Thomas Lopez-Pierre is not your average City Council candidate.
Lopez-Pierre, a real estate broker and political activist, said Thursday that he plans to challenge Inez Dickens in next year’s Democratic primary—assuming that redistricting keeps his Manhattan Valley apartment in her district, which includes much of central Harlem and parts of Morningside Heights. He is active in the Harlem community, where he has started a pro-charter school political action committee and a scholarship fund for public housing students.
But while Lopez-Pierre, 45, wants to be taken seriously as a City Council candidate, he’s best known for his racially and sexually charged rhetoric, the rambling emails he sends to a listserv he says is 50,000 strong, and the racy singles club he once operated. Just last month, after a parent at his son’s charter school sent him an email calling him a “moron,” he responded with a rant filled with sexually abusive and derogatory comments.
“If a female is offended by me and makes the mistake of slapping my face, I will punch her in her face until I break a least one tooth. Just ask the last female who put her hands on me; I knocked out two of her teeth ... My wife knows that in Harlem talking to a man like that could get you punched in the face or worst shot in the head with a gun,” Lopez-Pierre said in the email.
Despite that email and other controversies that could undermine his nascent candidacy, Lopez-Pierre believes that his experience as an activist—and his compelling personal story—makes him a strong contender for a City Council seat.
“With the experience and knowledge I’ve gained, I believe I have a lot to offer,” he said.
After Lopez-Pierre was born, “my mother walked out of the hospital and was gone,” he said. He was put into the foster system, and he grew up in a foster home in Bayport, a Long Island town where his was the only black family.
“I had excellent foster parents,” he said. “My foster parents were conservative, black, upper-middle class. We had a backyard and a front yard. We had a Cadillac and a station wagon.”
But when he was eight years old, Lopez-Pierre was sent to live with his heroin-addicted birth father in Bushwick.
“I used to go and buy my father’s drugs for him, and when the police used to catch me, he used to beat me for not protecting the drugs,” Lopez-Pierre said. “I used to hang out in drug dens and watch him stick needles in his arm … I thank God there was school lunch and breakfast. Otherwise I would have starved.”
“When I walk around Harlem and I hear the anger and frustration of many folks in my community, I understand—I understand where they’re coming from,” he added.
During his teenage years, Lopez-Pierre lived in a group home. He later studied political science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Midtown.
His desire to run for office stems from his college days, he said. It was at John Jay where he got his political start, helping classmate Miguel Martinez get elected as student council president and then as a Democratic district leader.
Martinez went on to win an Upper Manhattan City Council seat in 2002, but he resigned from the council amid corruption charges in 2009. He is currently in jail.
‘Off his rocker’
Lopez-Pierre has had myriad controversies of his own. He gained notoriety for spending several years operating the Harlem Club, a midtown singles club designed to pair wealthy black men with younger women—women who were required to be childless.
He said he started the club after the investment bankers and lawyers behind the venture, who wanted to avoid being known as its owners, handed it off to him. At the time, he said, he needed the money.
“The club was absolutely sexist, it was elitist, and if I didn’t work there, I would never have joined,” he said.
Lopez-Pierre has also sparred publicly with the administration of his son’s school, the New York French American Charter School on 120th Street between Manhattan Avenue and Frederick Douglass Boulevard. He has attacked school administrators (whom he calls “the white French racist mafia”) for misconstruing student test score data, although administrators have said that they simply made a mistake.
But Lopez-Pierre’s dispute with the school’s leadership is also based on gentrification.
“The thing that these French white people don’t understand is that Harlem is for poor black people … I’m not going to let white people come into Harlem and kick out the community,” he said. “I’m glad they’re here, I’m glad my son goes to a school that’s multiracial, but you don’t come into the community and try to fire the black teachers and hire white teachers.”
During a heated dispute at a Parent-Teacher Association meeting last month, administrators called the police on Lopez-Pierre.
“I think he’s off his rocker,” said Richard Ortoli, the chair of the school’s board of trustees. He called Lopez-Pierre’s claims about gentrification “outrageous and ridiculous.”
Then there are the mass emails, which Lopez-Pierre sometimes uses to trumpet headlines from his political gossip website. (A recent email incorrectly claimed that State Senator Adriano Espaillat would challenge State Assembly member Keith Wright for Democratic county chair.) Lately, the emails have tended toward stinging criticisms of his son’s charter school.
Lopez-Pierre said that when he replied to the parent who called him a moron, he wanted to show her that “you’re in Harlem, this is not the Upper West Side,” adding that the language he used was “real Harlem.”
“Do I regret it? Yeah, because no woman should be talked to that way,” he said. “But, you know, it’s easier to say sorry than ask permission.”
Regardless of the effect that those emails might have on his campaign, Lopez-Pierre was eminently serious about his policy ideas in an interview with Spectator. He said that one of his priorities is promoting economic development in Harlem—specifically, development that benefits blacks and Hispanics—adding that he’s running to “fight for low-income families.”
“I want to see more black and Hispanic businesses benefiting from the economic change that’s happening in Harlem,” he said. “All this economic benefit in Harlem has not been the black community, other than a number of blacks getting low-wage jobs.”
He called Columbia’s Manhattanville campus expansion “a model in my mind of how companies should come to this community,” because of the benefits the University has promised to locals. But overall, he said, gentrification has threatened Harlem.
“This is a class war taking place in Harlem,” he said. “This is about displacement of the local community. Our elected officials have failed to protect it.”
Specifically, Lopez-Pierre criticized Dickens and other Harlem politicians for supporting the rezoning of 125th Street and allowing a sewage treatment plant to be built in Harlem.
“Inez supports the needs of real estate developers and big business,” he said. “Our black elected officials sold out their community.”
A Dickens campaign spokesperson could not be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.
Lopez-Pierre said that as someone who comes from a poor family, he doesn’t “have any family name or money to think of.” But he said that he already has 70 committed donors, and that he expects to max out on public campaign financing.
“The days of just rich white men running for office in New York are now coming to a close,” he said.
Schools and parents
Lopez-Pierre has also been a critic of public schools, and he founded the Harlem Charter School Parents PAC. But, drawing on his own turbulent upbringing, he places most of the blame for failing schools on bad parents.
“The reason why African-American and Latino kids fail academically is not because the teachers are bad,” he said. “Far from it—our teachers in New York City public schools are some of the best in the country.”
“At the end of the day, the reason why public school children are failing is that the parents have failed their children,” he said.
Lopez-Pierre, who promotes his candidacy with a photo of himself and President Barack Obama, said he believes in “the school of President Obama and Bill Crosby: Turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read your child a book.” He and his wife, Regine, do homework with their second-grade son every night, he said. They also have younger twin girls.
He said that since many parents treat school like “a babysitter,” Harlem schools need longer days, smaller classes, meals for students, and after-school programs—practices common at charter schools.
“At 3:00, you don’t send the child with the parent, because that’s educational malpractice,” he said.
But even if his policy prescriptions are within the realm of normal politics, Lopez-Pierre is far from a normal political candidate—and he seems to realize that. He said his past should not preclude him from running.
“In the hood, you do what you got to do,” he said. “Look, if Jay-Z can sell drugs and host a fundraiser for the president, then I can run for office!”
Avantika Kumar contributed reporting.