As word of the carnage in London spread last Thursday, Anthony Weiner was faced with a quandary.
Proceeding with his campaign schedule for the day would demonstrate what he would later call "the aplomb" of citizens of England, Israel and New York in the face of terrorism. But on such a dire day, was it proper to hold a press conference on post-Olympics planning and an endorsement photo op with Brooklyn elected officials?
"It wasn’t a political decision as much as what my gut told me was the appropriate thing to be doing," Weiner insists. "It was not a good day to be talking about economic development."
Weiner decided to declare solidarity with the people of London, then lay low a bit, anticipating the "next generation of discussion" about the bombings. On Saturday he released a five-point plan on improving security in the subways here.
"That day’s paper was dominated with discussion where the [MTA’s] money was being spent," he said. "Clearly that’s where the debate was in the city."
That same weekend one of his opponents in the Democratic mayoral primary, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, planned her own press conference on subway security. But it was canceled amid a spiraling controversy over doctored photos in a campaign flier that led to the firing of her campaign manager and a cycle of recriminations over who was to blame.
Weiner, 40, may not be leading the pack in fundraising (he’s raised $2.4 million to date) or polls, but his instincts seem to be serving him well as he draws attention to his ideas and stays on message for the Sept. 13 primary.
"He’s gotten an unbelievable amount of positive attention from the professional campaign watchers," said Scott Levenson, a political consultant who is not involved in the mayoral race.
Of course, it helps that his opponents keep getting into trouble.
In addition to the Fields flap, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer endured weeks of fallout for remarks he made earlier this year about the police shooting of Amadou Diallo not being a crime.
The remaining candidate, Council Speaker Gifford Miller, has faced questions about his use of city funds to mail promotional material, and about the leak of a memo on attack strategies against his Democratic foes and Mayor Michael Bloomberg early in the campaign.
Weiner has voluntarily returned some questionable donations, including from the family of a Brooklyn rabbi who misappropriated government funds. And he’s offered some harsh jabs, such as the time he dismissed the ideas of his rivals (as they sat beside him at a forum) as "old and stale." But he’s been able to drive his own agenda.
"It’s fair to say he has avoided mistakes," Levenson said. "But I think it would be unfair to suggest that he hasn’t taken risks or that he’s played it safe. His presentations and his positions on issues tend to be fairly strident and cutting edge.
"Weiner is modeling his campaign on the successful 1977 mayoral bid of Ed Koch and the 1998 Senate race of Charles Schumer, Weiner’s mentor.
The Koch model is more apropos (a congressman emerging from a crowded field to win City Hall) and Weiner often seems to be mimicking Koch’s wit and blunt talk. But an important lesson seems to come from Schumer’s experience: Don’t quit your day job.
Weiner often foregoes events in the city because of House voting, so detractors cannot exploit missed votes as Al D’Amato did with Schumer in ’98.
"If you think the status quo is going in the right direction, there are plenty of choices," Weiner tells a group of students at the Cardozo Law School recently. "If you think we should start tackling problems, I’m your man."
After the event, at a nearby diner, he adds: "I’ve never been the candidate of the big machines. I’ve had to fight for stuff, and I think a lot of New Yorkers wish they had a fighter like that in City Hall."
Like most New York Democratic legislators, Weiner probably could have a long career in the House without facing a serious challenge. But he says he decided to run for mayor because he would have more power to implement his ideas.
"When you’re the mayor of New York, you can literally get up in the morning and say I’m going to solve this problem today, and go a long way toward doing it," he says while munching a croque monsieur sandwich.
After unveiling detailed proposals on everything from health care to transportation security, Weiner has been dubbed the policy wonk of the campaign by commentators.
"I find it remarkable that when you talk about issues on a campaign, you’re somehow doing something extraordinary and exceptional," he says. "I’m jovial, I like to have fun, but I’ve given a lot of thought to the first four years of a Weiner administration. I’m gonna hit the ground running."
Insisting people still don’t know he’s running, even in his own district, Weiner says Bloomberg’s lead in the polls stems from early advertising largesse.
"It’s one hand clapping: no one has advertised on the other side," says Weiner. "His popularity is high and he’s spent $7 million … on the air. Duh."
Contributors haven’t been scared off.
"His strategy is to get into the runoff, and then go from there," says Shlomo Perl, a businessman with homes in Belle Harbor, Queens, which is in Weiner’s district, and Borough Park, which isn’t.
A longtime supporter of Weiner, Perl recently hosted a Borough Park fundraiser that he said netted about $25,000.
Sources in Brooklyn’s affluent Sephardic community say he has been aggressively seeking support there, with mixed results.
"The community is not monolithic," says David Greenfield, executive director of the Sephardic Community Federation, who says Miller has also been well received.
Mayoral Role ModelsWeiner often mentions the mayor’s wealth, which he says should not disqualify him from the job. However, Bloomberg "views the city through a kind of an echo chamber of a lot of wealthy people that think about the nuisance of dealing with teachers when they deal with education," Weiner said in May. "His view of economic development revolves entirely around the big projects, and much of it in Manhattan.
"Bloomberg spokesman Stu Loeser fires back, "Time magazine specifically highlighted economic development in the outer boroughs when they named Mike Bloomberg one of the nation’s top five mayors. The deeper Weiner sinks in the polls, the more hysterical his attacks become.
"In a more recent interview at his downtown office campaign office swarming with college-age kids, the candidate had some gentler words for his potential opponent when asked whom he would emulate as mayor.
"He has done a good job fighting to win control of the education system," Weiner said of Bloomberg. "Unfortunately he stopped there and doesn’t fight enough on other things very much."
Weiner went to say, "The way he dealt with the Howard Beach incident was laudable and he deserves credit."
Loeser did not respond when asked if the mayor had any compliments for Weiner.
Weiner said he’d also take pages from Rudolph Giuliani’s playbook when it comes to "redefining challenges" such as fighting crime, and would hold town hall meetings in the outer boroughs as did the erstwhile mayor.
Koch would be a model for "focusing on the middle class and outer boroughs and question[ing] the orthodoxy of his party."
Schumer School Alumnus
Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Anthony David Weiner went to work for Schumer in 1985 soon after graduating SUNY Plattsburgh.
Irma Kramer, who was then Schumer’s chief of staff, recalls Weiner as "eager to learn. I remember when he came back from [representing Schumer] at a yeshiva graduation, and he didn’t understand why the girls didn’t shake his hand. I had to teach him a thing or two."
In 1991, a more seasoned Weiner, at 27, became the youngest person elected to the City Council at the time. Seven years later he won Schumer’s open seat, and has been re-elected four times, but drew the attention of the Federal Election Commission twice for improper contributions. Weiner paid a fine of $47,000 in 2004 to settle fundraising violations in his 2000 campaign.
In 2003, the district, which had been about evenly split between Brooklyn and Queens, was reconfigured so that only 30 percent remained in Brooklyn. That year he moved from Sheepshead Bay to Forest Hills, where he now lives with his two cats.
Mike Geller, a Democratic district leader from Sheepshead Bay, said Weiner "seems to have forgotten about people in our part of Brooklyn" since closing his district office on Emmons Avenue. "He’s out of touch with the people who put him [in office] in the first place."
Geller, who is supporting Miller for mayor, says he was incensed as well when Weiner spoke derisively about the support of so-called political "bosses" enjoyed by other candidates.
"When they come to us, we are bastions of the community," says Geller. "The minute we support someone else we become bosses again."
In 1998, Schumer’s endorsement in the final stretch of the campaign to succeed him may have pushed Weiner over the top. This year, Weiner acknowledges, it’s more complicated.
"He’s the titular head of the party in many regards and has to make decisions based on what’s best for the party," Weiner said of Schumer.
Still Weiner, who used a photo with the senator in a recent mailing (authorized, he says) doesn’t rule out another 11th-hour nod from Schumer.
How much advice Weiner is getting from Schumer, whose wife, Iris Weinshall, is Bloomberg’s commissioner of transportation, is unknown. What is known is that one of Weiner’s top advisers is a former Schumer strategist, Tom Freedman, who also worked in the Clinton White House.
Two unofficial advisers frequently attend his speeches: his parents, Morton and Frances. At one forum on education policy his mother, who retired this year after more than three decades as a high school teacher, famously corrected her son on a point of information.
"From a purely objective point of view, I really think he is distinguishing himself," said Fran after hearing his Cardozo speech.
While Fran Weiner said she often shares her thoughts on policy matters, "he’s the creative one, the one that comes up with ideas."
Cutting Teeth On Jewish Issues
Weiner was the first of the mayoral candidates to speak out about the rise in crimes in the city motivated by anti-Semitism and allegations of anti-Israel bias at Columbia University. He says more needs to be said from City Hall’s bully pulpit.
"When in Belle Harbor you have successive weekends in which a Hatzolah ambulance and a yeshiva have swastikas painted on them, when you have in Columbia University … Jewish students who don’t even want to go to certain [Middle East] classes, it’s the job of the mayor to stand up and in a full-throated fashion plant themselves on one side or the other in that discussion," he says.
Bloomberg has expressed concern about the allegations at Columbia and welcomed an investigation by the university’s president, Lee Bollinger.
Weiner, one of Israel’s most ardent supporters in the House and representing an overwhelmingly Jewish district, says his "record on causes important to Jewish New Yorkers is long and rich."
"I share these values not just because I’m a Jewish New Yorker but because this is how I cut my teeth. My first political functions in life were going to [Israel] Bond breakfasts," he says. "This is a community that I’m not visiting and taking pictures with at election time, but a community that represents the foundation of my political support."