Weiner Mayoral Bid Likely

Rep. Hopes to Follow Others Who Moved From Capitol Hill to City Hall

Posted November 24, 2004 at 2:51pm

As he edges closer to running for mayor of New York in 2005, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D) says he will use as a model the last Congressman who was elected mayor of Gotham: Ed Koch.

“My campaign will be evocative of how Ed Koch got elected,” Weiner said in a recent interview. “He didn’t win any county [in the city]. But he was the second choice in every county.”

Koch also operated largely under the radar as better-known opponents got into the race, eventually winning by appealing to middle-class voters of various ethnicities.

“I’m going to sell myself as a five-borough fighter for New York,” Weiner said.

While he won’t make a final decision on the race until late this year or early 2005, the Congressman is considered likely to take the plunge.

“I’m trying to figure out where I can do the most good for New York City,” he said.

Although he won’t admit it, Weiner may also be using the same delayed-impact strategy that enabled Koch to win.

Because the 40-year-old Congressman doesn’t have to sacrifice his House seat, he can keep his job while using this campaign to build name recognition for another try in 2009 if he loses this time — much as Koch, a Democrat who backed President Bush in 2004, built on an aborted run for City Hall in 1973 to win four years later.

Other notable New York mayors, including Fiorello LaGuardia (R) and John Lindsay (R), have also progressed from Capitol Hill to City Hall.

“Anthony’s a smart guy — he knows New York politics really well,” said Rep. Joseph Crowley (D), whose district abuts Weiner’s in parts of Queens. “He’s looked at history, where this has happened before. You look at LaGuardia, you look at Lindsay, you look at Koch.”

And it seems as if the four-term Congressman is being taken more seriously by the city’s political elite than he was even a few months ago.

Through a skillful combination of paid and free media, Weiner has unquestionably boosted his profile in the nation’s most cluttered media market. He has begun assembling a campaign team and is also aggressively soliciting contributions for a city campaign account he opened earlier this year.

“He will outwork everybody in every aspect of this race,” said Joel Benenson, Weiner’s pollster.

Down in the Polls

But in a Quinnipiac University poll of Democratic voters conducted Nov. 5-8, Weiner tied for fourth.

Former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer led the Democratic field with 28 percent. He was followed by Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields (14 percent) and city Comptroller William Thompson (9 percent). Weiner and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller tied with 8 percent each, while City Councilman Charles Barron got 3 percent.

In a head-to-head general-election match-up, Ferrer was the only Democrat to beat billionaire Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), 45 percent to 40 percent. Weiner, by contrast, trailed Bloomberg by 5 points.

Weiner’s campaign team is headed by general consultant Tom Friedman. Friedman is a former political director for the Clinton White House and one-time legislative director to Weiner’s mentor and former boss, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Jim Margolis of GMMB Associates is the media consultant. Pollster Benenson has worked for former Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), former New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey (D), Rep. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and for successful mayoral candidates in New Orleans and Cincinnati. Ed Peavey, whose Connecticut-based direct-mail firm Mission Control has worked for Weiner’s Congressional campaigns, will assume the same role in the City Hall bid.

In recent months, Weiner has circulated far beyond his middle-class Queens-Brooklyn district and has sharpened his attacks on Bloomberg. He’s sought to tie the mayor to President Bush at every opportunity, at a time when Bloomberg’s numbers are picking up and when Bush’s remain low in the city.

Weiner aired an anti-Bloomberg ad in the weeks before Election Day, paid for by his Congressional campaign account — a move that brought howls of protest from City Hall.

Despite Weiner’s efforts to improve his position, veterans of New York City’s tribal politics say it’s hard to discern Weiner’s road to victory.

“Municipal elections in New York City are a very different animal than in the rest of the country,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York-based Democratic consultant who is close to Miller. “Ethnic politics are a driving force.”

New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic

Weiner will fill a few niches. Of the Democrats most likely to run, he is the only Jew, and he is the only white candidate from an outer borough. But his prospects cannot be truly measured until the full field takes shape.

Ferrer, who is Latino and from the Bronx, is almost certain to run, as is Miller, who is white and from Manhattan. Miller, a 35-year-old former aide to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), is term-limited on the Council.

Fields, who has not disclosed her plans, may run simply because she also is term-limited. But Thompson, who will announce his plans for 2005 in December, is considered more likely to seek re-election as comptroller.

Both Fields and Thompson are black, as is Barron, a former Black Panther who has said he is definitely running. Even though he is not expected to be much of a factor in the race, Barron could siphon votes away from stronger minority candidates.

Exit polls from the 2001 Democratic mayoral primary found that 48 percent of the voters were white, 24 percent were black, 23 percent were Latino, 2 percent were Asian, and 3 percent were others. Fifty-nine percent of primary voters were women, and 21 percent were Jewish.

Figuring out where Weiner fits in that stew of racial, ethnic, religious and gender identities is difficult to say. But with the face of New York constantly changing, old assumptions may be tossed out the window.

“It’s more complex than ethnicity,” Weiner said. “There are also geographic bases. I represent parts of Brooklyn and Queens, the most vote-rich neighborhoods in the city.”

That may be true in sheer numbers of people. But the highest precincts for voter turnout are on the Upper West Side and Upper East Side of Manhattan. And one of the many hurdles Weiner faces is the simple fact that Manhattanites have won the past seven mayoral Democratic primaries and the past seven general elections. That would seem to favor Miller and Fields in the primary — and Bloomberg in the general.

Under New York City’s unique primary system, Weiner actually doesn’t have to finish first, however. He just has to finish second — and hope the first-place finisher doesn’t surpass 40 percent of the vote.

If no candidate wins 40 percent in the September 2005 primary, the top two finishers advance to a runoff two weeks later.

Still, Ferrer, who came achingly close to winning the nomination in 2001, is by far the best-known Democrat and seems to be the best-equipped to put together a winning coalition.

His historical challenge, though, is that in the two Democratic mayoral runoffs featuring a white candidate and a minority candidate — in 1973 and 2001 — the white candidate won.

Roberto Ramirez, a former state Assemblyman who is Ferrer’s top political strategist, rejects the conventional wisdom that an abundance of minority candidates hurts Ferrer in the primary while Miller and Weiner are merely competing for white votes. Ramirez, who called Weiner “a very energetic Congressman and certainly is someone with a great political future,” is hoping for a crowded race.

“A healthy primary would be the best thing to happen to the Democrats in New York City,” he said.

Checks and Balances

To be competitive in the primary, Weiner will have to overcome another hurdle: fundraising.

New York’s public financing law levels the primary playing field in many respects, setting a $5.7 million spending limit for all candidates who participate in the program. But having just $500,000 in his city campaign fund as of mid-July, Weiner has a way to go before he meets the complicated requirements for a full city match. Miller, by contrast, had more than $3 million on hand.

Weiner, who had a $1.5 million surplus in his House account as of Oct. 13, is returning money to Congressional donors and asking them to cut a check to his city account.

“It has slowed us down some,” he conceded. “We are rolling with the punches.”

Whoever wins the primary will then face the daunting task of running against Bloomberg, who is not participating in the public financing system and spent about $70 million of his own money on his 2001 victory.

As he campaigns, Weiner has begun to reach out to his Congressional colleagues for advice, but said he is not yet at the stage where he is ready to ask for endorsements. Crowley said Weiner generally gives New York Members a heads-up when he will be stumping in their district.

Whether Schumer will help his protégé in the primary is also an open question — though now that he has opted not to run for governor in 2006, he may be less worried about offending certain constituencies by backing Weiner.

Win or lose, Weiner said he is having a ball.

“I’ve thrown out more pitches in Bronx Little Leagues than probably most people who live in the Bronx,” he said. “I’ve learned that I should keep my Mets hat in the car, though.”