For years, Anthony Weiner lived and breathed Chuck Schumer. He went to work in Representative Schumer’s office in 1985, when he was a hungry pup straight out of the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. Even back then, Mr. Weiner had something in mind beyond just serving his boss. “I remember him saying, ‘Chuck! I’m going to take your job some day!’” said Jim (Bo) Lohr, who worked as the intern coordinator in Mr. Schumer’s office. “And I couldn’t believe it. He had all this–I guess you’d call it chutzpah. Chuck referred to him as ‘Weiner Beaner.’ You know Schumer. I guess he thought it was funny because it rhymed or something.”
Weiner Beaner kept working, kept meeting people, then left Mr. Schumer to run for a seat in the City Council. After winning the election, he developed the Schumer-like habit of generating publicity for himself, which did not always endear him to the elder Council members … and then … last year … he lived up to his boast: He won Mr. Schumer’s old House seat (for the district covering parts of Brooklyn and Queens) after squeaking through a tough primary and handily taking the general election.
While running for the seat, he depicted himself as a kind of baby Schumer in stump speeches, stressing his ties to the man he calls “my only professional influence.” Now that he’s an actual Congressman, Mr. Weiner seems to be feeling the need to step out of the shadow of his old boss. But just as he was getting settled in Washington, gun control became all the rage, following the tragedy in Littleton, Colo., and Mr. Weiner was there, as co-sponsor of a gun trafficking bill (his first bill!) and the House’s all-around anti-gun guy, a role once filled by … Chuck Schumer.
“I had this desire to form my own identity and try to strike out on my own,” Mr. Weiner said. “And then I was sitting there on Equal Time , and Paul Begala said, ‘It must be something in the water in that district,’ and I had wanted to emphasize that gun control wasn’t going to be my calling card issue. It was Chuck’s thing.”
There was a hint of anxiety in Mr. Weiner’s voice. But, during a recent visit to his district, before a crowd of Schumer-loving citizens at a senior center in Forest Hills, Queens, the Congressman sounded significantly more at ease about his relationship to his mentor.
“Many of you know that I took Chuck Schumer’s seat in Congress when he went on to become a member of the U.S. Senate,” Mr. Weiner said. “But before I was a Congressman, I was a City Councilman, before I got to know any of you, and before that I worked for Congressman Schumer–and as you can see I’ve maybe started to look like him a little bit. Like you begin to look like your pet, I’ve started to look like Chuck a little! And I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”
He knows how to work this crowd. After making a few Social Security pledges to this crowd–”Not that there’s anyone here old enough for that,” he said pausing for a response–he drew attention to his own skinny body, a tactic known to drive grandmotherly types wild.
“I won’t go on too long, because I don’t want to interrupt your lunch. As you can see”–and now he blouses his shirt away from his skinny body–”I can’t afford to miss too many meals!”
The older women clasp their hands to their mouths, thrilled. Somebody feed that nice skinny Congressman!
Afterward, the women gathered around him. “You’re adorable, and we love you,” said one gray-haired dame.
“You’re wonderful,” said another.
The old gals were beaming. So was Mr. Weiner.
A Jewish Truman?
The old ladies in Forest Hills aren’t theonly ones who love the young Congressman. So does Lois Steele, the Congressman’s aunt. When in Washington, Mr. Weiner lives at Aunt Lois’ place. “On the couch,” he tells anyone who asks.
“On the couch indeed!” said Ms. Steele, 57-year-old sister to Mr. Weiner’s father. “He acts like Abraham Lincoln. He has his own room with wall-to-wall carpeting! Adjoining bath!”
But Aunt Lois is proud of her nephew the Congressman.
“We’re all wildly excited,” she said. “We’re hoping that he’ll develop, become more of a statesman, you know what I mean? I’d like to see him become someone like Truman. Someone like that. I don’t think he’ll be the first Jewish President, but maybe Speaker of the House.”
Mr. Weiner grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Dad’s a lawyer, Mom’s a teacher; they divorced when he was in his early 20′s. He went through Brooklyn public schools, and on to Plattsburgh, where he had a 3.0 grade point average (a little shabby compared with Mr. Schumer’s two Harvard degrees). He has a girlfriend named Allison Joseph, who moved to Florida when he was in the middle of his Congressional campaign. “I’m trying to convince her to move back up here, but I don’t have much to offer,” he said. “Come back and live in a crummy apartment, I’ll be in Washington three days a week and when I’m not? Well, you’ve got this neurotic, emaciated guy.”
Aunt Lois, who keeps her eye on her nephew, isn’t sure he’ll ever settle down. “We have a commitment gene missing in our family,” she said. “The Weiner men have a certain attitude. They’re very funny, very demanding, and they have caring, generous hearts. But they want you to do things their way. Nowadays, you’d look at that and say, he’s so full of attitude.”
Lost in Queens
In the ’98 race for the Ninth District seat, Mr. Weiner wisely targeted the Rockaway Peninsula. Mr. Weiner’s years of idolatry won him Mr. Schumer’s endorsement–and with it, Mr. Schumer’s Brooklyn Democrats–but his closest rival, Queens party district leader Melinda Katz, had the support of Queens power broker Alan Hevesi. It was in many ways a race between the two boroughs. And then there was that peculiar peninsula, which fell into neither candidate’s home area.
So Mr. Weiner knocked on every door in the Rockaways–literally. He liked to shout his name– “Weiner!” –just before a given prospective voter closed the door on him. He focused extra mailings there. When Election Day rolled around and the votes were counted, and then counted again, Mr. Weiner had made off with 28.9 percent of the vote to Ms. Katz’s 27.8 percent. He had won by 489 votes.
“I’m not exactly operating with the mandate of the people here,” he said. And so he spends plenty of time in his district reminding people that, with Chuck having gone on to the U.S. Senate, he’s their man.
One balmy night in late April, driving a green Ford Explorer, the Congressman pulled up to a stoplight outside his Sheepshead Bay district office. The car ahead of his was slow to move. “Come on ,” he said, then added sarcastically: “Take your time, lady!”
He muscled his way past the dawdler (an old man, in fact) and onto Emmons Avenue, very excited at the prospect of being early on his tour of Queens community meetings–but soon, somewhere between the airports, he was definitely lost. “Shite!” he said. ” Shite! I have really screwed the pooch.”
While he may struggle sometimes with his sense of direction in Queens, he has managed to inch forward in Washington, getting himself elected as the minority whip of the freshman class. His committee appointments are science and the now-high profile Judiciary Committee. He has bonded with Henry Hyde over airport noise, and with Mary Bono and Maxine Waters over their lack of law degrees–they’re the only three on the committee without.
Mr. Weiner negotiated rampways in an attempt to find his way to his constituents. What about the war in Kosovo?
“It’s the good guys versus the bad guys here, it’s about defending our way of life, et cetera. I’ve always kind of viewed these things as, well, I expect them to be all messy and confusing. I expect them to be dangerous and all this other kind of stuff. And here we are. The good guys.”
A Burger King came into view.
“I have a lot of Holocaust survivors in my district and when you talk about putting people in caravans, lining them up and putting them in trains and all that kind of stuff …” The Burger King loomed larger. “I do have to get something to eat. I do have to get something to eat. I didn’t have enough today. I didn’t have enough to eat.” He was overenunciating each syllable in a staccato baby talk. ” That’s what I need right now. Something to eat!” Then his voice turned deep again. “But yeah, the war thing … I’ve kind of pieced together a three-legged way of viewing these things. On the one hand, we have to be on the righteous side of things, and I think we are. The second thing is there should be a pretty clear objective on what it is we want to do and have the ability to achieve it. O.K.? Stop the massacre.”
Does he think we’ve made it worse?
“Let me get to the third leg. We have to be able to win. We have to be in a winning situation. Um, is that the third leg? Damn, I have this great three-legged thing and now …. Oh no, no, no. The third thing was, we have to have a clear national interest. Right. Clear national interest. Stability of Europe. We’ve got that. Three legs!”
Finally, Mr. Weiner found his destination–the Joseph Lisa Memorial Community Center on a quiet, leafy corner of Corona. Inside, a few senior citizens were scattered in the rows of folding chairs. They craned their necks to the click, click, click of Mr. Weiner’s footsteps, and motioned him toward the front of the room. He reminded them that he is Mr. Schumer’s legacy. He noted his physical resemblance to his old boss.
Mr. Weiner stopped his talk abruptly when City Council member Helen Marshall arrived. “Now that Helen Marshall,” said Mr. Weiner, shaking his head back and forth in slow motion. “She’d make sure I ate something. My mom would always say to me, ‘What’s the matter? You’re emaciated! Don’t you eat anything?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, if I don’t, it’s not because Helen Marshall isn’t trying!’”
A collective chuckle erupts from the folding chairs. Such a nice boy! Let’s feed him.
After Corona, Mr. Weiner pulled up to a Catholic school–a meeting of the Glendale Civic Association. Glendale falls in a conservative part of the district, where the name Schumer doesn’t make people swoon. “I’m going to get creamed here,” Mr. Weiner said, mounting the stairs two at a time on his way in. When his turn came, Mr. Weiner went with the politically safe topic of airplane noise. “If I want to fly down to Washington after 10 o’clock, I can’t do it,” he said. “Why? They close their airport. They do that–and it’s Washington! There’s judges and the President. And I say, if they can do it there, there’s no reason we can’t do it here … Actually, talk about strange bedfellows, I talked to Henry Hyde, who you may know is the chair of the Judiciary Committee that presided over the impeachment trial, and he represents an area just like mine. His district lies in O’Hare’s flight path. So he and I have been talking about ways to fix this. Anyway”–here Mr. Weiner clapped his hands and rubbed them together–”I left my phone number in the back. I’d like to come back when I have more time. Thank you very much. I hope you don’t mind if I steal a doughnut on the way out.”
He took two well-aged chocolate doughnuts from a plate and scarfed them down in two bites each. “I see the same six people every time I come here,” he said outside. “I get the sense I’m doing something. No one can accuse me of not being in Glendale. Every once in a while, I’ll pick up an issue, you know, cancer, something for me to work on. A lot of politicians would look at the map, look at the vote and say, ‘I’m not going to waste my time.’ But I can’t say they’re wrong. I can’t say that that’s not the way to do it.”
‘I’m 34 Now!’
The last stop for the night is the Ridgewood Civic and Property Owners Association meeting. This one’s in an auditorium. Before going in, Mr. Weiner said, “Think I should put my jacket on?”
Why? Because this is a more conservative part of the district?
“No, because I’m concerned I’m, like, shedding gravitas when I shed my coat. I want to look Congressional. Maybe what I’ll do is, I’ll put it on, and then ask them if they mind if I take it off. Then that shows that I’m polite, too.”
Inside the auditorium, the crowd looked listless. “Last week was a very good week for Social Security,” he said into the microphone. “I don’t see anyone out there old enough to be concerned about it yet.”
After his talk, an old lady approached him. “You’re wonderful, you’re adorable,” she said. “But how old are you? You look like a kid!”
“I’m, uh, 17.” Mr. Weiner was still wearing his jacket. “No. Really. I’m 34 now! I’m 34! When Chuck was elected, he wasn’t even 30.”
He may not have been Chuck–but the woman looked delighted with her new Congressman.
She ran her hands through her own stiff apricot hair. “I’m not even gray yet! I’m 73!” she said.
Young Mr. Weiner grinned and patted her shoulder before making his exit. Another night in his never-ending campaign was done. Back to the Explorer.