Life of the Party

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.

“That PlayStation 2,” he said in February. “I’ll be surprised if I get re-elected, if I spend any more time with that thing.” Weiner has since conquered his first obsession, a snowboarding simulation titled SSX, but the switch hasn’t made things any easier. “I’ve moved on to a racing game called Grand Tourismo 3,” he said last week. “But I actually haven’t had much time to play it.”

Weiner even has a few youth-centric items on his legislative agenda. Last year, he turned his frustration with dropped cell-phone calls into a bill that would force telecommunications companies to disclose more information about their mobile services. The high interest rates attached to store credit cards prompted another measure, which would demand that retail outlets prominently display the percentages they charge. A few days before last Valentine’s Day, he held a press conference on the issue in front of a Victoria’s Secret on East 57th Street. Standing before a backdrop of red panty-and-bra sets, Weiner cut up his well-used Banana Republic card for the cameras.

In May, “Page Six” spotted Weiner at Nobu, huddling with Sopranos actor Joe Pantoliano. The pair were hatching a plan to combat “runaway production,” which robs the city of jobs and revenue as studios take their shoots north of the border. “I get a sense that he knows what will work and what won’t,” says Pantoliano. “He’s the kind of guy who won’t be pissing into the wind.”

Recently, Weiner found himself in the gossip pages again – this time without any celebrity help. On September 13, Weiner was dining with a group of nine northeastern lawmakers at Washington’s Capitol Grille when a lobbyist invited three young female staffers to join them at their private table. “When I socialize in Washington – to the extent that I do – I am always careful not to tell people that I’m a member of Congress, because I figure that can only buy me more trouble,” says Weiner, who on this occasion went with “auto-parts salesman” instead.

His bluff was called the next day, when Weiner e-mailed one of the girls, Diana Davis, to keep the conversation going. She noticed the congressional e-mail address, and teasingly apologized for not realizing he was a congressman. His response: “Apologies like yours are best offered in person.” Davis then passed their exchange on to Vicky Ward, the Vanity Fair writer who had been tailing her for a December article on the Beltway’s “nexus of lust and power.” The story, which does not mention that Weiner is single (he and Alli Joseph broke up this summer), suggests that he invited Davis to “visit his office.” Sounding somewhat Clintonesque, Weiner asserts that he never used those exact words in his correspondence with “that woman.” Vanity Fair’s spokeswoman says the magazine will be running an editor’s note that will clarify that he did not invite her “to his office.”

Many weekday evenings find Weiner on a shuttle to La Guardia, heading back to press the flesh with constituents. “He’s the best roommate in history – he’s never around,” jokes Representative Mike Capuano, a Boston Democrat who shares a small two-bedroom with Weiner just off Capitol Hill (and who also attended the dinner described in Vanity Fair). “I don’t even have to fight him for the bathroom, because he’s up early in the morning and off to the gym.”

Last winter, I joined Weiner on one of his regular spins through his district. Our destination was the Rockaways. He pounded the pavement of its neighborhoods during his congressional race, and cites the area as a key to his victory. Weiner sees an initiative to revitalize the Rockaways – home to some of the most beautiful barrier beaches on the East Coast, but more often associated with the thousands of units of public housing erected there in the sixties – which he is putting together with Representative Gregory Meeks, as a first step toward building himself a lasting legacy.

Whether he is manning his Explorer or the 1983 Chevy Cavalier (complete with pushpins to hold up the sagging roof lining in its faded blue interior) that serves as his wheels when he’s in D.C., Weiner displays New York?honed motorist skills. Running late to our appointment at the Hammel Senior Center, we pull up at a red light. The light changes; the sedan in front of us does not budge. “C’mon, it doesn’t mean you stop forever,” Weiner shouts at his windshield. “You stop for a while, and then you keep going.”

“We’re getting very close to lunchtime,” Weiner says by way of explaining his impatience, “and the seniors do not like to be interrupted when they’re eating.” When we arrive, Weiner is in the building before I can get out of my seat belt. He’s made it with a few minutes to spare; the old folks are still playing Pictionary.

As Weiner is invited to try his luck at the easel, a tall, thin black man shouts a now-familiar greeting: “Hey, I saw you on TV!”

“What did you see me on, Love Connection? America’s Most Wanted?” asks Weiner.

Survivor!” one of the elderly ladies offers.

Survivor – exactly. You have no idea how close you are, sweetie. You have no idea.”

“I have this older district, and that’s probably for the better,” Weiner says later. “On many issues, I feel a stronger sense of connection with people of my grandmother’s generation than I do with my card buddies.” That connection could be more a product of electoral calculation than heartfelt affinity; he is a career politician, after all. But watching Weiner work this senior center, and the next one, I’m struck by how genuine he seems. “He truly enjoys this. This is what he lives for. He’s just one of those guys who like to be in it,” says Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, who has been close with Weiner since the two lived in the same summer house in Dewey Beach in 1987. “It’s odd that we get along,” Stewart adds. “I’m pretty cynical; he really believes in this stuff. Actually, you know what? I don’t like him.”

Since Weiner can’t openly admit to aspiring for a Senate seat – not with Hillary Clinton and his former mentor in his way – he consistently cites another goal: Matching the run of Representative Manny Celler, who represented his patch of Brooklyn for 40 years. Certainly, Weiner has demonstrated the requisite willingness to put the duties of his office above all else. Last spring, Weiner’s older brother, Seth, was killed in a hit-and-run accident. While sitting shivah, the congressman received a call from President Clinton, who wanted to offer condolences, and also to remind Weiner that his support was needed on an imminent vote. Weiner flew to D.C. in time to say “yes” to free trade with China, then jetted back to Brooklyn to rejoin his family.

Not that Weiner wouldn’t mind a little more power: “It’s been a long time since the city has had a chairman of a full committee,” he says. “Admittedly, I’m about twenty years away from that. But I plan to be around here for a while.” Unless, of course, he opts for the one other political job that appeals to him; while he says “there’s no ?Draft Weiner’ movement anywhere on the horizon,” he also won’t rule out a run for mayor eventually. “If you get up in the morning, and you look out the window and see things that you want to fix, congressman is a pretty good job to have,” he says. “But when you’re mayor, you can fix some of those same problems with a single phone call, before you even make it to the office.”

Weiner says his relationship with the current mayor improved substantially once he got to Washington because he’s on the House Judiciary Committee and is a tough-on-crime, law-and-order Democrat.

His relationship with the next mayor, Michael Bloomberg, got off to an awkward start after Weiner’s staff made copies of The Portable Bloomberg available to the press during the campaign. But Weiner said he and the mayor-elect have buried the hatchet. When he saw Bloomberg in Washington recently, he says he cracked, “So apparently you do travel through Queens,” a reference to one of Bloomberg’s quotes in the booklet, and Bloomberg laughed and took it in stride.

So what do the cards hold for Weiner? In the immediate future, New York will lose two congressional seats in the redistricting process that follows every census. The conventional wisdom holds that one will be carved out of upstate Republican strongholds, the other from Democratic territory in the city or its suburbs. Weiner’s seat, say the experts, will likely remain intact; a party insider predicts that the congressman may even find himself presiding over a slightly higher proportion of Jewish voters once the new lines are drawn next summer.

“If God is good to him,” says Sheinkopf, “he can last as long as he wants.”

Life of the Party