A day after Anthony Weiner posted on his website that he would run for New York mayor, photographers and reporters clustered around him as he entered a Bronx synagogue for his first candidate forum.
The commotion caused former city Comptroller William Thompson to interrupt his prepared remarks. Smiling, Thompson stated the obvious: “They’re not here for me.” The audience erupted in laughter.
Weiner, 48, who resigned from the U.S. Congress in disgrace, has enjoyed that type of attention ever since the May 23 synagogue event. When he took his son for a stroll in Brooklyn on Father’s Day or pledged to subsist on a $31-a-week food-stamp diet, it didn’t matter that other candidates were doing the same. The headlines focused on Weiner.
His entry has also made it almost certain that none of the seven Democratic candidates will win 40 percent of the primary vote, forcing a runoff between the top two finishers.
“Weiner is sucking all the air out from the campaign,” said Joseph Mercurio, a New York-based political consultant not involved in the race. “He’s a good campaigner, he’s got money, he’s running well and he’s got the potential for rising up.”
Weiner has been running second in polls behind city council Speaker Christine Quinn just two years after posting lewd online photographs of himself, then falsely claiming that hackers victimized him. He calls the hiatus from public life “a nice regenerative break.”
In an interview at a cupcake shop below his Park Avenue South apartment, Weiner said he’s drawing attention because he offers ideas that speak to the middle class and those who aspire to get there -- not because of the sex scandal that ended his 12-year tenure in the House of Representatives.
“I am to a large degree a disrupter in this campaign and I’m being honored for that by the voters,” said Weiner, who was wearing a fraying green T-shirt, jeans and sneakers. “They wanted to see something shaken up.”
Weiner’s informal campaign style differs from those of his opponents. At a May 28 debate, he set himself apart by standing up to answer questions while the other candidates remained seated. He appeared with his shirt-sleeves rolled up; the other men kept on their suit jackets.
When the subject turns to matters of style and campaign strategy instead of his ideas, Weiner expresses contempt.
“It’s worse than it’s ever been; it’s too much about the atmosphere: ‘He wears a shirt wrinkled,’” Weiner said. “I did an event on hunger and the slug on the story said, ‘The Weiner Show.’ These are important things that citizens care about, and I just think you dishonor it.”
In a 21-page policy portfolio, “Keys to the City,” the former lawmaker proposes 64 ideas, including some that echo those of other candidates. He proposes a “Kindle in every backpack” to replace heavy textbooks with the lightweight gadgets sold by Amazon.com Inc. He wants schools used for after-class community programs, and to expand ferry service in the five boroughs. His proposal for 2,000 wheel-chair accessible taxis has already been undertaken by Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“I have this old-fashioned notion that citizens, when motivated by a candidate who speaks to their aspirations, go to the polls and vote for them,” he said. “Call me crazy.”
One Weiner idea, which he describes as “heresy” for a Democrat, would force city workers and retirees to pay 10 percent of their health-care premiums, or about $1,200 a year. Smokers would pay 25 percent.
Even though workers now get their medical insurance for free, Weiner says unions would go along with his plan for the good of the city. Harry Nespoli, chairman of the Municipal Labor Committee, which negotiates contracts with the city, dismissed the proposal, saying workers couldn’t afford it.
Weiner presents the idea as though he’s the first to propose it. In fact, the mayor has tried to get workers to pay a share of their premiums since 2009. The administration predicts the program’s cost will rise 37 percent to $8.3 billion by 2018. The Citizens Budget Commission, a business-sponsored fiscal watchdog group, has pushed the idea since 2005.
“It’s an administration that missed opportunities and didn’t take big chances,” Weiner said. “You can honor him about him being concerned about us drinking soda. The question is, Did he tackle the big problems?”
He also said the mayor, the billionaire founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, didn’t warn New Yorkers before the financial crisis that the economy was at risk.
“He’s the finance guru and he’s running the city -- hey buddy, say something,” Weiner said. “Say to your constituents, ‘This is a problem, here’s a warning.’”
When asked to respond to Weiner, Marc LaVorgna, the mayor’s press secretary, sent a dozen statements Bloomberg made in 2007 and 2008 warning that the economy faced increasing risk. He declined further comment.
Weiner also proposes to create a single-payer, Medicare-like plan for all residents, not just public employees. It would drive down costs for all, he says.
Weiner’s self-described disruptive candidacy raises questions among some politicians, consultants and political scientists who ask whether he has the deal-making skills to translate his ideas into reality.
“Elected officials seriously dislike him; they’re shunning him,” said George Arzt, a political consultant who served as press secretary to the late Mayor Edward Koch. “People trusted Koch; people are not sure about Anthony.”
On Father’s Day while Weiner was with his son, Jordan, in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, the candidate’s former mentor, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, was just blocks away at a street fair. Schumer told reporters he had no plans to stop by and say hello.
Weiner faces six opponents for the party’s nomination in a Sept. 10 primary. If no candidate gets 40 percent, the top two finishers will compete in an Oct. 1 runoff -- something that’s happened just three times since the law went into effect in the early 1970s. Democrats outnumber Republicans in the city by about 6 to 1.
In a May 28 voter survey, Weiner had 19 percent support among Democrats, second to Quinn’s 24 percent, according to the Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio had 12 percent, and Thompson was backed by 11 percent, with 23 percent undecided.
The poll had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points, a fact not unnoticed by Weiner.
“The most recent public poll had me statistically tied for first,” he said.
A first-place finish in the primary doesn’t ensure the nomination. In 2001, former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer beat former Public Advocate Mark Green in the primary, only to lose to Green in the runoff.
“A runoff is like extra innings,” said William Cunningham, a political adviser to former Governors Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo and Bloomberg. “It can be very volatile, unpredictable.”
Weiner still holds $4.3 million from an aborted mayoral run in 2009 and is close to obtaining about $1.5 million in city matching funds.
He also ran for mayor in 2005. When asked whether he’s experienced anything unexpected during this campaign, he expressed astonishment at how right he was in assessing the city’s problems back then.
“What’s surprising is how little has actually changed,” he said. “The availability of housing, the quality of our public schools -- a lot of these things have actually gotten worse.”
Should Weiner win, it will be without support from the traditional political building blocks: Democratic Party organizations, labor unions or elected officials.
He does have the endorsement of his wife, Huma Abedin, who was pregnant with their son during the scandal, when she served as a top aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“She’s a remarkable political asset,” Weiner said. “If I was running against her in a primary, I’d lose.”