It’s 8 a.m. at the Sheepshead Bay Road subway stop in Brooklyn, and most of the commuters rushing to catch the D local get only a brief glimpse of the thin, young man handing out fliers from a Nobody Beats the Wiz shopping bag.
“Good morning, ladies and gentleman,” says Anthony David Weiner, candidate for Congress, identified to the voters with a large placard borne by a young girl in a long skirt. “Welcome to the newly renovated Sheepshead Bay Road Station — newly renovated, thanks to your City Councilman.”
Patting a toddler on the head, Weiner says “Hey, big fella,” in the trademark whiny voice that reminds many people of the man he hopes to succeed in Congress, Rep. Charles Schumer. “Hello, dear,” he says to an elderly lady. “I’ll need you on Sept. 15.”
Weiner is a walking stereotype of the young political go-getter. With his clean-cut features and milquetoast public-speaking voice, it is hard to imagine him upbraiding a staff member or making a back-room political deal.
It is an image he nurtures. A campaign flier features Weiner with his grandma, and in an interview he’s more likely to deprecate himself than his opponents. Joking about his first foray into politics, his bid for the student senate in college, he recalls such slogans as “Vote for Weiner — He’s on a roll,” or “He’ll relish your vote.”
“I appeared on the ballot as A Weiner,” he deadpans.
Of his experience as an aide to Schumer for six years: “I was the only one who knew how to fix the copy machine, so they had to give me a job.”
That squeaky-clean image has apparently served him well: Since his election to a newly created Council seat in Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn in 1991, he’s been easily re-elected twice, with more than three-quarters of the vote last year.
But beneath the surface of the modest, Nice Jewish Boy who only wants to do good is a calculating politician who’s learned well from his years with Schumer and his association with the Canarsie political machine of the late powerbroker Assemblyman Anthony Genovesi.
Signs of that savvy calculation emerge between rushes of commuters, when he’s asked why he’s broken his pattern of making new acquaintances in the Far Rockaway, Queens end of the district to stump in the heart of his district.
“The conventional wisdom is that toward the end of the campaign you go back to your base, to ensure a good turnout,” he says, his voice now deeper, more steady than when greeting voters.
Later the same day, during the taping of a debate on WNBC-TV’s “News Forum” Weiner is the first one out of the gate, snatching up questions about President Clinton and the economy while his opponents — Assembly members Melinda Katz and Dan Feldman and Councilman Noach Dear — are still mulling their answers.
Weiner raps host Gabe Pressman for interrupting him and scolds Dear for his positions on abortion and gay rights.
But during closing statements, Weiner morphs from pit-bull back to bar mitzvah boy, recalling the lesson from his Grandma Jean that one must leave behind “a country that’s a little better than the one we have.”
Later in the green room, asked if he oscillates between two personas, he shrugs and says “I like mixing it up and debating issues and stuff in these forums … But generally that assessment is correct.” Some critics say the nice-guy veneer masks a more gruff interior. Jeff Reznik, who ran for Weiner’s council seat last year, claims the incumbent — despite his decisive victory — was less than gracious when Reznik called to offer congratulations. “He pretended he didn’t know who I was,” says Reznik, who works in the state comptroller’s office.
“Untrue,” says Weiner, insisting he had confused Reznik with a constituent with the same name. But Reznik says, “He remained mean-spirited during the entire campaign.”
Each of the congressional candidates have their advantages. Dear has the most money, Feldman the most legislative experience, and Katz is the only woman and the sole Queens candidate. Weiner’s entire council district is within the 9th Congressional District, which means his core supporters could put him over the top (unless they prefer to retain him in the Council for two more years). But Schumer’s endorsement of Weiner this week may leave him in the best position to win.
A setback, though, is the death of Genovesi in a car wreck last month, at the height of the campaign. “He was a mentor that I relied on for advice and support,” Weiner says.
Anthony David Weiner (his more-Jewish middle name adorns all his campaign literature), 34, grew up in Park Slope, attended Public School 39 and Brooklyn Technical High School and the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Although politics was not something he considered as a career, he applied for an internship with Schumer upon graduation, where he worked until his Council election. (He’s the only non-lawyer in the race.)
Since winning his seat by a nose, edging out four men and one woman, he’s been active in bringing resources into his community, particularly in the public schools. “Just about every school in my district has my fingerprints on some major improvement, from computer access to infrastructure,” he says. He also helped speed up the redevelopment of the Sheepshead Bay waterfront and surrounding shopping strips.
He’s authored a precinct-by-precinct study of police deployments in the city, claiming that the outer-boroughs were shortchanged, and taken on the city’s Housing Authority for using flammable paints in its projects. The paints were later removed.
“I’ve watched him take the concerns of the community and translate them into action,” says Councilman Steve DiBrienza of Park Slope, who has endorsed Weiner. “And he has always had a kind of exposure to and interest in federal issues.”
Indeed, although his focus has been on city issues, he comes across as well-informed and articulate on matters of national and international interest.
“Inasmuch as instability reminds the world that the dollar is the one indispensable world currency, it reaffirms our economic dominance,” he says over a falafel in a restaurant near his Avenue M campaign office. (Quickly switching back to modesty mode, he points out that “The only stock I own I got at my bar mitzvah from my Uncle Irving.”)
Turning to the Middle East, he says “It’s clear that U.S. policy has subtly moved in recent months from being a facilitator for what’s best for Israel to being an advocate for a particular outcome. The U.S. should be much tougher on the Palestinians … and less of a cheerleader for Palestinian proposals.”
His positions on these issues are similar to Schumer’s, which is no accident. A high turnout of Schumer supporters is expected to turn out on primary day to support his Senate bid.
“[Weiner] has wisely tried to link himself with Chuck,” says Lincoln Mitchell, a Democratic political consultant not involved in the race. “He’s counting on the voters looking for a new Chuck. But that’s not necessarily what they are looking for. The most compelling reason for people to vote for a candidate is that they’ve told who they are and what they’ve done. That’s where money becomes important.”
In that realm, Weiner is competing with Feldman for last place. He has raised about $315,000. The most heard-from candidate will be Dear, who has already unleashed a block of prime-time TV spots, including one to air during Monday Night Football on the night before the primary.
But a lack of money fits right into Weiner’s public image. “My failure to accumulate any tangible wealth, I’m using as an asset,” he says. “I’m not one of the usual suspects. That’s what makes me attractive to many voters.”