What Anthony Weiner learned from Chuck Schumer, and what he didn’t

what-anthony-weiner-learned-chuck-schumer-and-what-he-didnt
Anthony Weiner and Chuck Schumer. (Photo by Azi Paybarah.)
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It seemed to be yet another triumph of the Chuck Schumer school of politics on Sunday morning, when Anthony Weiner made it onto “Meet the Press.” Weiner, after all, is something of a Schumer protégé, a six-term congressman who started out as a lowly college intern in Schumer’s office all the way back in 1985, and who still hails the senator as “my singular influence.”

It’s far from clear that Schumer would see it that way, though. The senator understands, famously, the value of media exposure. But the means by which Weiner earned himself his TV invitation—yet another episode of theatrical rage, this time involving President Obama’s tax deal—is an affront to that same Schumer school, which also instructs that time spent in the spotlight be matched with hard work toward substantive policy results off-stage.

If anything, then, Weiner’s “Meet” appearance underscores how thoroughly both men have gone their separate ways, and the fact that they were never quite as close as outside observers assumed they were.

To be sure, there was a day when Weiner would tout his Schumer ties as his chief selling point. But in transforming himself into a ubiquitous cable news presence these past few years, Weiner has built a more substantial public profile than any other Schumer alum who’s entered the arena—one that sometimes threatens Schumer’s own visibility, and one that reflects an approach to politics that actually runs counter to Schumer’s.

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They first came together a quarter-century ago, when Weiner, a SUNY Plattsburgh senior who had entered school with thoughts of becoming a television weatherman only to discover his true calling through student politics, signed up for an internship in the Capitol Hill office of the state’s youngest congressman. It was the spring of 1985 and to the extent that Schumer, a 34-year-old third-termer whose district included the Park Slope neighborhood where Weiner had grown up, had distinguished himself in Congress, it was for his remarkable ability to raise money. (He’d spent his first term in a frantic arms race with neighboring Rep. Stephen Solarz, each believing—incorrectly, it turned out—they’d be pitted against one another in the 1982 round of redistricting.) He was ambitious, relentless and press-hungry, but also fairly anonymous, overshadowed back home (with Mario Cuomo as governor, Ed Koch as mayor, and Pat Moynihan in the Senate, there wasn’t much Democratic oxygen left) and still too junior to be much of a force on Capitol Hill. Like his new intern, Schumer was going places, but no one knew it yet.

Like his boss, Weiner was unabashedly assertive and possessed of a same superhuman energy and career impatience. He made himself useful and soon was a full-time aide, helping Schumer parlay his Budget Committee work into headlines in D.C. and back home. But climbing the ranks of Capitol Hill staffers was not the life Weiner, with his showman’s flair, had in mind. He wanted his own seat in Congress—his own shot at the spotlight—and he wanted it soon.

The question was how to go about getting it. Obviously, he’d have to leave D.C. and find a district to establish his own identity, but where? Florida seemed promising. Its population was exploding, meaning that new House seats would be created after the 1990 census, and the voting rolls were littered with transplanted New Yorkers—folks who might welcome the chance to check off the name of a Brooklyn kid named Weiner. There was, it seemed, far less potential in New York, which was filled with ambitious Democrats and powerful party leaders and machines fighting over an ever-shrinking pie: The state had lost five seats after the 1980 census and would lose at least three more after ’90. Weiner’s boss saw things differently: Go back to Brooklyn, Schumer told Weiner, work as my district director, build your own base, and opportunity will present itself sooner than you think. So it was that Weiner arrived in Sheepshead Bay to take charge of Schumer’s local operation in 1988.

Within a year, Schumer’s advice would prove prescient. Citing the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1989 that New York City’s Board of Estimate—the powerful eight-member panel created under the 1897 city charter—was unconstitutional. A new charter, one that envisioned a larger and more influential City Council, was drafted, placed before voters, and approved in the November 1989 general election. The budget responsibilities of the old Board of Estimate were shifted to the Council, which was expanded from 35 to 51 members.

One of the goals was to increase minority representation, which doesn’t explain why Weiner was one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new map. But the law of unintended consequences does: In the process of overhauling district lines and creating black and Hispanic strongholds, the 48th district—an overwhelmingly white and heavily Jewish slice of southern Brooklyn stretching from Manhattan Beach to Midwood—was born. The new district’s first council member would be elected in 1991. The City Council wasn’t Congress, but it could be a steppingstone to Congress. Schumer had told him an opportunity would come, and here it was.

He really had no business winning the race. Six candidates filed to run in the September ’91 Democratic primary, but only three of them had a chance. The front-runner was Michael Garson, a longtime district leader who had the backing of Brooklyn’s new Democratic boss, Clarence Norman (who had actually outmaneuvered Garson to win his party post the previous fall, when Howard Golden had been forced by the new city charter to stand down as chairman of the Kings County Democrats). Given the ethnically polarized nature of Brooklyn politics, Norman himself didn’t have much pull in the 48th District, but he bragged that he was breathing new life into the county organization and declared the September ’91 primaries a test of his clout. Peter Vallone, the council’s speaker, also threw his weight behind Garson, who established the biggest campaign treasury. There was also Adele Cohen, who positioned herself as a reformer and gained the endorsement of the most influential city workers’ union. And then there was Weiner.

If you were to ask him now, he’d probably credit his unlikely victory to hard work and pluck—and certainly, this was a big part of it. Debates between the candidates attracted large crowds, and invariably Weiner, with his quick wit and performer’s flair, would steal the show. The support he enjoyed from Schumer didn’t hurt, either. But there was also The Flier—an anonymous leaflet distributed days before the primary (and just weeks after the Crown Heights riot) that warned of Cohen’s links to the Jesse Jackson-David Dinkins “agenda.” Weiner ultimately admitted that he’d been responsible, but only on the eve of the primary. The New York Times devoted an editorial to calling him out for his “hit and run attack” and “coarse appeal to racial fears in his mostly white district,” but it didn’t run until after the ballots were cast.

Voting was tight on Primary Day and it took weeks for a winner to be declared: Weiner, who edged out Garson by just over 200 votes (with Cohen about 70 votes behind him). A rematch followed in November (Garson’s name appeared on the Liberal line), but it wasn’t nearly as suspenseful. At 27, Weiner would be the youngest member of the New York City Council ever—a fitting achievement for the protégé of the youngest member of the New York State Assembly since Theodore Roosevelt.

AS COUNCILMAN WEINER WAS FINDING HIS WAY AROUND CITY Hall, Congressman Schumer was plotting a big move of his own. After more than a decade in Washington, his formula of tireless behind-the-scenes policy work and aggressive self-promotion was finally paying dividends. He’d played a significant role in the 1986 immigration overhaul that Ronald Reagan had signed, and as the ‘90s dawned, he began pushing for a “get tough” trade policy with Japan, which was then seen as America’s next great economic rival. But it was on crime—an issue that resonated far more with New Yorkers (and Americans in general) back then than it does today—that he really found his voice.

Bill Clinton’s election in 1992 breathed new life into the long-stalled Brady Bill, which would impose a mandatory five-day waiting period on the purchase of all handguns. Schumer was instrumental in nudging it through the House and onto Clinton’s desk in 1993. He also authored the assault-weapons ban that Clinton also signed months later, and was a prime force behind the crime bill that Clinton signed in the summer of 1994—one that put thousands of new cops on the streets. For the first time, the political world began to see Schumer the way he’d always wanted them to see him: as a potential candidate for higher office.

There was idle chatter that he might run for mayor in 1993. David Dinkins, who’d knocked out Ed Koch in the ’89 primary, had never had a strong grip on the city’s Democrats—and after Crown Heights, his reputation with outer-borough white ethnics was in ruins. But Schumer didn’t pursue it. Just as he had passed on the chance to run against Al D’Amato, then reeling from a lengthy ethics investigation (none were found, the joke went), in 1992. With Geraldine Ferraro and Attorney General Robert Abrams already seeking the Democratic nod (not to mention Elizabeth Holtzman, the congresswoman whom Schumer had succeeded back in 1980), there just wasn’t enough room.

But when it began looking like Mario Cuomo—who’d abandoned whatever White House ambitions he’d ever had in December ’91 for good, and who was rumored to be in line for a spot on the Supreme Court—wouldn’t seek a fourth term as governor in 1994, Schumer saw his opening. In the wake of his Brady Bill triumph, he embarked on a statewide tour, feeling no need to be coy about its purpose: If Cuomo didn’t run again, Schumer told reporters, he would. If Cuomo did run, he’d return to the House.

"Either way, now is my time,” Schumer said. “I feel it."

There was good reason to believe Cuomo might hang it up. His poll numbers were falling and there were clear signs of Cuomo fatigue among voters. Plus, 1994 was shaping up as a solid year for Republicans. Then again, the New York G.O.P. didn’t seem to have its act together. The best candidate the party could find was an unknown Al D’Amato buddy from Peekskill named George Pataki. Cuomo, customarily, dragged out the suspense as long as he could, then said he’d try for a fourth term. Schumer accepted the decision, threw his support behind the governor, and made it clear he was simply putting his statewide aspirations on hold. There’d be another gubernatorial race in 1998, and D’Amato’s Senate seat would be up again then, too. From that point on, everyone knew Schumer would be a candidate for one of those offices; the only question was which one.