The would-be mayor went into his pitch.
“I think there’s this growing sense about the city, that it’s no longer the capital of the middle class, that it’s no longer a place that it’s easy to gain access to, that we’ve become something akin to a gated community, that unless you have several hundred thousand dollars you can’t purchase your own home,” Mr. Weiner said. “I’m concerned that the New York City that forged my experience and the experience of my grandparents and my parents is a city that’s disappearing, that the DNA of New York is starting to change in a way that’s troubling to me.
“And that unfolds into a lot of different problems,” Mr. Weiner continued. “The problem of housing, the problem of making sure that we let the middle class have a reasonable tax burden and our schools are still places that are still aspirational, that people can still use them as a gateway to the middle class.”
Who is the middle class, exactly?
“I guess it’s a state of mind—it’s more a state of mind with the New York family,” Mr. Weiner said. “I guess it’s more than the individual policy things—it’s speaking in a language that makes it clear to the citizens of New York that you understand the aspirations that they have, and there is this disconnect with this chest-thumping about how great things are and the insecurity they feel about their place.”
Mr. Weiner has tended to have a selectively adversarial relationship with New York City mayors; as a councilman, he famously opposed Rudy Giuliani’s much-criticized crackdowns on sidewalk vendors and hot-dog stands, and he was one of the first and most vocal critics of Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan. (His constituents are some of the most car-reliant citizens of New York, but he denies that this is what motivated him.)
“I think the problem of congestion and traffic mobility in New York is an important one to discuss, and I honor him for starting the discussion,” Mr. Weiner said. “He got it wrong, but I’m glad that we’re having the discussion.” Mr. Weiner said that his plan, which focuses more on trucks, is a more realistic one; he would also charge an additional fee to commuters coming into the city via the Triborough Bridge.
(A report issued two weeks ago by two nonprofit groups that support the mayor’s plan concluded that Mr. Weiner’s plan “would encourage driving—not discourage it—and as a result attract more traffic in the long term.”)
Mr. Weiner’s second destination the evening of his Washington Heights talk was the Belle Harbor Civic Association holiday party at Russo’s on the Bay, on Cross Bay Boulevard in Howard Beach, Queens. The four-lane road is lined with chains—Petco, Blockbuster, Gold’s Gym, a Waldbaum’s Supermarket, a huge Starbucks—interspersed with pizza shops, the Old Mill Yacht Club, tanning salons. Mr. Weiner executed a quick U-turn, pulled into a bus stop adjacent to Russo’s and jumped out of the car. He saw a staffer standing in front, waiting, and yelled, “Max! Max!” Max didn’t seem to hear. “MAX! Go ahead! Tell them I’m here! Go go go!” Max ran up the stairs, into a large banquet room with around 20 round tables. Huge chandeliers hung from the ceiling; the walls were mirrored.
Mr. Weiner took the podium. “Many of you know the story by now,” he told the crowd. “There was a period in my life when I decided to run for Congress. I was the guy from Brooklyn who had decided to run in Queens, and I was running against a woman from Queens. I decided if I was going to do well, I had to find a way to convince the residents of the Rockaways that I was one of them, so I knocked on every single door in the district—twice.
“Rockaway residents always have a spirit of who they are—there’s this sense of, we’re separated from the mainland, we’re all in this together.”
Mr. Weiner concluded by mentioning the “165,000 Americans who fight for us in Iraq and Afghanistan, many of whom are from the Rockaways. May God bless them and keep them, and God bless America. Thank you very much.”
THE FOLLOWING WEEK, Mr. Weiner stood on the stage of a ballroom at the Hilton Hotel in midtown in front of a very different gathering: members of the Association for a Better New York, a business and civic association comprised of local leaders in real estate, health care and labor. New York, Mr. Weiner told the crowd, has become too expensive for the middle class, and he spoke nostalgically of the days when his father could just hang a shingle outside his house and make a living for his family.
Mr. Weiner’s platform is designed to play on the anxiety felt by a large swath of the population that does consider itself middle class, from an immigrant family in Jackson Heights with no health insurance to a young professional couple who, to their horror, find they can’t even afford a nice two-bedroom in brownstone Brooklyn (and who also may not have health insurance). We’re at this moment in New York right now where more than a few people are making a whole lot of money, but there’s also a creeping feeling that the good times may be killing us—and Mr. Weiner is making it his business to play up those fears.