” so much these days) and says he’s determined to shake up old-school Brooklyn Democratic machine politics, having campaigned on a platform that included greater transparency and anti-corruption. Rizzo may not have much power in his current position, but he has set his sights on political ambitions way up the ladder. No doubt he’s still figuring out how exactly he’s going to get there (case in point: his Twitter profile reads, rather ambiguously, “ex(?)-journalist“). For now, Rizzo might be the most accessible politician out there, and I strongly suggest you pick his brain before he gets too busy for minor chit-chat.
I’ve been following politics really, obsessively, closely since I was 10, so that’s 20 years now. I barely see any possibility of Trump winning. But it’s possible. Anything’s possible.
Well, I think he legitimately frightens people, so there has to be some realness to the thought of him winning, right?
Oh yeah, sure. Look, the fact that he’s so fucking frightening, is one of the reasons why we’re going to win. It’s going to motivate everyone who would otherwise be lazy about voting to vote. It’s not going to be a feel-good election unfortunately, it’s just going to be these candidates attacking each other endlessly. But won’t it be at least a little bit satisfying when we come out of all this [and are able to say], ‘The biggest presidential loser of the last 30 years is Donald Trump.’ Like, that’ll feel good, even if the rest of it doesn’t.
You’re right, this election really does feel awful. Everything’s so anti- and so extreme. People are saying the grossest things. I’ve never followed an election where I’ve actually felt angry about the things candidates and their supporters and detractors were saying, but this one is different. And every single candidate’s conceivable victory carries a tinge of doom. I think it was Gawker that made an important point– ‘Reminder John Kasich is Also Evil’– which is so true, and terrifying.
The Republican Party has really failed to learn from their mistakes which, in the short run, is great for the Democratic Party. But it’s actually better for all of us to have a functioning two-party system.
This seems fairly plausible: if Trump wins the nomination, and a decent chunk of Republican elected officials and Republican establishment figures distance themselves from him, or take a walk on this election, possibly run a third-party candidate, whatever– then Trump loses, what’s the narrative for all these people voting for Trump? It’s not going to be, ‘Oh, we’re sorry we were so crazy, we’re going to learn from that and not be crazy anymore.’ Instead, the narrative will be, one, the establishment stabbed us in the back and, two, once again, we nominated an insufficiently conservative figure. It’s actually kind of tricky where Trump stands on gay rights and abortion. So that means that they’re not going to learn, and they’re just going to nominate Ted Cruz next time or something.
I saw all these super hip, young kids in Bed-Stuy recently, all white, campaigning for Bernie Sanders, appealing to people that didn’t look anything like them. I mean, everyone approaching the table was either black or Latino. And it was really clear to me that there’s this very clear divide. Why do you think Bernie has had such trouble appealing to people who aren’t young white people?
The future of the Progressive movement, period, relies on a multiracial coalition. It has to. I don’t think it’s a huge surprise that Bernie is having some issues with getting traction, I mean this is his first Democratic primary, and he’s from the whitest state in the union. I come from the Reform side of Democratic politics, and for 100 years in this heavily Democratic city, there are battles between the two factions of Democrats that go back many, many, many generations. One side is called the Machine, or the Regulars, and the other side is the Reformers who are more concerned with issues of access and fairness. Historically, Reformers have been upper-middle-class and white. If you look at the reform stronghold of Brooklyn, it’s brownstone Brooklyn.
It’s really, really important to me that Reform not just be a white movement. That’s one of the reasons why I almost never use the word “reform” anymore, and if we’re going to move forward, and we are, we have to do this as a multiethnic thing. And one thing that people don’t think about with City politicians, that makes it a little bit harder for them to reach across racial divides, is that because of the Voting Rights Act, politicians are almost always the same color as the district they represent.
Actually, I showed up for Vito’s wake. I was the only person from my side who showed up, and it was an old, Italian-American funeral parlor in East Williamsburg. I was told it would be the respectful thing to do, because we served on the Executive Committee of the Democratic Party together in Brooklyn. I show up there and I go up to his main protege, Andy Marte and I’m like, ‘Andy, I’m so sorry for your loss.’ [Rizzo reaches out his hand.] And he just stares at my hand. That’s the only time anyone’s ever refused to shake my hand. So I look over [toward the coffin] and say, ‘Yup, definitely dead.’
But, no, seriously– this is an individual, and I may have spent every week for a six-year period thinking, ‘This guy is my enemy,’ but he’s a person too, and he had a family, and friends, and people who miss him and all this shit. But [the funeral] was just crazy.
So that night, after it was over, I was here [working at 151]. I had my sleeves rolled up and I was in a black tie and suit, and at the end of the night the bar back from our sister bar, who I’d never met before, but who had a neck tattoo and all this stuff, he was giving me crap about bartending in a suit or whatever. And I was like, look, ‘I stared my enemy dead in the face today, you think I give a fuck about you?! I don’t even remember your name, bro!’ So, yeah, that was one of the crazier things that’s happened to me in the last six months.
It fulfills a childhood dream to support an out-and-out socialist. Look, I do believe in Bernie’s economic critique. I do believe that Hillary is probably a little too close to the financial elite. I mean, she’s been in the presidential bubble for 24 years now, like, that effects people. I’m also incredibly worried about the Democratic Party being co-opted by a single family. This is not to say, obviously, that I won’t support her, because I will totally be supporting her for President if she wins the nomination.
How do you feel about these “Bernie Bros”? Do you think it’s just an alarmist thing, or this a legitimate problem?
As a man, I’m not exposed to 95 percent of the most vile sorts of sexism in the world, so no, it definitely exists. Bernie Bros definitely, definitely exist. I’ve seen some bad online behavior from supporters of Bernie Sanders. I think a lot of it comes out of frustration with the system, or whatever. But I’ve seen shitty things that supporters of Hillary Clinton have said online too and, you know, essentially all of the Republican presidential campaigns are just a collection of shitty statements made online. So to act like this is a problem unique to the male supporters of Bernie Sanders, it’s just not the case.
I’ve read a lot of critiques regarding Bernie supporters, and many of them seem to have this similar backbone along the lines of, ‘Oh, if I were still in college, then of course I’d be supporting Bernie Sanders. But I’m a grown up, so I’m supporting Hillary.’ So much of this has become about maturity. Even Bill Clinton said that the problem with Bernie supporters is “the absence of serious debate and discussion” and joked that they dismiss everything with blanket statements about “the establishment.” What do you think this stems from?
There’s an enormous generational divide, and we’re seeing this in a lot of different places. We’ve got the largest partisan generational divide since they started polling this question 70 years ago. Those over 65 are fairly heavily Republican at this point, whereas those under 35, they might not self-identify as Democrats, but they’re sure as fuck not voting for Republicans. And we’re especially seeing that play out in the Democratic primary. Look at Iowa– Hillary Clinton had campaigned with Katy Perry, Lena Dunham, she had– I dunno– Tina Fey, and Abbi and Ilana from Broad City did an episode with her. She said ‘Yasss Qween!’ She was really trying hard.
And yet the exit polls showed that among people under 25, 85 percent of them voted for Bernie because it turns out Millennials– and Generation Z it appears even more– are just really radical. Pretty much. They’re not afraid of the word “socialism.”
Look, I recognize that everyone with political experience, pretty much, is supporting Hillary. There are two other people elected in Brooklyn, besides me, who support Bernie, and one of them is also a dude with a beard and arm tattoos– Rafael Espinal from Bushwick, the Councilman.
You mentioned that there aren’t that many hip politicians, or literature-reading ones, or whatever (although there’s evidence that Hillary Clinton is something of a Star Wars fan). But I have to ask, what do you think of Antonio Reynoso? I once saw him riding away from a press conference on a bike.
Antonio is my best friend in politics. The day he defeated Vito Lopez was one of the happiest days of my life. One day I was out with Antonio, we hit up CB4 in Bushwick, [then went to] a Brooklyn Young Democrats meeting in Park Slope, we’re both riding bikes the wrong way down the street, and Carlos Menchaca [District 38 City Council Member] pops into the meeting. Ninety seconds later Rafael Espinal [of District 37] is there and the first words out of his mouth are, ‘You heard the new Arcade Fire album?’ And then there’s Ritchie Torres [from 15th District]– this would have been impossible a year ago, and they’re all very cool in their own way.
Maybe most politicians don’t read a lot of books, but all the politicians I just named are really good dancers, especially Antonio Reynoso. I mean, all these guys are amazing dancers.
There are two in the State Assembly, both are of West-Indian descent – Rodneyse Bichotte, she lives in Flatbush. And then Diana Richardson of Crown Heights, she’s a fiery radical, very smart. And Emily Gallagher, she’s running for the female Democratic District Leader in my district, she’s also on the board at Neighbors Allied for Good Growth (NAG). Also, Veronica Aveis of Brooklyn Young Democrats– she’s cool, she has worked with Planned Parenthood and she likes fantasy novels.
One of the reasons why I do this, is because almost every other District Leader in Brooklyn has a job that’s connected to politics somehow– they hold another political office, or they work for an attorney, or something like that– this is my way of being completely independent. Also, it just keeps shit real. I don’t think there are that many New York politicians who can discuss the novels of Elena Ferrante [something we just did] or literature generally. Politicians are not a literature-reading crowd. And needing money is also a part of it– I’ve worked in restaurants before or whatever.
Politicians pay a lot of lip service to service workers. SEIU [Service Employees International Union] is the most important union in the city. But, like, how many of us are service workers? I’m a fuckin’ service worker. I’m in service. You know, I come from an upper-middle-class background, but when I watch Downton Abbey, I identify with downstairs. And I think that’s part of the reason why I’m trying to do this, I’m trying to take some of the preppy stink off me. I will say though, having done both, it is harder to get a bartending job in this city than it is to get elected. Way more people are trying [to be bartenders].
I’m still learning, and I’m totally fascinated by it. I can’t be a journalist anymore because I have ‘Democratic Party’ after my name. I don’t really want to work for another politician so I can preserve my independence. I’m several years away from getting an elected position that pays. So, what’s a cool job if you don’t need to worry about a retirement plan? Bartending. That was the original thought. God knows I’ve got 10,000 hours of experience sitting on the other side of the bar.
You know, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, politics and bartending– it’s like talking to people, that makes sense!’ And it’s like, eh, not really. The one thing that I’ve noticed they have in common, is that everybody tells you how to do your job and nobody does your job. And that’s fair. You know, I’m the one calling for more participation in politics, so clearly that’s a good thing. It’s just weird.
A lot people have certain ideas about what a bartender is, or they’re looking for certain things. I’m exceptionally short for a male bartender. I’m also quite young. We’re all about 30 here, but generally if you find a dude in his mid-20s or younger who’s bar tending, he’s either been working in restaurants since he was 14, or he’s exceptionally good-looking, or both. Normally both.
And this has been challenging for me– I’m a very solicitous person, but as a bartender you need to cultivate this aura of leaning back, taking things slowly, this aura of aloofness. I’m very bad at that.
I can’t tell you how much I prefer bartending to being a waiter– it’s night and day. As a waiter you’re bending over to talk to people, you’re not their social equal. A bartender is looking at you, eye-to-eye. The bartender has power over you. If the bartender doesn’t want to serve you, you’re not getting fucking served.
Also, and no one talks about this– nowadays, [bars and restaurants] are incredibly racially segregated. Almost every nightlife establishment employs black, white, and Latino employees, they just do different things. A huge percentage of barbacks are Latino, most bouncers are black, but how many black bartenders do you see? I can name, like, three and one is Luke Cage from [the Marvel comic/ Netflix series] Jessica Jones.
Tipping is a weird thing. I’m in favor of it, and I don’t know why. I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve lived in places where it doesn’t exist. I think it does radically improve quality of service. Is it still kind of a gross thing? Absolutely.
I have this theory about tipping. People tip not really based on quality of service or how much they think the person needs it, or anything like that, at all. Basically, the more that you think the person is like you, the more you tip. With bartenders, you’ll actually tip them quite highly. They use to call bartenders the aristocracy of the working class, and they’re certainly he aristocracy of the serving industry. Whereas, you know, I work a hell of a lot less hard than someone working delivery. And those guys get routinely stiffed, constantly. Or at the very least, are almost never tipped at the same rate we are, it’s a much lower percentage. And no, people don’t feel bad about it. Why? Because they’re the “other.”
I will say, that yes, minimum wage is the obvious one, but the $7.50 base pay for tipped workers that increased from $5 at the turn of the year, that’s big. That’s a decent amount of extra money for me each week that I could really use, so that’s helpful.
I lived on the Lower East Side from 2005 to 2008, and when I moved to Greenpoint back in 2008, I said to myself– the next five years of Williamsburg are going to look like the last five have on the Lower East Side. Greenpoint is going to gentrify 80 percent of the way there and then stop, because it will be saved by the shittiness of the G train. I think all of that was very prescient, frankly. But one thing that I’m trying to work for, in Greenpoint at least– I think the horse is out of the barn in Williamsburg– is keeping nightlife cool. We’ve seen this whole boom-and-bust cycle that certain neighborhoods go through with their nightlife. The Meatpacking District is a good example. And the secret to maintaing a good nightlife scene, which you can attain through policy, is limiting large venues.
Most of your douche magnets hold many hundreds of people, so you have to be very careful about what sort of business operators you give those large licenses to. Manhattan Community Board 3, I think, has really screwed up. They’re trying to enforce a blanket moratorium, which means they can’t discriminate between quality operators and scumbag operators. The SLA, as far as I can tell, really doesn’t care. So [CB3] has lost their veto point. I think CB1 in Brooklyn does a much better job, especially outside of the Bedford core, of trying to limit the sorts of new licenses that go in elsewhere. It’s not a completely closed door at all, and it shouldn’t be, because if you do that you’re screwed. But it’s trying to pick and choose who’s going to run a quality establishment and who’s not.
This interview has been condensed for space and edited for clarity.