Weiner Hopes Political History Repeats Itself, Sort Of

Posted April 26, 2005 at 6:30pm

On paper, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch and Rep. Anthony Weiner (N.Y.) could be twins, or at least political doppelgangers. [IMGCAP(1)]

After all, both are wise-cracking SJLMs (single Jewish liberal males). The two Democrats grew up in the Big Apple’s outer boroughs and spent time on the New York City Council before winning election to Congress and then launching a bid for Gracie Mansion.

But while Weiner has compared his mayoral candidacy to Koch’s, he said he plans to bypass at least one chapter in the former mayor’s trajectory.

“I’m Koch ’77, not Koch ’73,” Weiner quipped in a telephone interview last week.

In 1973, then-Rep. Koch briefly entered the mayoral contest only to withdraw before the fall primary in the face of dwindling finances.

“He had no race in the race of the four Bs,” said Henry Stern, a former New York City Councilman who served as parks commissioner for both Koch and then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R). The four leading Democratic candidates for mayor in 1973 were then-City Comptroller Abraham Beame, then-Rep. Mario Biaggi, then-state Assemblyman Al Blumenthal and then-Rep. Herman Badillo.

Beame won the primary and general election, but Koch’s short time on the hustings in 1973 helped raise his profile. In that race, Koch, who lived in Greenwich Village, had already established himself as a politician willing to break with liberal orthodoxy, said Stern. He pointed to Koch’s controversial crusade in 1973 to halt three proposed 24-story public housing buildings in the largely middle class and Jewish residential district of Forest Hills, Queens, as a prime example.

The move earned him the disapprobation of some local political clubs, but also the admiration of many middle-class voters, troubled by New York’s budget crisis and skyrocketing crime rates. And that paid off for Koch when he ran again in 1977 — the New York Post and the New York Daily News, the two papers in the city most associated with the middle class, both endorsed him.

Weiner, Stern said, “evokes some of the characteristics of Koch, of a hard-working policy wonk and as a Jew with a lively tongue.” But Stern said the Congressman has yet to make a similarly significant break with traditional liberalism, though he added: “Weiner has the greatest potential of the four Democrats to grow up and be a mensch.”

Most observers are split about Weiner’s political prospects in 2005, as he battles former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller for the Democratic nomination.

“I think it has the potential to be Koch in ’77, but it’s too early to say that right now,” said Michael Goodwin, a columnist for the Daily News and co-author of the biography “I, Koch.”

On the plus side, said political consultant and former Koch ’77 staffer Jerry Skurnik, Weiner is closer to achieving the results of Koch ’77 than Koch was at a similar point in his campaign. Weiner’s poll numbers are currently clocking in at 11 percent, compared to Koch’s 4 percent at the same time, he said. Koch faced the additional handicap of running against then-New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo, the handpicked favorite of then-New York Gov. Hugh Carey (D).

Still, there are obvious differences, which could work against Weiner — among these, the size and composition of the field, and his relative lack of experience.

Koch, who was nearly a decade older than Weiner during his inaugural mayoral bid and was a World War II combat veteran, came to his races with more substantive experience in the rough and tumble world of New York City politics.

“Koch was a streetfighter,” recalled Stern, referring to Koch’s anti-Vietnam War speeches. “He would stand on a stepladder … and they’d have an American flag to show protected speech. … The local political bosses would sometimes try to shout him down.”

Koch also benefited from the seven-way primary field in 1977, which allowed him to come in first with just 20 percent of the vote before beating Cuomo in a runoff.

“You don’t have that big field, and the incumbent [Republican Michael] Bloomberg is stronger than Beame was and the incumbent will be in the general election this time,” Goodwin noted.

As such, some critics have suggested that a more apt analogy for Weiner, who is running third in the polls behind Ferrer and Fields, is Koch in 1973.

“There is a lot of speculation that Weiner’s plan is to go for name recognition,” said Goodwin, noting that due to the substantial matching funds now available to New York City candidates who accept public financing, there is less incentive to drop out than there had been 30 years ago.

Some observers said what they see as Weiner’s attempts to emulate Koch’s 1977 campaign strategy of appealing to outer-borough Jews and Catholics, the so-called white ethnic vote, could also run into trouble.

“The Koch constituency basically elected Bloomberg,” said Goodwin. “What Koch was able to do was energize a lot of people from outside Manhattan.”

For his part, Koch, who is now 80 and has already endorsed Bloomberg, said he sees few similarities between his 1977 campaign and Weiner’s current effort.

“I think he’s shifted his campaign,” he said, pointing to what he views as Weiner’s new emphasis on middle-class issues. Weiner recently rolled out a middle-class tax cut proposal for individuals earning less than $150,000 a year.

“Up until that point, it didn’t resemble mine at all other than he’s campaigned in the outer boroughs,” said Koch. “First thing, forget the word outer borough and call them other boroughs. They are not out.

“My campaign was primarily convincing people I was the leader of the middle class and if I were the mayor, the middle class would have a friend in City Hall,” Koch continued.

But talk to Weiner, and you hear a similar refrain.

“My appeal is much more based on the notion there is a broad and unaddressed middle class in New York,” said Weiner, who called himself “the candidate of the middle class and those that aspire to be.”

What’s more, he argued that though he represents parts of Brooklyn (where he grew up) and Queens, he’s running “a true five borough middle-class strategy.”

And Weiner said hopefully there is a more appropriate analogy for his campaign.

“I’m flattered by the comparison to Ed Koch, but the real race people should look at is Schumer ’98 against a Republican incumbent with a lot of money,” said Weiner, referring to his old boss, now-Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), and his showdown with then-Sen. Al D’Amato. “Schumer was in single digits as late as June.”

Point taken. But Weiner himself has perpetuated the comparison with Koch, according to several sources and news accounts.

About a year ago, Skurnik said Weiner came to see him to discuss “what he thought the comparisons were” between his campaign and Koch’s 1977 race.

Meanwhile, New York political consultant George Arzt said he witnessed Weiner asking Koch, at a charity dinner earlier this month, if Koch minded that he’s using his 1977 campaign model. And just last week, Koch said he received a telephone call from Weiner that also addressed the issue.

“He said he hoped I wasn’t upset he was comparing himself to me, and I said, ‘Not at all,’” recalled Koch.

Weiner remembered their conversation somewhat differently, however.

He said he told Koch that “the comparison that usually other people raise” about the similarities of their campaigns was just that, a comparison. It was “by no means trying to imply that he was endorsing me,” he said.

As for suggestions he may be using his campaign as a springboard for a future mayoral bid, Weiner said that was only half right.

“I do plan to be running in 2009,” he said. “I plan to be running for re-election.”