“If you make a wrong turn, it doesn’t shut off, it doesn’t break, it doesn’t yell at you, it just says, ‘Recalculating.’ ” That was disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner musing about the merits of car GPS units, which he compared to religious faith and forgiveness during a church appearance in the New York City borough of Queens on Sunday.
Weiner, too, is recalculating two years after resigning in disgrace after tweeting lewd pictures of himself to young women on the Internet. And he’s betting that a good number of voters will shrug off his wrong turn. With characteristic boldness, Weiner has launched a bid to become mayor of New York City, where a little notoriety is not necessarily a bad thing.
In a year with no presidential contest, and with mid-term congressional elections still a year away, the Nov. 5 mayoral election is one of the most colourful political contests in America. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul turned soft-drink-and-gun-control advocate, will see his third and final term coming to an end this year. This is a city that has no problem with flamboyant, larger-than-life characters: the late Ed Koch (“I’m not the type to get ulcers. I give them”) and Rudy Giuliani (“Freedom is about authority”), who in the wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, was dubbed “America’s Mayor,” and ran a failed campaign for president that Joe Biden once disparaged as “a noun, a verb and 9/11.”
It is also a city of perplexing politics: 70 per cent of voters are Democrats, but the city has elected Republican mayors since 1989.
There is a profusion of third parties, including Greens, Libertarians, the Working Families Party and, in a city bedevilled by a lack of affordable housing, the aptly named “The Rent is Too Damn High Party.”
There has also been the self-defeating pattern for New York Democrats: inconclusive Democratic primary contests followed by divisive runoff elections that split the Democratic vote and helped Republican candidates in the general election. “The Democrats are the odds-on favourites until we get to the fall, when it really matters,” says Lee Miringoff, director of the Marist Poll, which regularly pulses the city’s politics. “Then everything busts loose and you get into a very short healing time. That’s what the problem has always been,” he said.
In that sense, Weiner’s candidacy is more than tabloid fodder: he is scrambling the picture for Democrats who already had an emerging front-runner, city council Speaker Christine Quinn, who could be the city’s first female and openly gay mayor. But with a new poll this week showing Weiner with 19 per cent of the vote among Democratic voters—up four points since launching his bid—to Quinn’s 24 per cent, her lowest to date, Weiner could become the obstacle to Quinn reaching the 40 per cent she needs to clinch the nomination in the primary on Sept. 10–and thereby force a runoff election.
Weiner, 48, launched his campaign in May with a video declaration: “Look, I made some big mistakes. And I know I let a lot of people down. But I’ve also learned some tough lessons.” But so far, not everyone has been forgiving: “Shame on us” if he’s elected, said the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat. And the city tabloids proved their appetite for Weiner puns remains insatiable: “Cuomo beats Weiner . . . then goes limp,” headlined the New York Post. “Cuomo spanks Weiner,” offered the Daily News.
The video also featured an endorsement from his wife, Huma Abedin, known for her chic photo spreads in Vogue magazine, and her closeness to Hillary Clinton, for whom she has served as a top aide since interning in the then-first lady’s office. When she married Weiner in 2010 at a historic estate on Long Island, Oscar de la Renta designed her wedding gown and Bill Clinton performed the wedding. “If I had a second daughter,” Hillary Clinton told guests, “it would be Huma.”
Abedin was pregnant and travelling abroad with Clinton when her husband’s crotch shots rocked Twitter. He initially said his account had been hacked. As more women and photos emerged, he came clean, admitting he’d engaged in “inappropriate” exchanges with multiple women over Twitter, Facebook and email.
But there was no post-betrayal split. Like Clinton before her, Abedin stood by her man. (Meanwhile, the Clintons have made clear they are furious with Weiner and won’t endorse a candidate in the race.)
It promises to be a colourful contest on all sides. Quinn, 46, a former low-income housing and gay rights advocate who was elected to city council in 1999, has a no-holds-barred political style that includes screaming at people to the point that aides felt the need to have her office soundproofed. To people who stand in her way, she has even threatened to “cut their balls off.” And she’s not apologetic. “I don’t think being pushy or bitchy or tough, or however you want to characterize it, is a bad thing,” she recently told the New York Times. “New Yorkers want somebody who’s going to get things done.”
Quinn has the backing of Bloomberg—a distinction that may help in a general election but hurt in a Democratic primary. She is seen by some in her party as not progressive enough—and too close to Bloomberg, a lifelong Democrat who became Republican to run for mayor, and once in office became an Independent. Unlike her rivals, she has not condemned the mayor’s “stop-and-frisk” policing policy that is criticized as disproportionately affecting racial minorities. She was instrumental in overturning the two-term limit that enabled Bloomberg to stay on for a third term. She defends the decision as necessary for the city in the midst of the financial crisis.
Other Democratic candidates include the more liberal Bill de Blasio, a former public advocate; former comptroller Bill Thompson, the only African-American in the race; and current comptroller John Liu, who was the first Asian-American elected to city-wide office in New York.
On the Republican side, the emerging frontrunner is Joe Lhota, whose exploits include outraging transit police by referring to them as “nothing more than mall cops” (he later apologized), challenging a Holocaust survivor to “be a man” (he apologized again), and making obscene gestures at reporters (no reported apology).
The son of a Bronx police officer, Lhota was the first in his family to go to college and worked on Wall Street before joining the Giuliani administration, where he became budget chief and deputy mayor. Last year, Cuomo appointed him head of the city’s transit authority, where Lhota made the call to close the subway system ahead of hurricane Sandy, and oversaw the effort to get it up and running in the aftermath. Polls suggest New Yorkers were broadly satisfied with the response to the storm, burnishing Lhota’s reputation. Lhota supports gay marriage and wants marijuana to be legal, but his close ties to the polarizing Giuliani could hurt him. According to a Marist poll, almost half of New York voters say they would be less likely to vote for the candidate Giuliani endorsed.
The Republican’s fate may depend on whether Democrats are heading for another drawn-out internal fight. Weiner has high negative ratings, and it’s unknown whether his 19 per cent is a floor or a ceiling to his ambition. “No one knows where this candidacy can go,” says Miringoff. “He has money. He is a very aggressive candidate. No one will outwork him. But can he turn the page on the scandals?” If only voters were as forgiving as a GPS.