Among the more interesting objects on Anthony Weiner’s desk is a jar-sized capsule containing a formaldehyde-encased baby shark. But he insists there is no significance to the decoration. It doesn’t represent his youthful, tenacious political style or the eat-or-be-eaten world in which he lives and seems to thrive.
"It was just an interesting gift" from a friend, he says, adding that, if anything, it reflects his philosophy that "you have to move forward to live."
Move forward he has. At 34, the three-term City Councilman is one of New York’s newest members of the House of Representatives and the survivor of a four-way Democratic primary slugfest that left him the winner by a scant 489 votes. The prize was a plum, heavily Democratic Brooklyn-Queens district that overwhelmingly re-elected his predecessor, Sen. Charles Schumer, for nine terms.
Weiner, who worked on Schumer’s Washington staff from 1985 to 1991, was sworn in last Wednesday, and made his first official trip to Washington on a bus loaded with friends and "mishpocha," as he said.
"This is something heís wanted for a long time, ever since he worked for Schumer," said Weiner’s mother, Frances, 61, a high school math teacher from Park Slope, Brooklyn. "I don’t think it’s going to be an easy time to be in Congress, with such intense partisanship, but he has an enormous amount of energy and intellect, and he cares about helping people and doing the right thing."
The middle of three sons who grew up in Park Slope, Weiner entered politics immediately after graduating from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, as an intern and then full-time aide to Schumer. He won his first race for the Council in 1991 and was comfortably re-elected twice. Many observers view him as a political creation of Schumer and the late Canarsie powerbroker Anthony Genovesi.
Still holed up in his modest and cramped Council district office while new quarters are being renovated, Weiner said he felt humbled by last week’s events.
"This is pretty overwhelming stuff," he said, as the first flakes of Friday’s snowstorm drifted through an open window behind him. "As it becomes more real, there is [the question of], am I up to all this? You’ve always got to recognize that there are a lot of people out there that are smarter than you."
One of them, he says, is Schumer, who pulled off the biggest upset victory in the nation in November when he unseated Republican Alfonse D’Amato. Weiner worked closely on his mentor’s campaign after the primary figuring, correctly, that his own general election would be a cakewalk.
"Chuck is borderline brilliant and sees things in a way no one else is able to see and dissect them. I’m not that naturally gifted at this stuff as he is [and] perhaps Iím not as driven as Chuck," Weiner said. "I work very hard to recognize everything I’ve been able to get is because I’ve been able to out-hustle other people."
Weiner says he’ll make no effort to distinguish himself from Schumer, who will "swear him in" to the seat in a ceremony at the Kingsway Jewish Center in Brooklyn on Jan. 24.
Living in Schumer’s shadow "may be a blessing, at least in the beginning. It’s bought me a little anonymity I think I’m going to be thankful for," he said.
Weiner said he had mixed feelings when New York reporters flocked to Washington for Schumer’s swearing-in, barely noting his own initiation. The plus side was that only one newspaper, The New York Times, noted that he made an error during his first speech from the House floor, urging a no vote on a motion other than the one he intended, which involved the appointment of Republican House managers for the Senate impeachment trial of President Clinton.
Hardly anyone believes, though, that Weiner (who did his fair share of headline chasing in the Council) will lurk in the shadows. He’s already been appointed the Democratic whip of the 106th Congress’ freshman class of 23 Democrats and 17 Republicans. (A whip keeps track of how colleagues will vote on a bill and reports to the House leadership). He’s also been appointed to Schumer’s seat on the House Judiciary Committee, one of only two non-lawyers on the panel (the other is Mary Bono, a California Republican.)
"Anthony Weiner will be a star of the delegation," said Mitchell Moss, director of the Taub Center for Urban Research at New York University.
Moss predicts that Weiner will secure a leadership position if Democrats gain control of the House in 2000. "He’s from a district of enormous importance, with high-turnout Jewish and Italian voters. It is crucial to other politicians’ success. He’s also proven he can win a tough primary with legwork and ingenuity, and not money."
The need to achieve also will prevent him from resting on his laurels. Although Democratic primaries are rare in New York congressional races, at least one candidate, Borough Park Councilman Noach Dear, is known to be planning a rematch of the race he lost in September.
"The best defense against a primary challenge is to do a good job," Weiner said.
Recognizing the demographics of his bailiwick, Weiner said he’ll try to impact on the debate over Social Security.
"I represent one of the more senior districts of the nation," he noted. "Eliminating the cost-of-living adjustment and increasing Social Security taxes: these things hit my district pretty hard."
Weiner dismisses the notion that progress on any serious issues this year will be hobbled on Capitol Hill by the impeachment trial. Instead, he sees a greater peril in increasing partisan gridlock.
"A more important dynamic than impeachment is that [the House] is controlled by a five-vote [Republican] margin, the narrowest since 1958" he said. "We’re going to need to pick up 10 to 15 votes on each side on every occasion. The Democrats can smell taking over the House [in 2000] and Republicans are fearful for their lives. Every fight will be a pitched, partisan battle."
After an interview at his office, Weiner gets a round of applause when he stops by the Jay Senior Citizens Center around the corner on Ocean Avenue for an impromptu visit. Around the lunch tables there are handshakes, pats on the back and familiar expressions of concern about his sparse frame.
The assistant director of the city-funded center, Darlene Foscale, says his popularity stems from bringing home the boiled chicken on behalf of the seniors.
"He’s done tremendous things for this center," she said. "Now I guess he’ll be able to do even more."
But many in the room react more as bubbes and zaydes than constituents.
"He’s efficient, he’s likable, he has a lot of personality," kvells Miriam Davidoff. "He came in here when he was pushing to be on the ballot. Now look at him. He’s dressed so nicely."
Taking off his coat, the new congressman draws a crowd of admirers, more like a dolphin than a shark.
The Weiner File
Anthony David Weiner
Born: Sept. 4, 1964
Education: B.A. in political science, SUNY Plattsburgh
Favorite TV Show: "The Simpsons"
Last Book Read: "Bonfire of the Vanities," by Tom Wolfe (second reading)
Hobby: Midnight hockey at Chelsea Pier (goalie)
Hebrew name: Chaim Dovid ben Mordechai
Synagogue membership: Temple Sholom of Kings Bay (Conservative)
Girlfriend: Allison Joseph, 26, of Miami