Winning With Weiner

Illustration by André Carrilho

To: Anthony Weiner
From: Acme Strategists, Inc.
RE: Weiner for Mayor 2013

It was terrific meeting with you last week. We are honored that you are considering hiring us at this incredibly complicated turning point in your life, as you wrestle with a final decision about jumping into this year’s race for mayor. No doubt it’s a tough, deeply personal call for both you and Huma. But we’re pretty sure that you, like us, were up late last night cheering as the returns came in from South Carolina. If Mark Sanford can hike the Appalachian Trail all the way back to Congress, why can’t Anthony Weiner tweet his way to City Hall?

We know that time is tight. On May 15, you’re required to file fund-raising documents with the city’s Campaign ­Finance Board, and the press will be combing the reports to see if you’ve begun paying consultants. And by June 10 you need to declare your candidacy in order to be eligible to receive taxpayer campaign financing. So, as you asked, we’ll be blunt in our assessment of your chances and in our advice about how Acme could assist in waging the fight.

Frankly we are surprised you are interested in our help, because it’s clear you’ve been meticulously plotting a comeback pretty much since the day you quit Congress in June 2011. You obviously haven’t lost your gift for manufacturing media attention: That confessional April cover story in the Times Magazine was a masterstroke—just enough disclosure and contrition—and no doubt you’ve calculated every other chess move between now and Primary Day in September. Your intention to enter the mayor’s race as late as possible is wise, and suggests a metaphor. You’re a hockey nut, so we know you loved the heightened drama of the strike-­shortened NHL season. Most city voters with real lives aren’t paying attention to the 2013 campaign yet—and those few who are listening find the declared candidates duller than a mid-season Avalanche-Lightning game. You’ll be the Rangers, sprinting into the playoffs.

Yet part of what startled us about your soliciting our input was that it plays against your reputation for keeping your own counsel. In preparing this analysis, we reached out to some of our clients who hold high-­ranking political office, including some who remained your friends through the recent unpleasantness, and whose support would be crucial to Weiner 2013. “People like to be asked, ‘What do you think?’ ” a senior Democrat told us. “But my conversations with Anthony weren’t him asking for advice. It was him telling me what he intends to do. He’s changed less than you’d expect. Someone who had genuinely changed would have done his penance working for, say, Habitat for Humanity. Anthony thinks his penance is running for mayor.”

You elicit strong reactions inside the firm as well. We don’t pretend to be purists; we’ve represented our share of despots, thieves, and egomaniacs. But your situation presents unique hurdles. Several of Acme’s top strategists asked the same question: “Is this a campaign to try to win the mayoralty or to try to rehabilitate Weiner’s image, spend the matching funds, and make him look like less of an asshole than he does right now?” Of course, you raised this dilemma yourself, though in more complimentary terms, and you don’t seem to have landed on one side or the other yet. That’s fine. We’ve designed blueprints for you to succeed whether your goal is winning or being taken seriously again. But here’s the beauty part: You don’t have to pick one or the other. We have crafted a plan for you to both cleanse your image of that unfortunate scandal and to land you in Gracie Mansion. We can’t promise you’ll win, of course. This is a tremendous long shot. We can promise that it will be the most difficult campaign you’ve ever run—not because of your slim chances, but because of what we’d ask you to do. But that’s why victory would be all the sweeter for Mayor ­Anthony Weiner.

The really tough part of this campaign won’t be the penile puns on the front page of the Post. You’ve had a lifetime of dealing with that kind of stuff. The challenge is that we want you to be boring.

Yes, it’s counterintuitive, and maybe even psychologically impossible. Your rise through the City Council and into Congress was propelled by your rapid wit, your faster tongue, and your pathological need for attention. The question marks were your maturity and judgment—and that was before you sent photos of your naked chest and bulging boxer shorts to multiple women who were not your wife. Being interesting is not the problem for your 2013 campaign. Being substantive is the key. “Policy, policy, policy all the time” is what one of our sharpest consultants, a veteran of other Democratic mayoral campaigns, says. “Weiner’s approach has to be, ‘The press wants to talk about dick jokes? That’s fine, but you’re also going to have to talk about my plan to improve the school system and my plan to improve stop and frisk.’ He doesn’t attack the other candidates, and it makes him unattackable on a personal level.”

Television is pivotal to staying above the fray and establishing your brand as the ideas candidate. You have plenty of money to run bright, glossy, sophisticated ads: $4 million in your campaign account, with another $1.5 million coming from the city’s campaign-finance system. We would bare-bones everything else—no field operation, no mail, a vanilla website with the policy particulars—and devote the cash to TV. The first ad would be the only one to address the scandal, and for that we’d gamble: Huma, direct to camera, either 30 or 60 seconds. “This is who my husband is. He can be an idiot. He made a massive mistake. But I’ve forgiven him and we’ve moved on, and he has a lot to contribute to this city. I’ve given him a second chance, and I hope you will, too.” She’s loved by voters, and it would be phenomenally powerful, especially with women. And you need all the help you can get with women.

But you must talk only about the wonky stuff: cops, kids, economic development, the middle class. Apologize, but don’t dwell on the redemption angle. What you did isn’t nearly as bad as Mark Sanford’s adultery; on the other hand, people find your behavior creepier, and you don’t possess Sanford’s folksy charm. So you need to stick relentlessly to policy and resist your compulsion to crack jokes. It will take tremendous self-discipline, and we’re concerned that you’re not capable of controlling yourself for four months. We’re not worried about you sending new lewd photos, or that more old ones will turn up. But being humiliated doesn’t appear to have instilled much humility or common sense: Last month, you sent a female reporter for Politicker a series of smart-ass, borderline-flirtatious e-mails. Boasting to a Times reporter about how easily you’ve been making money as a business consultant made you look brattyand it invited the Post to highlight the dubious dealings of some of your hedge-fund clients. We would assign you a no-nonsense press person, and you will have to obey when he tells you to shut up. Still, can you play it cool in a debate when Chris Quinn says, “Nancy Pelosi and President Obama told you to resign from Congress. Your name is now ‘disgraced Anthony Weiner.’ And you want to be mayor of New York?”

Ah, yes, the other candidates. Quinn knows you could articulate the case against her better than her other rivals; she’ll try to ignore you and point to her record of making decisions on city issues. Bill de Blasio is already trying to get out in front of your candidacy by establishing himself as the white, liberal challenger to Quinn. Bill Thompson is eager for you to join the festivities—it would help the math for his making a runoff. John Liu? Seeing a former aide being convicted in a fund-raising case doesn’t seem to have slowed him down, so he’s not going to worry about you.

Those four have a head start, and they don’t have your baggage. What you need to remember, though, as you quietly, doggedly stick to the issues, is that each of the other contenders has significant flaws, and none has generated much excitement so far. If you can spend the summer appearing to be a decent, thoughtful guy, you will become a credible alternative. And then we need to get lucky—but only a little lucky. If Quinn, De Blasio, or Thompson stumble, it won’t take much more than the 15 percent you’ve already polled to sneak into the runoff. Then the scandal becomes very old news; your resurrection will be the hottest political story not just in New York but around the country. That kind of momentum, combined with the sober policy foundation you’ve established during the summer, gives you a shot at converting some of the daunting 40 percent who now tell pollsters they don’t like you. That might be the biggest win of all.

Remember, at this point in 2001, Mike Bloomberg was written off as a political sideshow, too. Granted, Bloomberg had created a globally dominant company, had billions in the bank, and he’d kept his pants on. But strange things have a way of happening in New York politics. Acme is ready to help make “Weiner” synonymous with one of the strangest—in a good way, this time.


Winning With Weiner