On a recent Monday evening, Congressman Anthony Weiner strode to the front of a small multipurpose room in the Bronx, where about 75 college Democrats, in baggy jeans and hooded sweatshirts, greeted him with loud applause and a couple of scattered whoops.
The event had been advertised on Facebook as “The Gentleman Is Correct in Attending: Anthony Weiner at Fordham University”–an homage to Mr. Weiner’s famous rant on the House floor last summer, complete with a picture of the enraged congressman flailing in mid-outburst–and Mr. Weiner conceded the two-minute eruption was probably the main reason he had been invited, even as he insisted the clip had some broader significance.
“What was noteworthy is that the primal scream that so many people feel watching it, you know, maybe I did that primal scream,” he said.
Since he declined to challenge Mayor Bloomberg in 2009, with an eye toward the next mayoral race in 2013, Mr. Weiner has screamed his way into the hearts of disgruntled liberals across the country, positioning himself as one of the few fighters for a progressive set that feels embattled by assaults from Fox News, and occasionally ignored by an aloof president.
Mr. Weiner’s routine is not for everyone: He cuts a somewhat crazy-looking figure on the House floor when he goes on his made-for-YouTube-and-cable tangents, as when he addressed G.O.P. cuts to public radio with an exaggerated sarcasm that is not usually the province of a congressman, or when he reads aloud to Republicans from a children’s book on the Constitution, as he did last week.
But generally speaking, people who might find his behavior unseemly, or even childish, are not the ones he’s going after. The demand Mr. Weiner fulfills is among liberals, many of them young, who are frustrated at the notion that their party is incapable of giving as good as it gets. He’s after the Jon Stewart watchers, and Huffington Post readers, and Olbermann listeners, who have plenty of energy and want only for someone exciting to rally around.
“I saw Barack Obama speak when he was in the primary of the Senate race back home, in a small classroom, and that was the last time I was this excited about seeing a Democrat speak,” said Will Thibeau, a Fordham student from Illinois.
And Mr. Weiner didn’t disappoint. He wondered whether it’s even worth it to appear on Fox News, for “a bunch of shut-in trailer park people, you know, who take a break from brushing their tooth to turn on the television,” and he branded the Tea Party as “people in pointy hats, misspelling signs.” He tweaked Mr. Obama for not fighting hard enough to push progressive values, and he responded to one combative question about why he didn’t concede some ground to Sean Hannity by saying, “That’s not how I roll, dude.”
After the event, the congressman had to run–he was scheduled for spots on MSNBC and CNN that night, and he needed to watch Mr. Obama’s speech on Libya first–but several of the organizers stood in the room basking in the moment. One young gentleman made a joke about needing to change his boxers.
“He was very engaging. He was funny,” Mr. Thibeau said. “And he was kind of perfect for a college audience, which I thought was tremendously helpful for a club.” He added, “But I can also see how he is received well among constituents.”
Which is the funny thing, actually. Mr. Weiner wasn’t always like this. As he was making his way up in the party, as a Schumer staffer, and then as a city councilman, and then as Mr. Schumer’s successor in the House, he was frequently described as “combative,” but never, in the context of New York politics, as notably liberal.
His constituents have, for his entire political career, consisted of a relatively conservative lot of Democratic voters in southern Queens and Brooklyn, and his one and a half cracks at becoming mayor–the only job he openly aspires to–have largely been middle-class, outer-borough affairs, attacking the silk-stocking Council Speaker Gifford Miller in 2005, and then, for a moment at least in 2009, the billionaire Mr. Bloomberg. But with Mr. Weiner expanding his brand to include a more left-leaning, progressive following, the dynamics of the next race might look slightly different–if Mr. Weiner can find a way to balance it all.
A Marist poll released Friday showed Mr. Weiner as a marginal front-runner, with 18 percent support in a six-way race, leading his opponents in both Manhattan (with 20 percent support), and among voters in the 18-to-30-year-old set (26 percent).
Over a plate of corned beef hash and eggs (with Tabasco, please, and coffee with half-and-half) at Cosmos Diner in Manhattan on Monday morning, Mr. Weiner dismissed the notion there was some distance between his national profile and the middle-class guy back home.
“Look, when I did the Ridgewood-Middle Village-Glendale Little League this week and I threw out their first pitch, people didn’t say to me, you know, ‘Boy, you’re out of touch,’” he said.
“I think that most Americans don’t look at things through the lens of ‘that’s a local issue, that’s a state issue, that’s a national issue’; they look at things that they care about,” he said, and cited this week’s debate over the Republicans’ proposed budget and how the Medicaid might make for an “enormous hit” to New York.
“So to some degree I think the issues I’m fighting about are not purely national issues,” he said.
Last week, on the anniversary of the health care bill, he hosted virtual town halls on Twitter and Facebook, did a live chat on Daily Kos and answered questions submitted on the Web site Reddit, after an afternoon conference call during which he told reporters he was not part of the “hide-under-your-desk wing of the Democratic Party.”
But on some thorny local issues that have cropped up of late, where Mr. Weiner lacks the foil of Fox News or the Republican Party, he has been more reticent.
Last month, Mr. Weiner was quoted in the lead of a New York Times story joking that as his first act as mayor, he’d gleefully tear out Mayor Bloomberg’s beloved bike lanes.
After the story ran, Mr. Weiner assured his Twitter followers that he was joking, but didn’t return calls to clarify from the New York Post, which then accused him of ducking the issue.
At a meeting with constituents in the Rockaways on Thursday, March 24, the day after his aggressive health care tour, Mr. Weiner responded to a question about a potential new bike lane nearby by saying, “I’m ducking bicycle path questions.”
The crowd laughed, but some of his progressive fans are a little concerned.
“I was really surprised, because I’m from Manhattan, and I was really impressed by his passion for these causes,” said Barbara Ross, who volunteers with the bicycle advocacy group Time’s Up, but was speaking in a personal capacity. “And that’s why I’m hoping he will take a stand and be for bike lanes, because it fits everything he’s said in the past.”
For his part, Mr. Weiner rejected the notion that he was somehow falling short of his posture as a progressive champion.
“Are bike lanes a progressive thing? I know a lot of very progressive people who were very pissed off at the bike lane in their neighborhood,” said Mr. Weiner, who reminded The Observer that the whole thing had been born out of a single, colorful joke that happened to fit nicely at the top of a Times story.
“I do believe that I’m pro-bike like a lot of New Yorkers are. I do hear a lot of New Yorkers say to me, ‘I love bikes, I bike all the time,’ or whatever it is, ‘But damn these f’ing bike lanes,’” he said. “That’s a weird place for us to be. That means that people who would be naturally part of a constituency are getting peeled away because they don’t feel something is right.”
Mr. Weiner, it would seem, has set a high bar for himself.
In the fall, critics p
ointed out that he was conspicuously absent from the constant cable coverage of the so-called ground zero mosque–he released a brief letter praising the mayor’s speech–and, last month, he incited a bit of progressive grumbling, from liberal groups like the Center for American Progress, when he asserted that there is “no Israeli occupation” in the West Bank.
“I guess what I say to people is, I kind of am what I am,” he said. “I think that to the extent that it’s hard to pigeonhole me in a particular place, that just kind of is who I am…These are tough issues, and I try to call them as I see them.”