By Phoebe Eaton
[Ed. note: This article was originally published on March 7, 2005.]
“If I see Anthony Weiner, I’m gonna kick him in the balls!”
Woody Johnson was kidding around at the annual winter cocktail party for the Queens County Democrats that was underway at Antun’s, a lively wedding-reception rathskeller in Queens Village. The owner of the Jets had been making the rounds, cranking up support for a stadium on the site of the M.T.A.’s West Side railyards that would double as a stage for the 2012 Olympics. Only suddenly, he had a gate-crasher: Days earlier, Madison Square Garden’s territorial operator Cablevision offered $600 million to the M.T.A. to plunk some apartments and offices on the site-six times more than what Mr. Johnson was bidding. This was just the beginning: TransGas would soon be flashing $700 million at the M.T.A., and the state of New Jersey was jumping up and down to sell the Jets on a less magnificent setup entirely. It was turning into a messy food fight, and everyone knew it.
Congressman Anthony Weiner was cheering all of this mayhem from the sidelines. Though he hadn’t yet declared his candidacy, Mr. Weiner was very publicly running for Mayor, largely on the issue of where Mr. Johnson could stick his stadium.
Mr. Weiner had been waylaid by the white baby grand in the lobby, where he was having a few exasperated words with Stephen McInnis of the city’s District Council of Carpenters over the tinny gurgle of a fountain landscaped with phony zinnias. Mr. McInnis represents the guys who make a living erecting and crunching convention booths, guys who would give Mr. Weiner’s eye teeth to see 30,000 dentists choogling around a sparkly new Jets–Javits Center complex. Mr. Weiner had been calling for the Jets to build instead in Willets Point, Queens, currently the swampland address of some car dealerships and scrapyards. The Congressman’s “Johnny-come-lately ideas” confounded Mr. McInnis: Nobody was going to expand the claustrophobic Javits Center southward if the Jets weren’t there to grease the rails. And nobody-but nobody-was going to board a shuttle bus to go visit any Javits-convention spillover at Willets Point.
Somebody finally dragged Mr. Weiner over to shake hands with Mr. Johnson. There was some strained chitchat about Chad Pennington’s injured throwing arm before the elephant in the room laid a great big fart: “It’s gonna be terrific to just get on the No. 7 and go right to the stadium,” another guest said to Mr. Johnson.
“Yeah,” Mr. Weiner chimed in, “even if you’re going in the other direction!” Mr. Weiner plucked two cubes of cheddar off a tray and headed for the door.
Mr. Weiner’s S.U.V. was now whistling through southeast Queens. Here were the tidy row homes of middle-class African-Americans (as Mr. Weiner was careful to call them). “This is far from the vision that Manhattan’s decision-making elite has of the city,” Mr. Weiner was saying. “But people like this are important to the city’s survival.”
Mr. Weiner isn’t black and he isn’t Hispanic, but the thinking is that he might luck out representing a particular social class: middle-income outer-borough folks looking for a vehicle for their displaced anger. Between them, Brooklyn and Queens are an imposing bloc of votes. And the only other white Democratic candidate in the race, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, wanted some-a-that. Mr. Miller may have announced his run on the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, but Mr. Weiner was going to do his damnedest to confine Mr. Miller to Manhattan-particularly the swanky Upper East Side-and to Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s interests. Mr. Weiner had already won some attention for chaining President George W. Bush to Mayor Bloomberg and Mayor Bloomberg to Gifford Miller, like sled dogs to his greater purpose.
“I think it’s very dangerous to underestimate Anthony Weiner,” said Norman Adler, a veteran consultant who has worked with both Democrats and Republicans.
After six years as a Congressional aide to Chuck Schumer, Mr. Weiner was elected the youngest-ever City Councilman at age 27. Positioning himself as the seed of Chucky when he ran for Mr. Schumer’s seat in 1998 worked rather well for him (though a swift endorsement may not be forthcoming; Mr. Schumer is said to work well with Mayor Bloomberg, and Mr. Schumer’s wife is Mr. Bloomberg’s transportation commissioner). Mr. Schumer immediately partnered with Mr. Weiner once he arrived at the House, and the two are known to speak almost on a daily basis.
“Having Chuck Schumer as a rabbi is a key element of whatever success I’ve been able to attain,” said Mr. Weiner, who added parenthetically that while he and Senator Hillary Clinton weren’t beer buddies, they were friendly.
Mr. Weiner now has his own respectable record-for someone in the House minority-and the press releases to prove it. Mr. Weiner was doing colorful, noisy things like asking the President to cancel his inaugural festivities. Occasionally, he even brought home treats like more Homeland Security moolah and funds to eradicate the Asian longhorned beetle. He also introduced some fairly cinematic legislation deploying several million dollars to help intercept asteroids heading for the planet; the tongue-in-cheek press release that so engaged his critics doesn’t appear on Mr. Weiner’s Web site.
Like some of New York’s best Mayors (Koch, Giuliani), Mr. Weiner is a bit of a wise-ass-and with that kind of currency, he could actually break from the pack. Whether he or Mr. Bloomberg is likable is beside the point: “New Yorkers will rationalize any behavior if they think it’s appropriate for the moment,” said strategist Hank Sheinkopf, who worked on Mark Green’s bid for Mayor. “Rudy Giuliani was kind of like castor oil.”
But lately, some of Mr. Weiner’s paid advisors have been advising him to drop the stand-up shtick and start sounding more like someone with concrete running through his veins.
“I am a serious person,” Mr. Weiner was saying, a tad stiffly. “I take my job very seriously. I have serious plans for the future of this city. And I have to make sure that having a sense of humor doesn’t get in the way of that.” He was still living down a comedy-night fund-raiser from a couple of years ago where he appeared in a muscle shirt and joked that he wouldn’t mind having sex with a colleague in Congress. “But I’m afraid it would be like a praying-mantis deal and she’d bite my head off,” Mr. Weiner ba-boom-boomed.
Now, at age 40, Mr. Weiner’s hair is a little thinner, but he is still, physically speaking, a string bean in a Banana Republic suit who is eager to shed his reputation as a young man in a hurry.
Farrell Sklerov, one of the Mr. Weiner’s community-outreach college boys, was behind the wheel of the Congressman’s Ford Hybrid. (There were only so many speeches that Mr. Weiner could give criticizing Washington’s cozy relationship with the Saudis and then jump into his gas-glutton Explorer.) Mr. Weiner grabbed for a pair of spectacles that looked a little like Chuck Schumer’s. These were his driving glasses-even when he wasn’t driving. His press secretary seemed nervous about what Mr. Weiner might say in the car: Mr. Weiner is the Dale Earnhardt of back-seat drivers. “My problem is, I generally know how to get there,” Mr. Weiner explained. “It’s part of the ethos of living in New York-figuring out how to do things in a better way.”
Back-seat driving is now Mr. Weiner’s game plan in a much broader sense. The latest Quinnipiac poll indicated that only 10 percent of New Yorkers would elect Anthony Weiner as Mayor. But nine out of 10 political consultants seemed to agree: The problem wasn’t that people wouldn’t choose Anthony Weiner; the problem was that people didn’t know who Anthony Weiner was. Bashing Mayor Bloomberg daily at his gangly Congressional microphone-diagnosing the Mayor as a malignancy on New York City-might remedy the situation. And if he didn’t win this time, he’d have the edge next go-round.
Pointed toward Manhattan on the Long Island Expressway, we passed some of the Congressman’s recent battlefields. The proposed site for a Wal-Mart in Rego Park. Willets Point, where he hoped the Jets might come in for a landing.
“There’s a reason the Jets are called the Jets-their stadium used to be out here by LaGuardia,” said Mr. Weiner as we drove by the exit for the airport and the World’s Fair grounds, where Mr. Weiner likes to be photographed as a Big Idea Fella. He noted that one section of the highway was the only point where one could see all of Manhattan, from its southern to northern tip.
“When Mayor Bloomberg closes his eyes and envisions the city of New York,” Mr. Weiner likes to say, “what he sees is the skyline of Manhattan.” When Mr. Weiner looks at New York, he sees its “Manhattan-centricity,” a level of condescension emanating from the Bloomberg administration.
The car pulled over at the Lenox Hill Democratic Club on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where Gifford Miller is prep-schoolishly known as “Giff.” This little gathering of 20 or so concerned citizens stuffed into an afterthought room piled high with cardboard boxes wasn’t going to be Anthony Weiner’s crowd.
“But I’m going to try to go everywhere,” Mr. Weiner explained. “I can’t have people say, ‘He blew us off because we’re Manhattan.’”
Then it was onward, to the F.D.R. Drive, where Mr. Weiner kept glancing at his Bulova. He was making his driver nervous: On Second Avenue, Mr. Sklerov came cheerfully close to ramming two other cars. On Houston Street, what looked like a black Chevy Tahoe with tinted windows tore by in the opposite lane, lights flashing. “Look! That’s Gifford!” Mr. Weiner joked, and perhaps it was: Both candidates had been scheduled to do about 15 minutes around the corner with the Village Independent Democrats. Under the V.I.D. bucking-mule banner, Mr. Weiner successfully unfurled his one-liner comparing Mayor Bloomberg welcoming the Republican conventioneers to Fantasy Island’s Ricardo Montalban.
Mr. Weiner was now chasing Mayor Bloomberg with a baseball bat: Bloomberg, the Congressional delegation’s own private underminer; Bloomberg and his “big edifice” complex; Bloomberg and those corrupt (with a small “c”) 2012 Olympic-stadium donations; Bloomberg, who invited Wal-Mart-with its slave labor in China!-to set up shop in Mr. Weiner’s front yard.
“I might not look like much, but I’m going to throw myself in the gears of that thing!” said Mr. Weiner to hoots and hollers. (Last week, having already found itself in the chomping gears of New York’s fabled neighborhood and labor activism, Wal-Mart canceled its travel plans.) As Mr. Weiner made his way past Virginia Fields, who was waiting to take the stage in a photo-friendly magenta suit, he was hoping he’d said something tabloid-worthy. He also wondered whether it was true, that thing he’d just mentioned about being the first candidate in the race who came out for gay marriage. That was back in 1998, when he was running for Congress.
Might Gifford Miller have said it first? “That would have been high school for him,” Mr. Weiner said in the car. “Just kidding. Just kidding!” (Mr. Weiner still suspects that last month Mr. Miller’s camp might have intentionally leaked to The New York Times an internal Miller campaign memo suggesting that Mr. Weiner be tagged “an ineffectual leader.”)
That night, the Village Independent Democrats’ endorsement went to front-runner Freddy Ferrer, but Mr. Weiner seemed happy-surprised, really-that he’d pulled a few votes: “The message resonated,” he said.
Now it was over the Williamsburg Bridge to a club in Mr. Weiner’s own Ninth District. “I’ve been finding my way back to you-ou-ou,” he crooned quietly as he checked his BlackBerry. He hoped the meeting was still going on. His driver just loved the excitement of working on a campaign, Mr. Weiner said, giggling Beavis-ly. “It’s a point of pride that he doesn’t need the fancy lights and sirens.”
At the Jackson Heights Jewish Center, Mr. Weiner smacked the Mayor with a two-by-four for saying that the city’s public hospitals were now better than its fabled private teaching hospitals. Plans to extend the No. 7 train to the wasteful $1.4 billion West Side stadium meant the City Council (Giff!) would now be scooping some money out of the education budget.
“You know the infrastructure we really need?” Mr. Weiner asked his audience. “Ferries!”
Though Brooklyn and Queens were creating 70 percent of the jobs, “Manhattan is always going to be the dog here in New York, and we’re always going to be the tail,” he said.
Mr. Sklerov was now so wound up he forgot to turn on the lights as he gunned the Hybrid to one of the district’s finest “on the bay” establishments, Russo’s in Howard Beach, another banquet multiplex with a white baby grand in the foy-yay, where dinner was about to be served to the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Ambulance and Fire Department. A fund-raiser for a Lindenwood elementary school was still rollicking around the Tivoli Room across the hall, and Mr. Weiner would stop by there, too.
But hark! Who was on the radio but the villainous Mayor himself, twirling his mustache as he lashed out about the West Side stadium. “We’ll survive if we don’t get it,” he was saying. He vowed a fight to the finish.
“That’s what I’m hoping for!” said Mr. Weiner.
It was Day 2, and Eric, an employee of three days, had several Mapquest pages pressed up against the steering wheel. Already that morning, Mr. Weiner had taped Fox’s Good Day New York and Gabe Pressman’s NBC show, where he tore Mr. Bloomberg’s calling-card issues like education and the stadium into little tiny pieces.
He reached for his glasses. Here in Park Slope, Anthony Weiner grew up right across the street from St. Xavier’s. Back then, the neighborhood was heavy on the Irish, heavy on the Italian. They were still running numbers out of a storefront on the corner. Mr. Weiner pointed out P.S. 107 and mentioned that he’d secured funds for its brickwork. In minutes, Mr. Weiner would be standing on a wind-stunned corner in front of St. Thomas Aquinas protesting the closing of 26 Catholic schools, calling for a summit with the diocese.
“They say it can’t just be a bake sale, but we have a lot of people willing to bake,” Mr. Weiner said, none too convincingly. “I think the Mayor’s taking exactly the wrong approach, talking about how they’re going to come in and scavenge the space.”
Back in the car, he took a baby wipe to NBC’s makeup and rang his mother, Fran, who came to meet us at just the sort of neighborhood bistro that pulls up at the curb during gentrification.
A.W.: “So you’ve gotta watch Gabe Pressman this weekend. He asked all about you.”
Mom: “Oh, yeah? O.K.”
A.W.: “Not in a good way.” [Mom laughs, weakly.] “He said, ‘Why was your mother breaking your chops at a recent speech?’”
Mom: “Well, I already apologized about that.”
A.W.: “To whom?”
Mom: “To you!”
A.W.: “You and I have never talked about this!”
Mom: “No, but I sent you an e-mail. You don’t read my e-mails.”
A.W.: “No, it didn’t reach me. There’s something wrong with the e-mail address you got for me …. Why didn’t you just call me?”
Mom: “Because I can have a thing for you, and you didn’t call back.”
A.W.: “I don’t think that’s right. I’m quite certain that’s not right. Are you gonna hang out a while? Mom, the reporter’s on the record right now. The reporter’s on the record right now. Everything that’s being said is on the record. So ixnay on the alec-smart-ay stuffay, O.K.?” [She laughs.] “All right, this was a bad idea. All right, Mom, nice to see you.”
She did correct him on a minor point at a recent education speech, but Mr. Weiner’s mom, a retired schoolteacher, is a pleasant enough 67-year-old with a snappy little kerchief around her neck. She likes to ski and said she’s learning to read Herodotus in the original Greek. She certainly didn’t give the impression that she had taken leave of Midwood High School (as her son likes to say) because “the fun, the joy and the creativity was taken out of the teaching profession.” Mom taught A.P. statistics, so her own curriculum was untouched. Still, she confirmed that Mayor Bloomberg’s attempt to standardize and script the schools was stifling her colleagues.
Mr. Weiner took a long phone call outside. Upon his return, he was intensely irritated to hear that Mom had revealed his personal e-mail address. He jokingly compared his press secretary, who was ostensibly keeping an eye on Mom, to a potted plant. Mom was dismissed.
Mr. Weiner’s parents divorced when their three boys were grown. His dad, Mort, is a neighborhood lawyer who headed up his block association. A classic New York pisser, said Mr. Weiner: “You couldn’t say ‘Pass the potatoes’ without having to have a discussion about where potatoes are grown, whether our agriculture policy is correct, and without referencing at least one Shecky Greene routine that included potatoes.” Debate was an Olympic sport at this table. “My brother of blessed memory would usually get the last line, but Dad would get the last laugh,” said Mr. Weiner fondly.
Mr. Weiner always thought his elder brother Seth was the smartest Weiner. (The youngest, Jason, is the co-owner and chef of Almond in Southampton.) But Seth had a drinking problem. Arrested twice for driving under the influence, he was jailed for a few days for driving without a license. In May of 2000, a credit-card company filed suit against Seth, then a real-estate agent, for $10,000. It was around noon eight days later that Seth, intoxicated, walked into traffic in Alexandria, Va., and was killed in a hit-and-run.
This is an uncomfortable subject for Mr. Weiner, who had worked very hard to help his brother and was devastated when he couldn’t. “All families have things they have to deal with with those they love, and the Weiner family was no different,” he said. “My brother was brilliant and charming, and he was taken too young. That is how he should be remembered.” Credit-card usury is now one of Mr. Weiner’s issues.
Another is hunger, the first he’d address as Mayor, he said, “because it’s easy to fix, it affects so many people, and it’s something that I just think we’ve gotten used to-the idea that it’s not our job to solve it.” As with all his other issues, he had a plan.
Why would the Congressman want to be Mayor? Because he could do stuff “with a phone call or the stroke of a pen rather than deal with the cloud-of-dust slog of legislating,” he said.
Mr. Weiner had already raised $1.7 million. He was doing meet-ups organized by vestigial Deaniacs at Democracy for America. And while he’d never met Chuck Dolan, he mentioned that he’d just returned a check from Mr. Dolan’s company, Cablevision, because he didn’t want people to think his position on the Jets was for sale.
“My pitch is somewhat different than that of my opponents,” said Mr. Weiner. “I’m not asking them to give me money because I control government contracts at the City Council. I’m not asking them to give me money because I’m the front-runner at the polls.”
(“Perhaps the Congressman should spend less time attacking other Democrats and wringing his hands over the fact that our campaign has raised four times as much as his, and spend more time making sure his own campaign learns how to comply with campaign-finance laws,” countered Brian Hardwick, Gifford Miller’s campaign strategist.)
Mr. Weiner had received some problematic campaign checks courtesy of an Indian pharmacist fan. (He ended up returning them-along with money from the relatives of a rabbi who’d once had a spot of trouble.) “I have a huuuuge following-you may mock me-in the South Asian community,” he said. And Mr. Weiner had always been an advocate for the neighborhood pharmacies being elbowed out by the pricier Duane Reades of the world. It wasn’t fair that his finances should come into question “when the Mayor is arguably the single most destructive force to ever hit campaign finance by spending 70, 80, 100 million of his own money,” he said. “And with a great deal of secrecy.”
Mr. Weiner likes to describe the Mayor as a weak sister, rolling over for the Republicans when he’s not kissing up with donations. Whenever he sees the Mayor, Mr. Weiner said, it’s all reasonably cordial. After all, nothing’s personal in politics. “I think he likes me,” Mr. Weiner ventured. (The Mayor does not, say his aides.)
Mr. Weiner often compares his campaign to Koch ’77. But that was almost 30 years ago, and the demographics have shuffled and reshuffled. The percentage of minority voters may now be over 50 percent, said strategist Jerry Skurnik, Koch ’77′s first paid employee. Mr. Weiner’s situation is perhaps only comparable in that an unknown Congressman like him with a strong outer-borough showing could possibly triumph in a primary runoff-that is, if Freddy Ferrer slides in at under 40 percent.
“I’m not, you know, brilliant,” said Mr. Weiner, who attended SUNY Plattsburgh to play hockey. “I just really believe in what I’m doing, and I think this comes across. I think I work harder.”
“He is very hard-working,” said Congressman Charlie Rangel, and so many others. Sometimes Mr. Weiner is on four New York–Washington shuttles a day, making sure he’s back in time for a fifth-grade graduation in Kew Gardens. He still plays hockey most Monday nights at Chelsea Piers, lugging his equipment around in the trunk because he’s too cheap to pay for a locker, he said. There isn’t much time for TV, but he TiVos Jon Stewart, a friend from years back that he sees occasionally. “We disagree a little on Israel,” Mr. Weiner noted.
“Politics is Weiner’s life,” said consultant Hank Sheinkopf. (Mr. Weiner is as yet unmarried, sharing his Forest Hill co-op with two cats.) “That’s very much like Koch,” Mr. Sheinkopf added, though Mr. Weiner has had for-real girlfriends: New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead; a woman known as Allison (Adrenaline Alli) Joseph, who would post naughty pictures of herself on her AOL/Newline sports Web site; and Kirsten Powers, a pretty blond strategist who has worked for Bill Clinton and Andrew Cuomo. The other day, Page Six reported that he was out late, “swapping spit” with a young lady at the D.C. bar Stetson’s.
“I don’t know that Mayors are expected to be swapping spit,” said Mr. Sheinkopf. “I don’t know that this was extraordinarily helpful to him.”
“Well, who was he swapping spit with, is the question,” said consultant Norman Adler.
Mr. Weiner declined to confirm that he was dating anyone. “I don’t think this kind of stuff matters much to people,” he said. “I think most people scratch their heads and ask themselves, why are my comings and goings so fascinating?”
But they sort of are. And Mr. Weiner, it might be said, was grooving on the attention. The message was resonating.