Visiting Israel this week, the only Jewish candidate so far in the race to succeed Michael Bloomberg next year as mayor of New York said it was “important for the Jews and for Israel” that the world’s largest Jewish city outside Israel continue to have a Jewish mayor.
But the focus of his campaign, said Tom Allon, will be to reform the city’s educational system, to ensure that youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds have a fair opportunity to make the most of themselves — just as he did.
Allon’s Israel connection runs deep. Much of his family lives here. He speaks Hebrew. And his name is Israeli. He’s the child of survivors who lost their own parents, many siblings and other relatives in the Holocaust and who came to New York in 1956 — living first in the lower-middle class Washington Heights before moving to the Upper West Side — and his father changed the family name from Eichenbaum, ‘oak tree’ in German, to the Hebrew equivalent ‘Allon.’
Allon said he felt he has a realistic chance of succeeding New York City’s three-term billionaire mayor even though polls show him to be an outsider at present. At once personable and clearly focused, he makes for a likable dark-horse. Others evidently think so too; he’s won the support of the city’s Liberal Party — “the equivalent to your Labor Party,” he ventured — and while he anticipated running in the Democratic primary, “some Republican leaders have asked me to consider them,” he said. “I’m a social liberal — I support abortion and contraception, and I oppose the death penalty. But I’m fiscally conservative, so I might run as a Republican.”
“At the moment, I have about 2 percent in the polls,” Allon noted. Front-runner Christine Quinn, the Speaker of the City Council and Bloomberg’s favored successor (“She named a bridge after former mayor Ed Koch and she changed the law to allow Bloomberg a third term”), is polling at about 25%, and Bill Thompson, the only minority candidate, who came within five points of beating Bloomberg last time, is at about 13%, he said. “But at this stage, it’s just a matter of name recognition.” (Quinn, incidentally, visited Israel just a few weeks ago.)
The mayoral elections take place in November 2013, with the parties selecting their candidates in primaries two months earlier. Allon put his chances of success at 30-40% if he ran as a Republican, and “maybe 20% if I run as a Democrat.”
The New York-born son of a Hungarian mother and a Czech father, Allon is a graduate of Cornell (where he studied history) and Columbia (where he did a master’s in journalism) who has built an impressive career as a journalist and newspaper entrepreneur. He started out as a teacher at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, his alma mater, before going back to journalism — his school and college passion — clerking at the New York Times and then landing a job as editor of the West Side Spirit community newspaper.
He had caught the journalism bug badly as a kid: His parents moved to Munich for 18 months for business when he was 11, and “the International Herald Tribune was my lifeline to the United States,” he told another interviewer. “I would cherish the half an hour I had to read about what was going on.”
Back in Manhattan, at Stuyvesant, he failed to make the baseball and basketball teams, and instead wrote about sports for the school paper, later becoming its editor. At Cornell, too, a lot of his time was spent at the school paper, and at a new title he created — The Point — a self-styled “labor of love and craziness” that presaged the journalist/publisher career that would follow.
The West Side Spirit editorship to which he graduated in his mid-20s was fulfilling, covering the turf where he had grown up, but not terribly well paid. “I’d been doing that job for about five years, it was 1991, I was 29, and I was starting to wonder how I was going to support a family,” Allon told The Times of Israel in an interview on Tuesday, sipping coffee in a Jerusalem cafe while his two daughters sat at an adjacent table. Then he was offered the opportunity to try out as the paper’s publisher.
His chairman, he said, gave him two bits of advice: Be the first and last one at the office each day, and be sure to open the mail yourself. One of the first letters he opened as acting publisher was from an advertising agency — a rather nasty missive that announced a $75,000 advertising budget was up for grabs for a company called West Side Camera, but that West Side Spirit wasn’t going to get a cent of it because the newspaper had treated that client so poorly in the past.
“I had no idea what we’d done so wrong before, but I saw that the client had an Israeli name, I called him up, introduced myself by my Hebrew name, Haim, spoke Hebrew, apologized for whatever the past poor treatment had been, and asked if he’d meet me for breakfast. Cut a long story short, I left the breakfast with a $40,000 advertising contract.
My parents arrived with no family and no money. They were beneficiaries of New York’s education and housing laws, including subsidized housing for new immigrants. They got a good education. New York helped them and it helped me. Now it’s time to give back
“I called my chairman to tell him. They took the ‘acting’ part out of my ‘publisher’ title. I realized I could sell ads. I also realized it wasn’t that big a leap from reporter to publisher — that in both jobs, it’s a matter of finding common ground, and getting people to talk to you and trust you.”
Over the next decade, the group expanded to 23 newspapers and magazines in New York City, Washington, DC and Long Island. “It was a heady time,” Allon recalled. “We’d start something new every six months.”
Then Allon oversaw a management buyout of four of the titles, and from there, as president and CEO, built up a company, Manhattan Media, that now owns 13 newspapers and magazines in New York, Long Island and Miami.
Allon detailed all this rapidly and rather matter-of-factly in our interview — disarmingly making no great play of what has clearly been a rare successful career, built on a great deal of hard work, spent bucking the trend of failure in print newspapers.
His success presumably assuaged those financial worries he had as a young father, but evidently hasn’t lifted him into the ranks of the wealthy. He said he’s raised $200,000 for his mayoral campaign to date, and will need to raise “one to two million,” which he’s confident of doing and which, with matching funds, would give him a campaign chest of $6-7 million. “Bloomberg self-financed his campaigns, to the tune of $70-100 million.” No one running this time is going to do that, Allon said.
Allon is turning his attention to politics, he said, primarily because of concerns over education in New York City. He had a hand in creating two public high schools in New York, and said he has written often about the dire inequalities in the city’s education system — the lack of access for kids from disadvantaged communities to solid education. The current mayor has improved things, he said, but not fast enough. “At Stuyvesant, for instance, the African-American population has fallen from 10% to 1% during the past decade,” he noted.
“I wrote two opeds about this in the New York Daily News. I wrote about it in the pages of our newspapers. But the Department of Education said there was nothing to be done. At that point, I realized that there’s only so much you can do as a journalist and as a publisher, and that this needs to be changed from the inside.
“I feel that New York has been very good to me,” Allon said. “My parents arrived with no family and no money. They were beneficiaries of New York’s education and housing laws, including subsidized housing for new immigrants. They got a good education. New York helped them and it helped me. Now it’s time to give back.”
Married with the two daughters and a son who didn’t have a school break now and so didn’t come on this trip, Allon said he used to travel to Israel a lot but admitted, rather apologetically, that this was his first visit in 20 years. Presumably, being first in and last out at work every day left little time for vacations. He had been to his grandfather’s grave in Kiryat Ono the day before we met, and was also spending time with a first cousin who moved to Israel in 1980: “He fell in love with a sabra.”
An energetic twitterer, Allon has kept his followers updated with his activities on his first few days here. Among the posts:
“Wealth inequality is also a problem in Israel and has inspired an “Occupy” movement here. This is our generation’s civil right issue…”;
“Just saw my late Grandfather’s house in Nahariya, Israel. So close to the beach you can hear the seagulls!”;
“Israel is a modern miracle. The mix of cutting-edge technology start-ups and Biblical ancient sites makes it so compelling”, and
“I just threw out the first ball at an Israeli baseball game. The world is flat!”
On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, another of Allon’s tweets asserted that “The opportunity for peace between Israelis and Palestinians has never been riper. It is up to Hamas to seize this historic moment.”
This belief that the time for progress is now is apparently deep-seated. Before flying to Israel, Allon had asked, in a Huffington Post piece improbably headlined, “Next year, peace in Hebron!”, “Why would a nation of refugees, like Israel, not have sympathy for a nation of refugees like the Palestinians? Why would the Palestinians, who have suffered blind hatred for years, not be sympathetic to a people whose ancestors, just two generations ago, were almost annihilated? And why can’t two semitic nations, descended from the same Biblical icon, Abraham, not realize that their economic and spiritual future could be much better as allies rather than foes?”
That paragraph was followed by the admission that, “Of course, this naive view of the world, ignores the cold reality of real politik.” The article continued: “Most Israelis believe in a two-state solution, but right now there does not seem to be a moderate, unified voice for the Palestinians who can make a fair, peaceful deal. And the Israeli leaders do not seem to be making peace with the Palestinians a priority.”
In person, Allon said he backed a two-state solution and encouraged the Israeli leadership to “take advantage” of opportunities for negotiation and to “protect Israel’s interests.”
A sense of solidarity
Tom Allon learned the Hebrew that secured his first ads sale during five years at a yeshiva school, and also studied Hebrew in college.
That yeshiva experience, he said, reminded him “how important it is to have the option of a strong religious school system” in New York. “A family with eight kids in Brooklyn shouldn’t have to spend $60,000″ on their children’s education. So his platform supports tuition and tax credits for yeshivas and all religious schools, he said.
Allon also described himself as “a huge believer in unfettered immigration to New York” — an unsurprising consequence of the reception the city afforded his parents. “If they had not been welcomed and able to work, I wouldn’t be where I am,” he said simply.
Apart from the greater Tel Aviv area, New York City has the world’s largest Jewish population — at around 1 million, about an eighth of the city’s populace. Allon is bidding to become its fifth Jewish mayor — after Fiorello La Guardia (Jewish mother), Abraham Beame, Koch and Bloomberg. “Symbolically and practically,” he said, “it’s important for Jews and Israel to have a Jewish mayor.”
One area in which his educational and his business background would be important for the city and for Israel, he said, would be in ensuring the success of the applied science university that Cornell and the Technion are building on Roosevelt Island. “I want to build up New York’s links to Israeli hi-tech, and that school can be an incubator and a breeding ground for tech leaders. The next mayor will have a lot to do with that school.”
Allon highlighted and praised incumbent Bloomberg’s demonstrative solidarity with Israel, and promised a similar commitment. During the second intifada, when buses were being targeted by suicide bombers, Bloomberg flew to Jerusalem and rode the buses alongside mayor Ehud Olmert. He also made the lead donation to build the city’s new Magen David Adom station, dedicated in his father’s memory.
“I certainly feel the solidarity,” Allon said. “I have family everywhere here — in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Nahariya, Kiryat Ono. While I won’t be able to personally fund health institutions directly like Bloomberg, I can and will steer philanthropy to Israel.
“And when Israel is in trouble or involved in cases like Iran, I’ll be able to bring attention to those issues,” Allon went on. “I was in Israel at the time of [Israel’s 1981 air strike at Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at] Osirak and I remember my aunt here saying, ‘The Americans are unhappy now, but they’ll be thanking us in 20 years.’ I hope Iran can be solved through negotiations and sanctions. If not, Israel has to make its own decisions. And if Israel’s vital interests require a military strike, I would support that,” he said.
Hard-hitting talk? Evidently that’s part of the Allon style. As another of his tweets from the Holy Land declared, “New York needs a Mayor like me who thinks like an Israeli: tough and always ready to defend his people.”