Anthony Weiner’s Republican opponents would seem to have one obvious advantage should they choose to challenge the embattled congressman in 2012: their to-date failure to distribute compromising photos of themselves (or parts of themselves) over the Internet.
“Let me think,” joked Bob Turner, the 70-year-old businessman who ran against Mr. Weiner last year, when asked about any lewd photos he might possess or have sent to people who were, say, definitively not his wife. “I’m pretty sure I don’t.”
“No, of course not,” said 26-year-old Eric Ulrich, a city councilman from Queens and another rumored challenger, when asked if he had engaged in any inappropriate online banter.
Before a photo of his crotch rocketed around the country and was splattered across various tabloid covers, Mr. Weiner was expected to be a leading mayoral candidate in 2013, and his re-election to Congress was widely considered a given.
Now, facing an ethics investigation of his lewd messages to as many as six young women and a wall of public silence from his congressional colleagues, Mr. Weiner must first survive 2012.
“Look, my constituents have to make the determination,” Mr. Weiner said on Monday. “If they believe that this is something that means that they don’t want to vote for me, I’m going to work very hard to win back their trust and to try to persuade them that this is a personal failing of mine; that I’ve worked very hard for my constituents for a very long time, very long hours; and that nothing about this should reflect in any way on my official duties or on my oath of office.”
Last November, Mr. Turner captured more than 40 percent of the vote in the Queens and Brooklyn district, a relatively high number for an unknown challenger trying to unseat an established incumbent. And pundits suggest Mr. Weiner could face an even tougher challenge from someone who’s won and run before—like, say, Mr. Ulrich.
“He’s won in a big chunk of the district,” said Jerry Skurnik, a political consultant known for his number-crunching. According to Mr. Skurnik, 50,000 of the 56,000 voters in Mr. Ulrich’s City Council district also reside in Mr. Weiner’s congressional district, and, among the rumored challengers, Mr. Skurnik called Mr. Ulrich the “strongest.”
On Monday, just before Mr. Weiner’s tearful, 27-minute long press conference in midtown, Mr. Ulrich stepped outside of his Ozone Park office to discuss the possibility.
“I don’t want to talk political stuff in my office,” said Mr. Ulrich. “We don’t need any conflict of interest rulings against me.”
Mr. Ulrich said he had been fielding questions “from both sides of the aisle” about the possibility of challenging for the seat, which would pit Mr. Weiner against something like a right-leaning version of his former self.
The similarities between the two are so striking as to be comical.
In 1992, at the tender age of 27, Mr. Weiner won a six-way Democratic primary and four-way general election to become the youngest person ever to serve on New York’s City Council.
In 2009, the ambitious Mr. Ulrich won a five-way special election to become the new youngest councilman, at age 24.
Both enjoy a spirited debate.
The ability to strike at the moral nerve center of a debate had been a hallmark of Mr. Weiner, who became a YouTube sensation when he dressed down fellow New York congressman Peter King on the floor of the House and parlayed his sharp tongue into minor celebrity status on cable news shows.
Prior to attending seminary, Mr. Ulrich said he trained as a member of his school’s debate team—a fact even his aides were not aware of. Neither were his opponents, who, during the 2009 special election, found themselves eviscerated by the neophyte, to the delight of a crowded room of voters.
“Eric, you are a Republican party official,” one of his opponents, Mike Riccato, said, while reading off of a small notepad.
“But what experience do you have to lead this community in these fiscally challenging times?”
“It’s manna from heaven. Thank you, Mike,” Mr. Ulrich replied, buttoning his coat. “My experience has been in civics, in communities, has been with people, my whole life.”
With the microphone in his right hand, he continued.
“I wasn’t always a politician,” he said, enthusiastically waving his left hand. “And by the way, being a politician is not a bad thing. I was studying for the priesthood at one time. So I’ll have you know! My dear friend! That there is a lot more to being a city councilman than being a businessman.”
He spoke above the crowd, which was already applauding.
“Politics is not a business,” said Mr. Ulrich. Pointing to the crowd. “These are not your employees!”
Mr. Ulrich went on, leaving his opponents stunned, and the audience electrified.
(About the priesthood: Mr. Ulrich studied for the seminary, but ultimately decided not to continue, and, after winning his Council seat, he got married.)
Both men enjoy the lure of social media, occasionally to their peril.
Mr. Weiner’s transgressions are, by now, well-documented; yesterday he admitted that he “panicked” when he mistakenly posted a private photo of his underpants to his Twitter feed, and deleted all his photos, before lying to cover it up in a series of interviews over several days.
Mr. Ulrich deleted one of his own posts last week, when he said he was responding to a barrage of vulgar messages from bike zealots.
After a woman was hit by a van in his district, a young female constituent tweeted that Mr. Ulrich should support bike lanes to help “calm” traffic.
Mr. Ulrich said he was offended the advocates would use this tragic accident to advance their agenda, and he told them as much, using the hashtag “#getalife.” When The Observer and another outlet picked up the story, Mr. Ulrich released a statement, backing up his position.
“First of all, I can say with certitude that my Twitter account, to my knowledge, has not been hacked,” Mr. Ulrich said, tauntingly echoing the awkward phrasing in Mr. Weiner’s initial nondenial.
“With that said,” Mr. Ulrich’s statement continued, “I cannot believe that anyone would use a tragic incident like the one that occurred on Friday to advance their own agenda. To suggest that a bike lane would have prevented this from happening is simply absurd.”
Both Mr. Weiner and Mr. Ulrich plan to keep using social media. In Mr. Weiner’s case, admittedly, “not in the same way.”
As for Mr. Ulrich, it’s a work in progress.
“If the voters of the Ninth District want to make sure the seat is held by a politician who sends inappropriate tweets to young, female constituents, Eric Ulrich is worth a look,” said Aaron Pasternak, a transit advocate and bike lane booster.
Mr. Ulrich said he had heard about polling already being conducted in the district, and that he had heard his name was among those being mentioned. (A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee said the organization was not polling in the district. Mr. Turner said he was also considering whether to run against Mr. Weiner.)
For now, the councilman said he was focused on fighting the ongoing budget battle in the City Council.
“I rebuffed a lot of the talk because I don’t want to put a target on my back,” he told The Observer on Monday.
A call to his cell phone Tuesday morning went straight to voice mail. Minutes later, he sent a text message.
“If the seat opens up, I might consider running,” he wrote. “Right now, the people need someone who can restore their trust and faith in government.”