Inside the cavernous old auditorium, a rough-and-tumble exercise of people’s democracy was ongoing. The neighborhood, by turns Jewish, German, and black and now largely Hispanic, had assembled to hear local leaders address the immigration situation.
Waiting his turn to speak, Weiner found himself standing next to Comptroller Bill Thompson, who, owing to recent events, is now generally considered to be Bloomberg’s main challenger in November.
After the term-limits decision, Weiner and Thompson appeared to be engaged in a game of chicken to see who was going to drop out of the race first. Said one well-known politico: “After Bloomberg did what he did, one of them had to go. When you have $5 million to spend and you find yourself in a tough, bruising primary, you are going to spend that $5 million. You have no choice. So you win. Great. Then you find yourself facing Bloomberg and his unlimited bankbook and you’re broke. The Evil Empire is shooting howitzers, and your popgun isn’t even loaded.”
Weiner has been known to talk some trash from behind his goalie mask during his weekly ice-hockey games at Chelsea Piers, but there was none of that chest-puffing in Bushwick, only smiles and back slaps. Did he feel lonely having the top slot all to himself? “Absolutely not,” Thompson replied, with the smile of a guy who had just saved himself $5 million.
A few moments later, after speaking to the crowd in his best Brooklyn Tech español, Weiner was standing outside on Irving Avenue. Coatless in the brisk winter wind, he looked even more like Ichabod Crane than usual. A youngish guy in a black jacket and matching Yankees hat came over with his girlfriend, slick in paint-on gold pants and a two-foot-high Afro-sheened beehive.
“Didn’t you used to be the governor of New Jersey?” the guy asked.
“No, man,” Weiner replied. “That’s McGreevey.”
“Jim McGreevey. He was the governor of New Jersey. I get that all the time. Maybe it’s the hair.”
“But now you’re running for mayor, right?”
“I’m not afraid of Bloomberg’s money,” says Bill Thompson, “Because people understand how remote he is, how little in common he has with them.”
For going on five years, since the end of 2004, the answer to this question would have been automatic. The bony handshake, the fist bump when appropriate, the goofy neo-tipsy party grin: Of course he was running. For more than half his life—if you wanted to count the student elections at Plattsburgh—Weiner has been running for something, no mean feat with that name. Even among those who liked the policies, it was hard to get by it with a straight face: “Mayor Weiner.” The week he wrote his letter, the Internet was nuts with “Weiner Pulls Out” riffs. For his part, Weiner, who in his first City Council run billed himself as Anthony David Weiner so the constituents of his mostly Jewish district didn’t get the wrong idea, says he doesn’t even notice the gags anymore. “I heard the last original Weiner joke in the sixth grade. At Plattsburgh, I used the slogan ‘Vote for Weiner, he comes from a long string of weiners.’ ”
Now, however, the simple question had taken on what Weiner called “an existential significance.” It was as if the kid in the black Yankees hat was asking, “Who exactly are you, anyhow?”
“Think I should?” asked Weiner, noncommittally.
“Why not? ”
“Okay, I’m convinced. Got any ideas for me?”
With the dawn of the New Year, Weiner still thought he had the plan to beat Bloomberg. With things the way they were, the best way to fight for New York was to win the battle in Washington. Make sure New York got its fair share. Weiner called this “fighting on two fronts.”
A couple of weeks later, as I watched Weiner doing his part to hash out the final bits of the stimulus plan on the House floor, this double-pronged strategy appeared viable. Weiner has always seemed a bit of a nerdish off-angle in the House, a George “the Animal” Steele fan who eats Hostess cupcakes with orange icing for the “vitamin-C quotient,” chews Bazooka bubblegum “by the tub,” and once, during a hearing on supposed immorality in pop music, referenced Jamaican dancehall stars Barrington Levy, Buju Banton, and Shinehead, along with Chamillionaire, in a heartfelt semi-defense of hip-hop culture (a rap that left his bluenose colleagues dumbfounded).
On this day, however, the first real legislative test for the new Obama administration, Weiner was on-point, tummeling like an ultimate mensch-busybody, getting up close and personal with Nancy Pelosi, glad-handing Henry Waxman, reaching across the aisle to hock Republican Pete King.
“We got this. We’re gonna pass this,” said Weiner, who, in his noodgy way, has been known to call out from his seat to correct the chair on procedural points.