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Life of the Party

Anthony Weiner, the 37-year-old hipster congressman from the Rockaways who was once called the "Club-Kid Councilman," has become a ray of hope for the bruised Democratic Party. Haven't heard of him? Then you haven't been watching TV.

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Wearing a Rockaway Little League windbreaker and a pained look, Congressman Anthony Weiner slumps wearily into the driver's seat of his 1996 Ford Explorer. It's Monday, November 12, and the SUV is parked two blocks from the smoldering heap of black ash that was, until just after 9 a.m., the site of five handsome houses in Belle Harbor, at the southern tip of Weiner's district. He's been here since mid-morning, hugging distraught constituents, checking to see if power has been restored, thanking rescue workers for their efforts.

Now Weiner is waiting to begin a phone interview with WABC radio; the talk show's host says Weiner will be joined by Fernando Mateo, the anti-gun crusader and taxi-driver safety advocate. The salient reason Mateo is on the radio, of course, is that he's Dominican, as were nearly all the passengers on American Airlines flight 587. "I love this guy!" Weiner says, off the air, a smile briefly returning to his face; the congressman and the erstwhile carpet-store owner are kindred media-friendly spirits, but they also share a restless, indomitable, civic-minded energy. "He's the kind of guy New York is about."

When he heard that the Airbus had jackknifed into the Rockaways, Weiner happened to be on his way to an MSNBC interview. The first thing he did was contact his staff, who were out of the office for the Veteran's Day holiday, and ask them to report to work. Then he arranged for a police cruiser to meet him at the studio to take him to the disaster site. In the commandeered car, he was already on the line to Fox News. It occurred to him that he wasn't dressed for public appearances. "I had a jacket and tie on, but I was wearing jeans and sneakers, because I had planned to do some work at my office right after the MSNBC spot," he remembers a week later with a rueful laugh. "I didn't have a coat or anything, and for a while I had to carry my briefcase with me. Who knows what I must have looked like."

To one group of kids, he looked like mayoral material; they thought he was Mike Bloomberg.

Crises, when handled well, have a magnifying effect on politicians. And just as the past two and a half months have turned Rudy Giuliani into an international figure, so too have they solidified the status of Weiner -- a young officeholder from the outermost outer boroughs -- as an ascendant force in New York politics.

In September, as Congress pushed through terrorism-related legislation, Weiner fought for a boost in the minimum death benefits for firefighters and for tighter monitoring of student-visa holders so that federal officials will be aware, as he put it, "if someone comes into this country as an art-history major and then switches to learning how to fly airplanes without landing them." He also came to the defense of House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, who was under fire from fellow Democrats for signing off on an airline-bailout package that they felt failed to provide adequate protections for laid-off workers. When Gephardt announced his appointments to the caucus's newly created Homeland Security task force, Weiner was the only New York City congressman on the list.

Three weeks later, on October 17, after an anthrax scare prompted the House leadership to vacate their chambers, Weiner, anticipating the press fallout, arranged for members from both parties to return to New York on the same shuttle flight. After the group landed at La Guardia, the plan was for Charlie Rangel, the Harlem Democrat and dean of the city's delegation, to make a statement defending their superiors' decision. Instead -- in the sort of gesture that does not go unnoticed on Capitol Hill -- Rangel told Weiner to address the press conference himself. The next night, Weiner appeared on The O'Reilly Factor, where he announced that he was going to "kick those guys at the New York Post in the ass" for calling House members "WIMPS!" on page one of that day's edition. ("Part of me regrets saying that," he says now. "But I guess if you're going to say ass, it might as well be on Fox.")

Weiner -- an old-fashioned, left-leaning Democrat who is pro-choice, pro-gun control, and pro-government -- played the same role early this year, when his shell-shocked party colleagues were reluctant to rake George W. over the airwaves in the first months of the new administration. He was ready and willing to battle GOP stalwarts on various right-wing shout-fests. "He's stepped into that role very quickly," Senator Chuck Schumer, who once employed Weiner as a member of his congressional staff, says admiringly. "After two years in the House, I was sort of choogling around on Third World debt relief." This summer, Democratic National Committee boss Terry McAuliffe tapped him to co-chair his 11-04 fund-raising initiative, which will reach out to young professionals as the party fortifies its war chest for the 2002 and 2004 elections.

Now, with the city's Democratic heavyweights nursing the bruises they sustained (or inflicted upon themselves) during the mayoral debacle, local machers are eyeing Weiner to play a more prominent role. "I'm very impressed with Anthony," says bigwig publicist Ken Sunshine, who advised close friend Mark Green during his failed bid for City Hall. "There are few others who I would say as authoritatively represent the future of our party." Consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who also worked on Green's campaign, once described Weiner as "sure of himself to a fault" -- an accusation that was leveled at Sheinkopf's candidate as well -- but has since reevaluated that assessment. "Here's a guy who is good-looking, quick of tongue, a tireless worker, and awfully bright," Sheinkopf says. "He has the potential to be a great leader for the Democrats in New York."

The way Fran Weiner remembers it, her son Anthony was a very plump baby and didn't learn how to walk until he was almost 2. Once he discovered perambulation, though, that was it: "He went from crawling to running," she says, and hasn't sat still much since. As a young child, he never wanted to stop to eat. Later, he didn't stop for eighth grade; when the graduate of Brooklyn Tech high school arrived at SUNY Plattsburgh in 1981 for his first week of college classes, he had just turned 17. There, using slogans like "Vote for Weiner, he's on a roll," the political-science major won a seat on the student government; in his junior year, he was named most effective student senator.

The following term, he set about finding a job in D.C. "Because the lines in Brooklyn are so jagged, he wasn't sure whose district he lived in," says Dr. Harvey Schantz, who served as Weiner's faculty adviser. Learning who his representative was "didn't stop me from spelling his name wrong on my letter asking for an internship," confesses Weiner. Congressman "Shumer" hired him anyway, bringing Weiner to Washington during the final semester of his senior year.

That internship led to a full-time gig, and almost immediately, Weiner began plotting a run for office. Knowing that Florida, awash in retirees from the Northeast, was likely to gain congressional seats following the 1990 census, he contemplated a move to the Sunshine State, "the only other place," as he saw it, "that a Jewish kid from Brooklyn could get elected." But Schumer talked him out of it, and in the fall of 1988 transferred his ambitious charge to his district office in Sheepshead Bay.

Two years later, as New York was preparing to expand its City Council from 33 members to 51, Weiner decided to pursue one of the newly created seats. He eked out an upset victory in the Democratic primary, prevailing by less than 400 votes. Just 27, he was the youngest candidate ever elected to the council.

Weiner quickly distinguished himself at City Hall, partly because he was known to cruise around the building on rollerblades, and partly because he was so eager to orchestrate face-offs with the mayor. As he landed in the papers by defending hot-dog vendors and cab drivers, he found himself blackballed by Giuliani. Gustavo Bruckner, Weiner's first chief of staff, remembers a period when "sympathetic officials told us that they were on orders from the mayor that they were not to speak with Anthony."

Some of his elders in the City Council didn't appreciating being upstaged, either. "If you talked to people in the cloakroom, the impression you got was that they thought of him as someone who wanted to go his own way," says Norman Adler, who lobbies the city government on Democratic issues. But "the Club-Kid Councilman," as friends had dubbed him, also had his fans, winning over some colleagues by inviting them to fund-raisers at nightspots like Automatic Slim's, NW3, and Nation. And then there was the "Rush and Malloy" item about his then girlfriend, Alli Joseph, who posted provocative photos of herself on her now-defunct sports Website, "Adrenaline Alli."

When Schumer opted to challenge Senator Al D'Amato in 1998, Weiner got his chance at his old boss's House seat. He had to fend off three other challengers in the decisive Democratic primary, and it took a recount to decide the contest, but in the end he bested then State Assemblywoman Melinda Katz by 489 votes.

Weiner's swinger sensibilities weren't muted by his move to higher office. Once the cool-guy councilman, he's now "the congressman with the best dancehall-reggae collection," as his friend, video director David Nelson, puts it. An avid hockey fan, Weiner still straps on his goalie pads for the Falcons, the team he plays on year-round in leagues at Chelsea Piers, and he takes the Congressional Baseball Game very seriously, too. He's the representative who keeps a collection of Napster files on his office computer (officially, Weiner has no position on the service, but he seems to have made good personal use of it), and back when they were still hard to come by, he asked a Sony lobbyist to track down a PlayStation 2 for him.


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