Anthony Weiner’s Wild Ride

Posted September 7, 2005 at 6:45pm

NEW YORK — Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) has a captive audience. The only way to escape is to plunge into the choppy waters of New York Harbor.

Weiner has taken his uphill campaign for mayor of New York City to the Staten Island Ferry. It’s the evening rush hour on a late summer Friday. The passengers headed home from Manhattan may not be thinking much about municipal politics, but they’re in a good mood, and Weiner picks up on it.

“So, ladies, what’s new?” he asks with a mischievous smile, plopping himself on a wooden bench across from four women, thrusting campaign fliers in their direction. “Can I write any new laws for you while I’m here?”

One woman complains about high taxes. Weiner becomes animated.

“I’m your guy,” he says. “Do you make less than $150,000?” He proceeds to tell them, in rapid detail, about his plan to cut taxes for all but the wealthiest New Yorkers. Then he moves on to another group of voters, once again offering policy tutorials and wisecracks in equal measure.

The passengers may be going home, but Weiner isn’t. The half-hour ferry ride is just a small part of a grueling day of campaigning that will take him, by day’s end, to all five of the city’s boroughs.

Weiner seems to enjoy every minute. Just as he is known on Capitol Hill for being smart (and some would say a smartass), Weiner on the campaign trail is part wonk and part wag, serving up commentary on everything he sees and does, as it’s happening.

“The Congressman, who was headed for election, inexplicably saw his campaign sidelined when a 70-year-old woman was torn to shreds by a staple,” he intones like a grave TV anchorman when he notices jagged staples protruding from the literature he is about to hand out. He tucks the fliers in a pocket.

“I’m having a ball,” Weiner says in an interview. “I keep waiting for the morning when I wake up, open up the newspaper and decide I don’t want to do this anymore. But it hasn’t happened yet, so I guess it won’t.”

Show Time

The 41-year-old Congressman has been running for mayor for the better part of a year and a half. But with days to go before the Sept. 13 Democratic primary, many New Yorkers are just waking up to the fact.

For Weiner, it’s a godsend, a chance for some desperately needed attention. But for his three Democratic primary opponents — all of whom started the campaign with greater name recognition — the added scrutiny has been a mixed blessing. All, including Weiner, have garnered unwanted headlines in recent weeks for a host of small infractions or unfortunate associations — missteps that have been magnified by the unforgiving New York media.

“I never thought I’d win this election because somebody else screwed up,” a confident Weiner says, and he isn’t joking.

Can Weiner win?

If no one gets 40 percent of the vote in the primary, the top two finishers advance to a runoff two weeks later, with that winner facing the unenviable task of taking on the formidable — and rich-as-Croesus — Republican incumbent, Michael Bloomberg.

In the latest independent poll of the primary, the long-standing frontrunner, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, had 33 percent of the vote. The other three Democrats were bunched together: Weiner had 20 percent; City Council Speaker Gifford Miller took 17 percent; and Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields had 14 percent.

The poll of 314 likely Democratic primary voters, conducted Aug. 29-Sept. 2 by Marist College, had a 5.5 percent error margin.

That’s the political math. But New York’s racial, social and sociological calculus is far less simple.

Ferrer is Puerto Rican, and his level of Latino support, as might be expected, is high. He also has relatively strong support among blacks and white liberals.

Fields is black; her black support is solid but not overwhelming. Miller, an Upper East Side preppie, is the favorite of most white Manhattan liberals. But he also has surprising pockets of support in black and Latino communities, thanks to the influence of Council colleagues who are backing him (as Speaker, Miller has a lot of discretion over pork spending).

Weiner, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives in Forest Hills, Queens, is the champion of middle-class white voters in the outer boroughs, the people who voted for Mayors Ed Koch (D) and Rudy Giuliani (R) in previous elections. He has proposed a tax cut for families earning less than $150,000, has pledged to boost teacher pay and to slash waste from the city’s bloated bureaucracy, and is talking about issues in a way that’s designed to appeal to homeowners in Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island.

It is Weiner’s potential with outer-borough voters that has intrigued political operatives in different corners of the city.

“He was the one candidate who I never would have thought could have won the Democratic primary,” observes Booker Ingram, a black Democratic district leader and state committeeman from the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, who says he is supporting Miller “in a leisurely manner.” But Weiner, Ingram says, “is the only Democratic candidate who would be able to beat Bloomberg.”

Unfortunately for Weiner, that oft-repeated sentiment may not be enough to get him to the runoff — assuming Ferrer does not break 40 percent. Quite simply, anything can happen. And there isn’t a sense of crisis gripping the city the way there was in 1977 and 1993, the years Koch and Giuliani were propelled into office. But Weiner detects a yearning anyway.

“On some level, there’s a different kind of anxiety among the electorate now,” he says. “There’s an insecurity in the middle class. There’s a mayor who’s talking past me and the Democrats who aren’t talking to me.”

The Bronx — Yes, Thonx

The Bronx — the very words are a reminder of America’s urban decay. But through all of the decades of all of the Bronx’s social ills, real and imagined, he Riverdale section has been an oasis of upper middle-class calm.

It is almost lunchtime at the Riverdale YM-YWHA Senior Center, and the mostly Jewish crowd is getting hungry. Weiner has come in search of votes, accompanied by the local state Assemblyman, Jeffrey Dinowitz (D). Ferrer, who rose from humble roots in the South Bronx, lives in Riverdale now, but this is clearly not his crowd.

“Freddy Ferrer is a neighbor, but his dog and my dog don’t get along, so I can’t vote for him,” one man tells Weiner.

It is obvious from the minute he gets here that Weiner knows how to work a senior center. He is every mother’s son, by turns boastful and deferential. His voice becomes more nasal; the decibel level rises noticeably.

He calls the older women “dear.” He refers to his dead grandparents as “a blessed memory.” He waves latecomers into the cafeteria like a cheerful school crossing guard.

“We were waiting for you,” he calls out.

It’s a wonder that some of the women there aren’t trying to set him up on dates with their daughters. If Weiner is known for anything, it’s for being single and looking.

“My mother says that’s my next campaign,” he jokes. “But I figure if I’m living in Gracie Mansion [the mayor’s residence], I’ll do OK for myself.”

Dinowitz, who seems to know everybody there by first name, is an asset — at least when it comes to introducing him to elderly voters, if not eligible women. “Paula,” he says, “I need you to meet Anthony Weiner.”

Weiner begins his speech by reminding the crowd of his association with his former boss and mentor, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“People tell me that when I started to work for Schumer, I was 6’3”, blonde hair, with a little nose,” he says. “And then I started to look like him.”

Weiner uses the occasion to tout his plan to make New York City’s health care system more affordable and accessible. He stands in the middle of the lunch room, apologizes for delaying meal time (“the last thing somebody wants to do, when you’re as skinny as me, is stand between people and their lunch,” he says) and makes his pitch.

Afterwards, a man named Frank Goldberg — who moments earlier was teased by Weiner about the hot dog jokes they could make if they combined their names — says he will vote for the Congressman.

“I like his youth, his energy,” Goldberg says. “It’s a breath of fresh air from the whole humdrum political thing with Bloomberg.”

Miller Time

A few hours before Weiner is shaking hands at the senior center, the man most likely to deny him a ticket to the runoff is at a Greenwich Village subway station, greeting early morning commuters. But it’s late summer, and the crowds aren’t as big as they usually are. So Gifford Miller has time on his hands.

“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” he croons.

In many ways, Miller is exactly what Weiner is not. He’s calm and poised, measured and methodical, the product of Park Avenue and the Ivy League.

But both are young men in a hurry. Miller, a former top aide to Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), is only 35. And both are white — meaning there is a very good chance that they will cancel each other out in the primary. Asked about this, Miller shrugs.

“You can’t focus on what you can’t control,” he says.

But in recent days, the Miller camp has focused on Weiner, blasting him for disparities between his rhetoric on the Iraq war and his votes in Congress, and questioning his commitment to New York’s tenant protection laws.

Miller’s ability to attract support from a rainbow coalition of elected officials has surprised some of his opponents; his willingness to go into unfamiliar territory is reminiscent of another East Side blue blood who succeeded in municipal politics, the late Mayor John Lindsay.

“It translates into support because Gifford has been an incredibly active Speaker,” says Councilwoman Christine Quinn (D), who stands by Miller’s side at the subway stop.

Still, Miller has his critics, who say the Council has been too much of a rubber stamp during Miller’s tenure as Speaker, which has coincided with Bloomberg’s four years in City Hall.

“I don’t think the City Council under Gifford Miller has been the kind of legislative body that it could be,” says Norman Siegel, a veteran civil liberties lawyer who is running for Public Advocate, the No. 2 job in city government.

Miller replies that the city has improved over the past four years and that he and his Council colleagues deserve much of the credit. But he concedes that things could be better. He looks a woman at the subway station in the eye and tells her: “If I could have your support, I know I can do better for the city.”

It Happened in Brooklyn

In a steamy church basement that looks like it was last painted during the Lindsay administration, the multiracial 48th Assembly District Democratic Club in Flatbush is hosting a free-form Thursday evening forum for candidates up and down the primary ballot. For New York political junkies, it’s a glorious smorgasbord, full of tangy rhetoric — like “the Surrogate’s Court has become a patronage mill!”

Weiner sends a stand-in, a young blonde who identifies herself only as Sarah.

“Anthony Weiner knows New York and he knows our lives,” she says.

Fields also sends a substitute — a top aide named Rock Hackshaw. Dressed in a black suit, black T-shirt and dark shades, Hackshaw talks about the city’s first mayor, Peter Minuet, who took office in 1626. The audience looks puzzled.

“One hundred eight mayors, and not one of them has been a woman,” he says, solving the mystery. “Someone must have spread the rumor that a woman can’t do this job. Well, we think we have found a woman who can do the job.”

The club is unsure whether Miller will show up; ultimately, he doesn’t. So the star attraction is Freddy Ferrer.

“You all know me,” he begins.

And that, according to some political observers, may be part of Ferrer’s problem.

But for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and some racist fliers spread around by supporters of his white opponent in the Democratic runoff four years ago, Ferrer might be mayor today. Black and Latino voters, pre-9/11, were furious with Giuliani, the outgoing mayor, and Ferrer seemed poised to lead a minority takeover of City Hall.

Ferrer is not bitter. He retains many of the appealing, regular-guy qualities that took him so far in city politics to begin with. But as a candidate, he is different than he seemed four years ago — diminished somehow.

“What was a movement in 2001 has become a candidacy; what was a coalition, a mere campaign,” Wayne Barrett, the senior editor of the Village Voice, wrote last week.

During his speech to the political club, Ferrer seems to hit all the requisite populist themes.

“We all understand hard work,” he says. “Mike Bloomberg understands something different. Mike understands big business. I don’t think he understands people who are getting squeezed out of their neighborhoods or are struggling to afford a place to live.”

When he is finished, the crowd applauds politely. When he asks for questions, there is an embarrassing silence. Finally, the tension dissipates when a man with a West Indian lilt rises and addresses Ferrer as “Mr. Mayor.”

The candidate’s mood brightens: “From your mouth to you-know-who’s ears,” he says.