A first person account by Rafael Martínez Alequin, as told to Eva Sanchis
I’m proud to say that I’ve annoyed four successive New York City mayors with my questioning, and as a senior citizen I have opened the doors of the City Hall press room to bloggers.
I was born in 1933 in Puerto Rico, but at 18, I moved to New York with an aunt. I worked as a delivery boy, was drafted and sent to Allied-occupied Germany at 21, came back and became active in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam war protests. I marched in Washington DC in 1963 and ran as an anti-war congressman in the early 1970s. I also worked as an advocate for the rights of impoverished Puerto Ricans in NYC.
In 1981, I landed my first job at a newspaper, selling ads for a small community publication in Brooklyn. Two years later, I decided to start my own independent newspaper, the Park Slope Shopper, to write about gentrification and other issues that I felt no one was covering. Then I published the Brooklyn Free Press. I put out some provocative articles but it was difficult to get money. Thank God I had a wonderful wife who believed in the cause. We lived humbly, but we kept doing the paper. Later on, I switched to the New York City Free Press, and I started blogging after my wife Margo passed away in 2000.
I began covering City Hall in the late 1980s, with Mayor Ed Koch. I soon earned a reputation for asking uncomfortable questions. A year before Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s extramarital affair became public, when there were rumours but journalists were afraid to touch the issue, I asked him point blank: “Mr Mayor, do you think your marital problems would become an issue if you ran for the Senate?” His eyes blazed with pure hate.
I angered Giuliani many times. In 1999, after the police shot dead Amadou Diallo, firing a total of 41 rounds, I told him the police were trigger-happy when it came to blacks and Latinos. But I equally angered his predecessor, David Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, by pressing him on the same issue of police brutality, even though he had been nice enough to perform my marriage ceremony in a restaurant in Brooklyn in 1992.
Mayors have retaliated against me many times in the past 22 years: they have removed me from mailing lists, taken away my parking privileges, disinvited me to their Christmas parties and even insulted me. Mayor Giuliani once called me a “jerk” and “an embarrassment” in front of a group of kids. There was another time I asked a mayoral hopeful who was polling badly if he would consider dropping out of the race, and he asked me if I would consider “dropping out of this life”. It was my 72nd birthday.
Michael Bloomberg is the most arrogant mayor I have known. Four years ago, the NYPD, which issue passes to journalists, denied my press credentials on the grounds that I am only a blogger, and for a long time Bloomberg refused to take my questions. I was also barred for a while from the press gallery. But two years ago, I won a legal victory for bloggers and they had to let me back in. Thanks to a federal lawsuit I filed, New York City now recognises bloggers as journalists and they can get press credentials. This is one of the biggest things that I have ever won.
I usually work at night, and sleep four or five hours. I get up around seven in the morning, feed my cat, read the newspapers, and go to City Hall. When I used to get the mayor’s schedule, I based my own timetable on that, but they stopped sending it to me four years ago.
Colleagues call me pesky, a gadfly, gnat, mayor-torturer. They say my questions are pointless and disruptive, but I believe they fear being ostracised by City Hall. Because I’m not mainstream media, and not accountable to anyone but myself, I have the freedom no other reporter has at City Hall.
No one tells me what to ask.
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.