Before Republican New York Senate hopeful Jon Girodes's website went down this week, it was topped with a banner image of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the phrase "Be the Change." Girodes is now doing damage control after sending an email to a WNBC reporter in which he alluded to a campaign event with free Kool Aid, KFC and watermelon—foods with racist cultural associations—in East Harlem, a neighborhood that is about one-third black.
Girodes sent the email in question to WNBC reporter Sarah Garza on September 17th, in response to a question about a woman who said Girodes owed her $7,750 in an apartment rental dispute (WNBC then shared the e-mail with Gothamist in its entirety). The relevant bit is included as a PS:
"I'm hosting an event in Harlem which will be in front of the state building in a few weeks," he wrote. "We will do rate (sic.) Kool Aid, KFC and watermelons to the public on 125th street in Harlem. Please join us to help the community."
Girodes denied that he ever wrote about the event. "I am saying I didn't write that. I can only speculate, but if you want to quote me, I didn't write that," he told Gothamist on Wednesday.
He then went on to accuse WNBC investigative reporter Sarah Wallace of stalking him, describing her text message requests for comment as a "desperate" attempt to lure him romantically—comments he described as jokes.
"I did not write those words, and if Sarah Wallace is interested in dating me you can tell her I'm in love with my girlfriend," Girodes told Gothamist on Wednesday.
Girodes also confirmed that he responded to one text from Wallace with a shirtless picture of himself—a photo message that features in WNBC's coverage. "That is something I sent to Sarah Wallace because I got so angry at this lady," he said. "She keeps texting me and texting me. I thought she had a crush. I'm a very funny guy. That's my sarcasm."
"Sarah Wallace has been on me like white on rice," he continued. "Like a moth to the flame. She texts me at 2 in the morning, 3 in the morning. In the beginning I thought she was someone who had a crush on me and I asked her to stop texting me."
Wallace conducted a woman-on-the-street segment about Girodes's KFC e-mail, pounding the pavement with a poster board cutout: Girodes's face on one side, his quote on the other. Many people didn't seem to know who Girodes was, but their reaction was, as NBC put it, "swift and fierce."
"We're gonna donate, like, various foots in his ass if he try that," one man said.
But Girodes said Wednesday that the comments were defensible, even as he denied having made them. "I should say for the record that I grew up in Harlem, I'm Cuban and African-American. For the record we did grow up eating a lot of watermelon," he said, adding:
Fried chicken not so much. We ate something called platanos and tostones and white rice and beans, but we did have a lot of Kool Aid growing up. I grew up on 112th and Madison Avenue. I don't think there's anything wrong with Kool Aid or KFC or watermelons. I still eat a lot of them today.
In response to the backlash from Harlem residents, Girodes said, "There's not anything wrong with giving food out to people who need it." Though, "I would probably give out asparagus and tomatoes now. I would give watermelon out, too. Because watermelon is great. There's nothing wrong with watermelon."
Girodes, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Bill Perkins in a majority-Democrat district, does not have the backing of the Manhattan Republican Party, nor the New York GOP.
"The statements made by Jon Girodes are unacceptable and reprehensible. He should apologize immediately and withdraw from the race," said Republican County Chair Adele Malpass in a statement, referring to the KFC e-mail.
Girodes countered that he's been unfairly targeted by his own party. "I am the lowest man on the totem pole," he said. "Somewhere along the line people were calling me Trump Jr., and I think they are trying to sabotage the GOP right now."
"I'm a New Yorker," he added. "It takes a lot to throw me off. I'm like Jerry Seinfeld mixed with Kramer and a little bit of Costanza. It takes a lot more than NBC and Sarah Wallace and the internet to scare me away. If I was so weak I wouldn't be running for anything."
But in a phone interview today, Girodes kept returning to Wallace (who has won multiple Emmys and Peabody Awards for her reporting). "I'm saying I would like to know if Sarah Wallace is doing okay mentally," he said, adding, "The last time I had a stalker like that I had to write it up with the police department."
Wallace declined to comment on Girodes's statements.
Girodes also denied reports that he is planning to drop out of the race, and said that his website, which came down during Wallace's reporting, will be back up tonight. "The biggest problem in my district is affordable housing, safety, and believe it or not, parking tickets," he said. "Why are we wasting valuable air time talking about watermelon?"
Yesterday, Girodes changed his Facebook profile picture to a sad-puppy meme with the text: "It wasn't me, I promise."
"He is not known in the district," said Harlem Community Board 10 Chair Brian Benjamin. "Harlem residents have way more important issues to deal with like affordable housing, jobs and education. This is a desperate candidate doing anything he can to get publicity. He has been watching Trump and he thinks any press is good press."