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Anthony and the Giant

The mayor, having used his billions to bully Anthony Weiner out of the race, is still pounding him. Which says something about the mayor, and about the resilience of Weiner’s ambition.

In the spring of 2008, Anthony Weiner, then 43 years old, had every reason to feel quite awesome about his progress on life’s path, especially for a self-described “scrawny dork who graduated from Plattsburgh State.” He was only 27 when he became a New York City councilman, in 1991—then the youngest person ever elected to that office. By 1998, Weiner was a United States congressman, having won the House seat vacated by his former boss and mentor, Chuck Schumer, who had vanquished Al “Pothole” D’Amato to join the Senate. That first Democratic-primary run (in the Ninth District, the Democrat always wins) was a tough four-way race. Weiner squeaked through by about 500 votes. When he was reelected to a sixth term in 2006, nobody even bothered to run against him. When the upcoming 2008 presidential election was likely to go Democratic, Weiner—party whip for New York–area representatives (“It means just what it says, riding herd,” he says) and member of two important House committees, including Judiciary—figured to be in line for a serious power upgrade.

Then there was the City Hall thing, in which Weiner was the titular front-runner, dating back to his surprising run in the 2005 mayoral primary. A late entry and long shot in the less-than-heartstopping contest between Fernando Ferrer, Gifford Miller, and Virginia Fields, Weiner emerged as a wisecracking policy wonk, the smart if slightly Sammy Glick–ish go-go guy with a million ideas and the manic stamina to knock on every door. Ideally positioned as the outer-borough defender of the (some would say white) middle class challenging two ethnic-based party regulars and a Wasp, Weiner came within a tenth of a percent of forcing assumed candidate Ferrer into a two-man runoff. Declining to contest the result on “party unity” grounds, Weiner set himself up for 2009, when the incumbent colossus, Michael R. Bloomberg, limited by law to two terms, would be off the ballot. His unlikely-sounding dream—Mayor Weiner—was closer than ever.

Plus, he was in love. Long considered one of Congress’s leading horndogs, called “a lean, mean dating machine” in the Daily News, Weiner was now a steady item with the ultrafabulous Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s “body woman” and traveling chief of staff during the campaign, reputedly the classiest dresser on the Hill, with a nifty piece about her in Vogue to prove it. The Romeo and Juliet–esque combo of Weiner’s ardent support of Israel and Huma’s Muslim background seemed enough to chill out Gaza in five minutes.

Yes, in the spring of 2008, it was an excellent thing to be Anthony David Weiner, youngish man in a hurry.

Less than a year later, on a blustery mid-March day, Weiner was driving through Bushwick. Burned to the ground and left for dead following the 1977 blackout riots, Bushwick had been resurrected during the real-estate boom as a hipster annex, its name revised to East Williamsburg. Since the crash, however, the place seemed to be reverting to plain old scary Bushwick. The world had changed out there, Anthony Weiner’s immediate political future along with it.

Only three days earlier, the papers were reporting that instead of calling Nice Jewish Boy Movers to schlep his cats and futon from his Forest Hills abode to Gracie Mansion, Weiner had sent out an e-mail saying, “You won’t see me holding campaign rallies. You won’t see me knocking on doors asking for votes.” The letter was widely seen as his more-or-less-than-formal withdrawal from the mayor’s race.

There was simply too much work to be done in Washington, D.C., to spend his time pressing the flesh in South Ozone Park, Weiner said. “Simply put, I’m doing my job.” This didn’t mean he was absolutely, positively no longer a candidate, he said. In late spring, he would “look at the lay of the land.”

This was the official line. Others had different interpretations, not that you could call up the usual-suspect political consultants for a quote about it. With Bloomberg back in the race, just about every operative, from Howard Wolfson (late of Hillary’s presidential campaign) on through old uncle Hank Sheinkopf, who has worked for the mayor’s last two opponents, was on the mayor’s payroll. The money, as everyone said, was too good to turn down.

Then again, when it comes to Mayor Mike, the money is almost always too good. Bloomberg spent $80 million to crush Freddie Ferrer in 2005, and there was plenty more $80 millions where that came from. It mattered not that Bloomberg would be running on the same Republican line that gave John McCain 20 percent citywide in 2008. The fact that the Democrats hold a nearly five-to-one registration edge meant exactly nothing when it came to mayoral races. The guy was all-powerful without even being completely visible. He seemed to go away every weekend, to no one knows where. Was it Bermuda or the Bahamas? It didn’t even seem to count that Bloomberg wasn’t as popular as he seemed to be. His own people fretted over less-impressive head-to-head polls that showed Mayor Mike hovering in the highly beatable 50 percent range.