Weiner Constituents Grapple With ‘Juvenile’ Behavior
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Weiner Constituents Grapple With ‘Juvenile’ Behavior

Fierce advocate for heavily Jewish district on the ropes after admitting lies and lewd tweeting.

A few hours after Rep. Anthony Weiner tearfully offered himself up on a public altar for his “inappropriate” behavior and subsequent lies to cover it up, Gary Smoke stood outside Ahavath Sholom Congregation in Forest Hills, Queens, and said the politician and erstwhile rising star should not resign.

“As compared to what other politicians have done, this seems not that serious,” said Smoke, a retired social worker who identifies himself as liberal. “I would hope that our politicians had more decorum, but I think he’s a good politician. I’ve voted for him consistently.”

Smoke said Weiner’s admission of inappropriate associations with young women via the Internet before and after his marriage should have been kept from the public eye, but added that he doesn’t believe the congressman will suffer lasting political damage.

“I just think in the next two-and-a-half years, it will be all forgotten,” he said, “and I can see him running for New York mayor in 2013. I think he’d have a good chance.”

Until last week, Weiner was viewed as a star of the Democratic Party, who stood out for passionate sparring with Republicans and made no secret of his desire to follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch in parlaying his congressional tenure into a successful City Hall run.

He was elected in 1998 to succeed Charles Schumer, when Schumer became a senator, representing one of the most heavily Jewish districts in the country. As configured now, it includes a large chunk of central Queens as well as the Rockaways and parts of Brooklyn’s Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay.

Liberal on social issues and conservative on foreign policy, Weiner, 46, has long paid close attention to his Jewish base, especially the substantial Orthodox community, attending yeshiva dinners and other local events, at which he refers to the Jewish state as “Eretz Yisrael.”

But as he faces a possible congressional inquiry, called for by the House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi and the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel, Jewish constituents were left wondering what to make of the cringe-inducing controversy. A June 7th Marist College poll taken in Weiner’s district found that a small majority, 56 percent, felt he should stay in office, while a third said he should step down. That was better than a WABC-TV survey of New Yorkers that found that only 41 percent think he should stay and 46 want him to find another job, with 13 percent undecided.

Sharon Barish, a senior citizen and a lifelong Democrat, said she is “not positive” if she’ll vote for Weiner’s re-election in 2012, as she did last year, and the odds of her voting for him if he enters the 2013 mayoral race are “iffy.”

“If I met him today, I’d say, ‘Grow up! You’re not a teenager,’” Barish said, discussing the news in a Subway sandwich shop on Continental Avenue, the heart of Forest Hills. She’s still weighing the question of whether or not Weiner should resign. “On the one hand, it’s not the crime of the century. On the other hand, it’s so stupid and juvenile.”

At Congregation Machane Chodosh on 108th Street, Yochanan D. John reacted to the congressman’s behavior in even stronger terms, expressing his disgust.

“People who speak to us or represent us need to be held to a certain standard, whether or not they’re Jews,” said John, an immigrant from Guyana who said he had been Republican for many years but became a Democrat because of his admiration for President Barack Obama.

John said Weiner could ask God for forgiveness, but that nothing he did would make him “whole.”

The congressman has been “very helpful to the Jewish community,” said Warren Hecht, president of the Queens Jewish Community Council, as he stood outside Ahavath Sholom. “Almost every time we’ve had an event, he came and spoke, and he’s been a very effective congressman, especially on Israel” — an issue on which he’s taken on the president, publicly decrying the White House focus on West Bank settlements as an obstacle to peace talks with the Palestinians.

But following Weiner’s awkward press conference on Monday at a Midtown hotel, at which he acknowledged inappropriate relationships with at least six women but insisted he never met them in person or had a physical affair, there was little sympathy for him in public commentary. Many decried his arrogance in presenting himself as the fake victim of a hacker while others psychoanalyzed him.

“This isn’t rocket science,” wrote author and lecturer Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in his e-mail newsletter. “Men like Anthony Weiner live in the permanent fear that they are not special. Their greatest fear is that they are ordinary. And they spend their lives trying to disprove that fear.”

For almost a week, Weiner denied sending a lewd photo of himself in his underwear to a 21-year-old college student over Twitter.

“I’ve brought pain to people I care about the most and people who believe in me,” Weiner said at the news conference. “I apologize to my wife and family. I apologize to my friends and supporters.”

His voice cracking when he discussed the impact on his less-than-year-old marriage with Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Weiner said he would consider seeking professional help to deal with the issues that caused him to behave destructively. “I’m going to try to handle this, but I haven’t ruled out seeing someone,” he said. (Reports on Thursday said that Abedin is pregnant and that she is encouraging him to stay in office.)

The confessions came as a conservative website, BigGovernment.com, run by Andrew Breitbart, was publishing new photos it said were supplied by women who received them from Weiner, including several of him shirtless and one with a lewd pun. ABC News also said it had photos and had conducted an interview with a woman who says she had an online relationship with Weiner beginning in April. As of Tuesday afternoon it appeared likely that online liaisons Weiner allegedly had with more women would be exposed, including one with a porn star, according to the celebrity gossip site TMZ.com.

Weiner has not said whether he would still seek his party’s nomination for mayor in 2013. He was widely considered a well-funded, major player in the race to succeed Michael Bloomberg. He said he would not blame voters if they took his actions into account when he faced re-election next year. “People who draw conclusions about me are free to do so,” he said.

But he insisted that he violated no laws, using his personal BlackBerry and computer to communicate with the women and did not believe any of the recipients were minors.

“Nothing about this should reflect in any way on my official duties or on my oath of office,” he said.

When the story of the underwear photo first broke, Weiner’s unconvincing denials of his behavior fueled intensive media coverage saturated with lewd puns. The congressman stopped taking questions about it Thursday and surprised many people by skipping the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty’s Legislative Breakfast and the Celebrate Israel Parade, both held on Sunday. He has been a regular at those events in the past as a city councilman and congressman.

Weiner will likely face continued pressure, including from within his party, to resign or not run for re-election next year. He’s likely to be a top target of blood-sniffing Republican fundraisers, who note that he barely carried the Brooklyn part of his district; Weiner garnered 52 percent of the vote to 48 percent for his Republican opponent Bob Turner. Weiner fared better in the Queens portion, 65-35 percent, but overall lost about 40 percent of the vote. Next time around Weiner will run in a federally mandated reapportioned district that has yet to be carved out, as the state Legislature eliminates two districts in the new map. Given the controversy, eliminating Weiner’s district could be a way for embarrassed Democrats to force him out.

“It’s not a simple matter because several districts in Brooklyn are protected by the Voting Rights Act,” said Democrat political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “It would require the approval of the Justice Department. And while some Democrats may want to get Weiner out, on the other hand he is an indefatigable fundraiser and campaigner for the party.”

The state Democratic chairman, Jay Jacobs, said in an interview Tuesday that Weiner’s future with the party depends on the outcome of a congressional inquiry that would determine if any action should be taken against him. But he added, “The bottom line is that the voters in his district hired him and the voters in his district would decide whether he should stay on.”

As for a mayoral run, Jacobs said, “As far as I can see his focus ought to be on repairing his relationship with his constituents rather than trying to make a move to some other position. That doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now.”

It remains to be seen whether Orthodox voters who supported Weiner in the past and raised money for him will stand by him.

“ I think the issue has mushroomed into a much larger one on the constituent level,” said Ezra Friedlander, an Orthodox political consultant who has worked for many Democrats. “I am sure that those individuals who live in Anthony Weiner’s district are in shock and find it very sad that he finds himself in this position.”

As for the political future, “the question is how effective can he be if the Democrat leadership and the media don’t let this die down and the constituents say to themselves, ‘He’s not going to be an effective advocate for me anymore.’ ”

A Brooklyn political official, who knows Weiner well but spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the congressman, said Weiner faced a tougher than usual challenger in 2010, a year when the Tea Party fueled Republican gains, because Turner appealed to the right wing with concerns about gay marriage and other conservative issues, while Weiner failed to get his own message out.

“That won’t happen again [next year],” said the official. “However, he can’t run for mayor. You need a lot of money, and people don’t want to spend money on someone they don’t feel comfortable with.”

Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, a large Conservative congregation, said that Weiner’s comments indicated that “he’s obviously banking on the fact that his constituents and Congress will be forgiving.”

The rabbi said Weiner has been a steady presence at the Jewish Center.

“I always found him to be tenacious and charming and available, and quite human, which I say with some sense of irony.”

Rabbi Skolnik said Weiner’s admitted behavior “is painful for me to watch. I think he’s a man who has really given the best of himself to public service, although he has human frailties, as do we all. It’s very difficult in this culture and climate to be found out to have these particular frailties.”

Asked what he might say to congregants who question whether to vote for Weiner next year, the rabbi said, “If someone wants to take into account the fact that they were dismayed by his lack of a moral compass over this issue, who am I to tell them not to be disappointed? I’m disappointed. I don’t know if he will survive this, but he is certainly trying.”

Doug Chandler is a Jewish Week correspondent. Adam Dickter is assistant managing editor. JTA contributed to this report.

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