Yet still the election seemed a fait accompli. If Bloomberg wanted to stay mayor, he would. As one of those political advisers said, speaking from “a safe phone,” “Not only can’t you beat Bloomberg, you can’t even run against him.” For a smart young man like Anthony Weiner, this was news enough, people said, to get the heck out of the way.
For Weiner, the other Florsheim began to slip late last summer, when Mayor Mike, realizing that, lo and behold, no one really wanted him to run for president, first began to think out loud about renewing his suzerainty at City Hall. This was a bold move in that it would entail the repeal of the term-limits law that had been approved by the voters on two separate occasions.
“My initial response was the same as 90 percent of New Yorkers,” said Weiner, as he slalomed his Ford Escape hybrid past the rusty old pilings of the Myrtle Avenue El train. “I thought, He’ll never get away with that. It was too gross.”
It wasn’t until what has been called the Yom Kippur sneak attack that Weiner, a Mets fan who was sure there was no way the 2008 team could collapse in the stretch, once again started to worry. “Yom Kippur is the one day of the year I don’t worship at the altar of my BlackBerry,” Weiner remarked. “I was off the grid. It took me six or seven hours to find out what happened.”
What happened was that Mayor Bloomberg invited cosmetics heir Ron Lauder to Gracie Mansion for some coffee and cookies. Lauder, who tossed away millions trying to get himself elected mayor in 1989 and 1993, was the prime architect of the current term-limits law, having underwritten the campaign to get the legislation on the ballot. It was a legacy he might be expected to dig into his wallet to preserve.
By early fall, of course, Bloomberg had acquired a powerful argument on his side: The sky was falling!
Like Rudy in his attempt to stay in office after 9/11, Bloomberg presented himself as the indispensable man amid the economic meltdown. And why not? As everyone was losing their shirt, Mayor Mike’s personal portfolio had only increased. In the past year, he’d moved from No. 65 on Forbes magazine’s list of the world’s wealthiest men to No. 17. He was the richest single person in the whole city! Who better to manage things?
Lauder, No. 334 on Forbes’s list, was a potential sticking point. However, on reflection, he saw the light. Bloomberg’s leadership was simply too important to lose at this critical moment. Lauder would support amending the term-limits law, but only as a “one-time event.”
When Weiner heard about Bloomberg’s term-limit change, “I thought, He’ll never get away with that. It’s too gross.”
The day after Lauder said he supported the change, the Post ran a picture of a stunned Anthony Weiner with his mouth wide open, Jerry Lewis style. You didn’t need the dialogue balloon to see the “WTF?”
The rest is history, if you want to call it that. The City Council, flying in the face of a Quinnipiac poll indicating that 89 percent of New Yorkers would have preferred a referendum to decide the issue, voted 29 to 22 to revise term limits, thereby allowing Bloomberg (and themselves) to seek extra terms. In the space of two months, rumor had become law. The mayor congratulated the City Council on offering the “people of New York a fuller choice in the November 2009 election.”
Four months later, driving through Bushwick, Weiner wasn’t over it. For someone who regards ambition as “a Darwinian imperative,” because “ambitious people will usually do something good with that ambition,” to have been swallowed by the bigger fish, so to speak, was a stinger. But it wasn’t simply thwarted self-interest that troubled Weiner. It was the future of the city itself.
He said, “We’re going to look back on the fall of 2008 as a black mark on democracy in New York. The Council is supposed to check the mayor. That’s how it works. The people who voted against the mayor, counter to what might have been the right career move, they’re the heroes. As for the rest … believe me, damage has been done, and it is going to take a while to put that thing back together again as a meaningful legislative body. You only get neutered once.
“This was a quintessential insider deal between billionaires, publishers, and business elite. It was disheartening to watch all those unlikely dominos fall: The New York Times tying itself into intellectual knots to find a way to embrace the plan, the Daily News abruptly changing its policy. One by one, the pillars of democracy came down in a city where we’re supposed to do democracy like a contact sport.