Campaign Crawlers

[Insert Pun Here]

On the trail with Weiner and Spitzer.

By From the September 2013 issue

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ANTHONY WEINER'S TWITTER feed is largely inactive. That’s probably for the best. The Democrat’s trajectory in New York City politics was once nothing short of meteoric. Over a 20-year period, he swapped a staff position in then-Congressman Chuck Schumer’s office for a spot on City Council—he was the youngest member in history—and then traded up again for Schumer’s old congressional seat. 

He easily won seven consecutive congressional elections, and made a promising showing in New York’s 2005 Democratic mayoral primary, declining to run in 2009 only after autocratic Mayor Michael Bloomberg rammed through a personal exception to the city’s term limits law on his way to reelection. Despite that setback, Weiner was a man on the move. He could do no wrong in Democratic political circles—his wedding to Huma Abedin, a favorite member of Hillary Clinton’s staff, was presided over by former president Bill Clinton—and was well-positioned for a 2013 mayoral run, or whatever else he desired. But that was before what Wikipedia has dubbed “the Anthony Weiner Sexting Scandal.”

It calls to mind an episode of Seinfeld in which the task of chasing down library fine scofflaws falls to an investigator named Bookman. Kramer remarks, to Bookman’s consternation, that the coincidence is amazing, almost as good as an ice cream man named Cone. If Kramer could have known that a man named Weiner would be forced to resign from Congress for accidentally disseminating pictures of his genitalia to young women over his public Twitter feed, his mind would have been blown.

Conservative blogger-provocateur Andrew Breitbart and radio shock jocks Opie and Anthony released those photos to the public, and Weiner was forced to abandon his unconvincing claims that the images must have been planted by a hacker. More women came forward with tales of extramarital shenanigans involving the handsome young congressman. The whole thing was a boon for the headline writers of New York’s tabloids and late-night comedians. The puns wrote themselves.

Weiner initially struck a defiant pose, refusing to resign his seat. But as more lurid details unfolded in the papers—Weiner had exchanged explicit messages with, among others, a cheerleading coach, a Blackjack dealer, and an adult film actress—his high profile Democratic friends abandoned him one by one. Weiner was in a bad way: not even President Obama and Nancy Pelosi would touch him. He resigned, and it seemed that the once-shining star of New York’s Democratic Party had been extinguished.

THE DISGRACED FORMER congressman kept a low profile in the days following his resignation—no mean feat given the recent revelation that a year after leaving Congress, he used the nom de smut “Carlos Danger” to carry on a cyber affair with a progressive blogger by the dominatrix-sounding name of Sydney Leathers. He kept his nose ostensibly clean, though, retaining an impressive campaign war chest, and his name was often floated in connection with a return to elective office. So it was no surprise when Weiner once again took to social media in May, this time with the less prurient intention of announcing his mayoral candidacy via YouTube.

I found myself scouring Weiner’s Twitter feed in hopes of attending a few campaign events. I wanted to hear what the man had to say for himself. But these days Weiner’s Twitter feed is understandably uninformative. He posts about once a week, usually progressive platitudes about food stamps not costing taxpayers enough money, or the “unsatisfying” verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. Weiner’s social media presence has gone from TMI to moribund. 

It was time to make use of old contacts. Like Weiner, I am a native son of New York who once learned at the feet of Chuck Schumer. During my junior year at Fordham, I told my advisor I intended to apply for an internship at National Review. She helpfully informed me that I would be branded a radical blowhard and would never work in New York or any reputable town again. I should have known better, but as the expression goes, I was young and needed the work. I took her advice and applied for an internship in Schumer’s office instead.

I worked for Schumer’s press secretary, who held the most exciting job in the office. Indeed, Bob Dole famously quipped that the most dangerous place in Washington was between Schumer and a camera. It was a heady experience to be on a first name basis with a United States senator at 19 years of age. Schumer gave me my own nickname, “Don’t Mess With Bill,” after the old Motown hit from the Marvelettes, which we sang in duet at the office holiday party. 

My old boss, deservedly known as the best in the business, went on to work for Mayor Bloomberg—a disappointing choice, but even horse manure needs a good salesman. He now works in the private sector, but has maintained his connections in New York politics. When I called the old boss to pin down Anthony’s elusive public schedule, he was understandably wary of providing fodder to his wayward former intern. But I assured him that I have no particular animus against Weiner, who is not the only rogue in the New York mayoral gallery.

Several days later, a mere three trains and a long walk to the East River were all that separated my Queens apartment from a Weiner press conference. He was touting a plan for increased commuter ferry service against the backdrop of the sleepy terminal that is home to the Seastreak, a boat that takes people to vacation towns like Martha’s Vineyard. Helicopters took off from a pad not a football field’s distance away, laden with passengers sporting their Hamptons best. The location was remote, but the familiar site of the WPIX News van parked out front, a fixture at political pressers of little consequence, meant I was in the right place. It seemed like the perfect spot for Weiner to avoid the hecklers who dog him on the campaign trail. (In a true democracy, ribald puns are not the sole provenance of the fourth estate.)

Weiner told about a dozen attendees that he had secured federal funding for his commuter ferry plan as a congressman, but that the city hadn’t wanted to be in the business of running ferries. (Probably a good first impulse.) Incidentally, the Daily News reported in January that the Seastreak has been in at least 10 accidents in or near the city’s waterways. As Weiner wound through his spiel, a nattily attired passerby yelled “It’s Weiner’s second coming!” He was ignored. A little bit louder, he shouted again, “Weiner’s second coming!” When he failed to get a response, he shrugged and walked on. He had a beach house to get to. Minutes later, the soiled-t-shirt-clad driver of a rust-speckled Honda yelled a colorful phrase along the lines of “Hey Weiner! Go procreate!” and sealed the deal with an emphatic tongue gesture. How he was able to spot the candidate from a moving vehicle four lanes away, I do not understand. My takeaway: There are indeed two New Yorks, as some progressive politicians like to say, but apparently neither of them can resist a good penis joke.

DESPITE HIS INSIPID pandering, Weiner is the standout in a list of bad choices. Although incumbent Bloomberg has rightfully raised the ire of many for his power grabs—from banning smoking in bars (but not the cigar bars that his wealthy compatriots frequent), to removing term limits in order to remain in office, to attempting to legally regulate the size of soda servings—he has done an effective job of maintaining public order. In all likelihood, the next mayor of New York will be a liberal Democrat. It is not unfathomable, then, that a master of identity politics will take office, reverse the policies that have made New York the safest big city in the country, and open up the already beleaguered municipal coffers to marauding special interests. Weiner’s politics are disagreeable, but he called for more police officers during his tenure on city council. He is against the NYPD’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, but stands in favor of judicious stops for suspicious activity. And he advocates more city autonomy at the expense of the state.

His Democratic primary rivals are less temperate. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn brags that she is the first woman and the first openly gay person to be speaker, though she is only the third person to hold the post since it was created in 1986. She has a reputation as the lapdog of the meddlesome Bloomberg, and has proposed council legislation that would make it illegal for police officers to mention the race of suspects over their radios. John Liu, the incumbent comptroller, is an indictment waiting to happen. Several of his closest campaign staffers have already been taken down by the FBI for finance irregularities. Bill Thompson, Liu’s predecessor as comptroller, is notable mostly for his failure to act as a foil to Bloomberg while in office, his sacrificial lamb candidacy in 2009, and his strikingly poor name recognition in the black community—especially given that he is black. Bill de Blasio, the incumbent Public Advocate, was endorsed for that position by Revered Al Sharpton and has secured Harry Belafonte’s nod for mayor. He was an also-ran until the Sydney Leathers scandal propelled him into second place, just after Quinn. In a glowing interview, serial hack Joan Walsh of Salon calls him the “real progressive for NYC mayor” and hails his commitment to “economic justice” and “bold stands on police controversies.” Guard your wallets, folks.

It is no secret that New York’s political ecosystem is dominated by liberals, ranging from relative moderates, like the mayoral candidates, to Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther who has proposed that the city pay reparations for slavery and who constantly bemoans the presence of a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the council chambers. Only four Republicans sit on the 51-member council.

GOP voters have two major candidates for mayor: John Catsimatidis, a grocery store magnate, and Joe Lhota, the former chairman of the MTA, the agency that manages the city’s subways and busses. But though they may put up a good fight, they’re swimming against the tide of big-city politics.

Besides, the city’s contingent of Republican politicos is entangled in a scandal far more serious than Weiner’s. In April, Councilman Dan Halloran was arrested by the FBI on bribery and corruption charges, along with State Senator Malcolm Smith and several Queens County Republican Party officials. Halloran allegedly attempted to broker a deal in which Smith, a Democrat and former majority leader of the senate, would purchase the Republican nomination for mayor. Weiner may have broken a promise to his wife, but at least he refrained from screwing the rest of us.

AS IF THE citywide elections were too sedate, another disgraced figure made a last minute entry into the down-ballot race for comptroller. He reportedly paid top dollar to petitioners to ensure he would have enough signatures to enter the race. But then, this is a man used to paying for it. Enter former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 when exposed for patronizing a pricey escort service.

Spitzer should never be allowed to hold so much as the office of dogcatcher, and it’s not because of his sexual peccadillos. As New York State’s attorney general, Spitzer persecuted Wall Street tycoons and financiers to score points with the average voter. Hank Greenberg, venerable chairman and CEO of AIG, was forced to step down after Spitzer made allegations of fraud. All criminal charges were dropped, and Greenberg is currently suing Spitzer for defamation. Progressives like Spitzer love to dispense the taxpayer largesse in the form of social programs and entitlements, so they should at least get out of the way of the productive classes who foot the bill.

Kristin Davis, the former madam who saw jail time for running the prostitution ring that nourished Spitzer’s appetites, announced her intention to run against Spitzer as a Libertarian. And Spitzer, whose sense of irony is apparently as dull as his sexual appetite is keen, weighed in that Weiner is unfit to serve as mayor due to his sexting exploits. If this election cycle seems like a bad joke, that’s because it is. But the punchline comes at the expense of New York’s voters. With little chance of a starboard correction on the tiller, the best they can hope for is leadership that is restrained enough to prevent Gotham from becoming the next Detroit.

So has New York embraced Weiner?  While not long ago, the polls showed him within striking distance of frontrunner Christine Quinn, he has since dropped to fourth place with the revelation of his continued cyber narcissism. If I were a lesser man, I would be unable to resist the temptation to make the childish joke that Weiner rose quickly and deflated suddenly. If I were a lesser man. 

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About the Author

Bill Zeiser is a communications consultant living in New York City and a 2012 Publius Fellow of the Claremont Institute. Follow him on Twitter @BillZeiser.