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.
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.
“It’s embarrassing and sad. I want to believe this was a weird, unusual moment and when it passes the city will go back to its real self.”
Now, no one is denying the various accomplishments of the Bloomberg administration. It is a relief to come out of a bar without smelling like a Kool menthol. Certainly the surface temperature of race relations has been reduced, even if the underlying reality hasn’t changed as much.
However, for this aging, Queens-bred Big City loyalist, someone who has sworn to never, ever vote for Mike Bloomberg following his amoral offering up of the beloved hometown as a backdrop for the 2004 GOP gangster convention and the subsequent setting loose of Popeye Kelly’s army to make sure a discouraging word was never heard by a Bushian ear, Anthony Weiner’s lament was easy to take, even a little inspiring.
Sure, it was self-serving, but if you don’t think there hasn’t been a general decline in the democratic process around here, you must have missed the sorry Paterson-Kennedy-Gillibrand soap opera, in which an unelected governor blathered his way into making a senator out of a gun-and-tobacco flogger.
Delivered with a proper mix of regret and outrage, by someone who was driving his own car through the mapless back channels of Brooklyn, Weiner’s spiel had a down-home ring to it. Which made sense, since the house I grew up in, that noble manse along the banks of the mighty L.I.E., sits within the current gerrymander of Weiner’s district. Take out 40 years, and he would have been the congressman I would have written to protest his cowardly, now supposedly disowned vote to support the Iraq War. Both our moms were New York City public-school teachers, so you could say we went back.
This outer-borough bonhomie was a bit of a surprise, since Weiner is supposed to be a prick. He was allegedly such a hard-ass that early last summer, during his mayoral front-runner days, the Times, seemingly out of the blue, did a story on how Weiner was among the “most intense and demanding” of Capitol Hill bosses. The piece described Weiner as “a technology fiend who requires little sleep and rarely takes a day off, routinely instant messages his employees on weekends, often just one-word missives: ‘Teeth’ (as in, your answer reminds me of pulling teeth).” These management practices, the article goes on to explain, could “offer clues” as to how a Mayor Weiner “might handle perhaps 300,000 city workers.”
Even if Weiner does occasionally point at an aide and say, “Ticktock!” when he wants to know what time it is, he revealed little of this supposed side of himself to me. Weiner acknowledges he can be a dickhead sometimes, but, as we all know, everyone in politics is kind of a dickhead.
At least he is the dickhead wiseass we know. Case in point would be a visit along with brand-new secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar to the Statue of Liberty on the Friday following Barack Obama’s inauguration. Decked out in cowboy boots and hat, Salazar was making his first official appearance outside D.C. since his swearing-in, a massive score for Weiner, who was happy to show off his pull with the new administration. The reopening of the statue’s crown, closed since the 9/11 attacks, is one of Weiner’s most enduring talking points. To be lifted by your dad to look out the window inside Lady Liberty’s head was an iconic New York kid experience, the congressman often said. Just remembering it gave him “chills.” Marched up to the top, Salazar agreed: The view was awesome; the crown should be open.
Later, on the boat ride back to Manhattan, the secretary’s Westernwear became a topic of discussion, specifically his bolo tie, the clasp of which was engraved with his last name spelled out in block letters. Did everyone out West have their names on their ties, it was asked. “Hey, I got my name on my tie,” Weiner said, pulling the deep-blue garment from inside his coat. Given to him by an Annapolis grad, the tie was embossed with large gold “N.”
“See that N,” said Weiner. “It stands for Not to Be Fucked With … That’s me, Anthony Not to Be Fucked With Weiner.”
Weiner pulled up in front of the old Bushwick High School building. Opened in 1913, the “traditional” school was shut down in 2006, when 23 percent of the long-dwindling student body managed to graduate on time. The four smaller high schools now occupying the building are showing better results, but exactly how much better was the question. Weiner was critical not of mayoral control of schools but rather of Bloomberg’s vaunted management skills. “Spending on schools has gone up 40 percent. But have we gotten 40 percent improvement? The answer is no, and that is directly responsible to lack of imagination and mismanagement of this administration.” These were the real issues of the upcoming mayoral campaign, Weiner declared, forgetting he’d told a number of TV outlets he “wasn’t doing politics today.”
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.
The next day, Weiner held a press conference at Grand Central to call attention to all the prospective bacon he had brought home. Pointing to figures on a blue poster board, the pie-chart-loving congressman ticked off the numbers: $1.7 billion for transit, $1.85 billion for Medicaid, tax cuts for the middle class. Best of all, Weiner said, was the funding of an extra 440 cops in the street. This was a result of his own cops program, proof of what he was bringing to the table as the city’s best man in D.C.
It looked good on poster paper, but Weiner’s doubts were apparent even on the Acela ride up from Washington (the self-confessed “cheapest guy in the House,” he made sure to get his congressional discount) the evening the stimulus bill went through with no Republican votes. Sure, the Dems had the majority, but if the Republicans were going into lockstep noncompliance, getting stuff done was going to be a lot harder, not to mention more time-consuming.
And, over the winter, Weiner began to see other flaws in his plan. He had always said that one of his advantages over Bill Thompson in the mayor’s race was “I get under Bloomberg’s skin.” Weiner had Bloomberg psyched out as a deck-shoe-wearing Über-boss, someone not used to schoolyard give-and-take. Get him out of his imperial comfort zone and he could lose it. “You won’t believe why he doesn’t like me,” Weiner said, shaking his head.
The incident dated back to 2001, during Bloomberg’s first mayoral campaign. Michael Wolff, onetime columnist for this magazine, had obtained a copy of The Portable Bloomberg: The Wit and Wisdom of Michael Bloomberg, which had been privately published by employees of Bloomberg L.P. Now largely expunged from public memory, the booklet featured some unfortunate quotes, stuff like “The three biggest lies are: The check’s in the mail, I’ll respect you in the morning, and I’m glad I’m Jewish” and “It’s like the guy who goes into a bar, and walks up to every gorgeous girl there, and says, ‘Do you want to fuck?’ He gets turned down a lot—but he gets fucked a lot, too!”
Weiner, thinking he’d “have a little fun,” called a press conference to protest another bit of reputed Bloomberg wit and wisdom: “I make it a rule never to go to Queens—and since that eliminates both airports, I don’t travel a great deal.”
“I know I can run the city better than the current mayor,” Weiner says. “But sometimes there are walls even your ambition and skill can’t push through.”
Weiner said, “Bloomberg calls me to ask me to cancel the press conference. I asked him if he really said all that stuff. He said, ‘I don’t know, I might have.’ So we went ahead. He said it was his single worst day of the campaign—that’s what he tells people—which says something about the charmed political life he leads.”
Apparently, the mayor, who, according to almost everyone, “can’t wait to run against Weiner and stomp him,” has not forgotten. Case in point is a March 6 Post story, “Weiner’s Naughty Hottie$,” which detailed how some Brazilian models had illegally donated to Weiner’s mayoral campaign. Weiner had walked into that one with his grandstanding for an increase in supermodel visas in order to create jobs in the “fashion industry [that] is super-important in New York.”
Assuming the story came from the Bloomberg campaign, Weiner said, “You really have to tip your hat to an organization that can find out the immigrant status of someone who wrote me a $300 check.
“People think I’m paranoid. But I’m not,” said Weiner, whose contention was more or less borne out by an April 6 Times story revealing the Bloomberg campaign had run a so-called telephone push-poll, a staple of mudslinging politics, that contained “questions featuring negative information about Mr. Weiner.”
Put this together with the persistent rumor that Senator Chuck Schumer, whose wife, Iris Weinshall, was Bloomberg’s Department of Transportation commissioner for six years, had taken aside his former protégé to tell him to drop out of the campaign, and the pressure mounts.
“It isn’t that I don’t have the stomach for the race,” said Weiner. The fact was, he said, that running for mayor right now “just didn’t feel right.”
This didn’t mean becoming mayor wasn’t a “definite priority,” Weiner said, driving out of Bushwick. “I know I can run the city better than the current mayor. I know it. But sometimes there are walls even your ambition and skill can’t push through.”
Of course, there were other reasons to avoid having your head handed to you by Mike Bloomberg.
Weiner’s Blackberry rang. He got that goofy-happy look for a moment before his voice rose an octave or so. “Asia? What’s with Asia? … No, I don’t have anything against Asia … Asia’s great. But it’s far. Very far.”
It was pretty clear who this was, since Hillary was going to the Far East and there wasn’t much chance she was getting on the plane without her “body woman.” Close observers say that Weiner, after much tabloid coverage of various liaisons with New York media eligibles including The New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead and the sometime TV producer Alli Joseph, a.k.a. Adrenaline Alli (check out that pic gallery on her site—hot, hot, hot), is “definitely serious” about Huma. The word is Weiner, whose parents divorced and whose brother, Seth, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in 2000, “looks forward to a more settled life.” Asked if thinking about being a family man might have some impact on his mayoral future, Weiner said, “That’s pretty much none of your business, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think Mike Bloomberg is invulnerable,” said the candidate, sitting at a table in the lobby of the Brooklyn Marriott hotel, where he’d just been honored by the elders of the Empire Baptist Missionary Convention. A more guarded and careful man than Anthony Weiner, Bill Thompson nonetheless agrees that it will be “a sweet piece of irony” if Mike Bloomberg were to lose the 2009 election after “outrageously scuttling the process.” Asked how he planned to attack the mayor, Thompson said he felt that Bloomberg had “many weak spots,” not least of which the mayor’s obsession with Wall Street and his cozy relations with the now teetering real-estate industry. “I’m not afraid of his money,” Thompson declared. “Because people understand how remote he is, how little he has in common with them. He says things like, ‘We love rich people,’ but that’s wrong. He loves rich people. There are other people in New York, and that’s why a year from now we’ll be having this conversation in City Hall.” This seemed a proper degree of bravado for someone about to try to run against Bloomberg, even if when asked what his chances were—five to one? Ten to one?—Thompson bristled, “No way I’m ten to one.”
Still, as Freddie Ferrer, outspent ten to one by Bloomberg in 2005, says, “It was a rough experience. But if I had to do all over again, I would. Because you have to make the argument.” Barring unforeseen events, that will be Bill Thompson’s job now.
As for Anthony Weiner, there is still talk of his jumping back in. (Even if the only Democrat who could give Bloomberg a race is probably Bill Clinton.) He plans to attend candidate forums here and there, although with none of his usual hell-bent ardor. That is the small tragedy of Anthony Weiner. Maybe he would be a good mayor, maybe not. But we won’t find out now.
The day after he was in Bushwick, Weiner, who piles on the appearances as if consuming White Castle sliders, is out in the Bronx for the Throgs Neck St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A whole slew of pols have turned up, standing in a line with the bagpipe players and baton twirlers. “Plenty of votes out there, gentlemen,” says one of the bulb-red-nosed parade monitors. Weiner has arrived in a green knit V-neck and a bullhorn, offering a St. Paddy’s Day shout-out to patrons of every bar along East Tremont Avenue. About halfway through the route, Bill de Blasio comes up to Weiner. A City Council member from Brooklyn, De Blasio was one of the mayor’s staunchest opponents during the term-limits fight.
Indicating the bullhorn, De Blasio says to Weiner, “You’re incorrigible,”
“No,” Weiner says. “I’m corrigible.”