NEW YORK — His profile is suddenly higher than the rent.
An unknown candidate named Jimmy McMillan was the breakout star in New York's gubernatorial debate this week with his black gloves, mutton chops and mantra familiar to many New York apartment dwellers: "The rent is Too. Damn. High."
Clips from the debate have made McMillan a national cable news sensation, while a YouTube video has gotten more than a million hits in just two days.
Turns out McMillan isn't exactly a perfect messenger for his cause.
A perennial fringe candidate who has run for governor, Senate and New York City mayor, McMillan has blamed the city's high rents in part on Jewish landlords. He also has given conflicting stories on how much he pays for his own apartment in Brooklyn, where he's lived for 20 years.
Records show he's also a registered Democrat, not a member of the Rent is Too Damn High party, which will be rendered as the Rent is 2 Damn High party on the Nov. 2 ballot.
McMillan's candidacy and message have struck a chord with voters across the country and in New York, where polls show Democratic Attorney General Andrew Cuomo with a large lead over Republican millionaire real estate developer Carl Paladino in the race to replace David Paterson as governor.
In an interview Wednesday, McMillan said he's thrilled to finally get attention.
"It's about time," McMillan said. "I've been pushing for this for two decades. I'm glad someone is listening. Poor children will now have someone to represent them."
McMillan spoke on his way out of the studio of "The Wendy Williams Show," where he'd taped a guest spot. He also appeared on Don Imus' nationally syndicated radio show and said he hoped to be a guest on "Saturday Night Live."
"Everyone is jumping on me, so many people want me on their shows. This is not my kind of lifestyle," McMillan said, adding that he hoped television crews would do stories on his neighborhood instead.
"I want them to come to my community, to see the people who want me to fight for them," McMillan said. "It's not about Jimmy McMillan. I'm just a catalyst for the Rent Is Too Damn High movement, which is catching on across the whole country."
In Monday's debate, Cuomo and Paladino were joined by the five minor party candidates who qualified for the statewide ballot, including McMillan. He stayed on message relentlessly, while occasionally lobbing funny one liners on other topics.
"If you want to marry a shoe, I'll marry you," McMillan said when asked if he supported gay marriage.
McMillan wore black gloves during the debate. He said he needed them to counteract the psychological effects of Agent Orange, which he said he was exposed to when he served in the Army during the Vietnam war.
"I'm not going to be able to breathe if I take them off," McMillan said after the debate.
A 63-year old retired postal worker, McMillan is single and has two grown children, including a daughter he says was born with spina bifida because of his exposure to Agent Orange. He said he drove across the state by himself over a period of five weeks earlier this year to get at least the 15,000 signatures needed to get on the ballot.
McMillan also campaigned for New York City mayor in 1993, governor in 1994, U.S. Senate in 2001, and again for mayor in 2005. In that campaign, he was quoted saying Jewish landlords in Brooklyn were refusing to rent apartments to non-Jewish tenants. "This is APARTHEID, and a Total Violation of the Hate Crimes Act," McMillan wrote on his website at the time. He's since apologized.
The manager of his Brooklyn building told the New York Post McMillan has paid $800 a month for his one-bedroom apartment since 2005, a reasonable price by New York City standards. But McMillan told The New York Times he had been living rent-free for over a decade, thanks to generous landlords.
Asked about the discrepancy Wednesday, McMillan said he intentionally misled both papers. "I just made stuff up and told them. None of that is true. I'm not a politician, this isn't about my personal life," he said.
J.R. Green, a 46-year-old maintenance worker who rents an apartment in Harlem, says he'll vote for McMillan even though he'd never heard of him before this week.
"The rent is too damn high, and my man is crazy. I think he hit on something, though," Green said. "I will take it away from Cuomo. New York is not just for the rich."
For his part, Cuomo said during the debate he agreed the rent is too damn high. He told reporters at a campaign event McMillan had made his mark.
"I think Mr. McMillan ... really did communicate the mission of his party," Cuomo said.
Associated Press Writer Amy Westfeldt in New York contributed to this story.