What Anthony Weiner learned from Chuck Schumer, and what he didn't
Thus did it become clear back in Brooklyn that Councilman Weiner would be seeking a promotion to Congress in 1998. He’d made the most of his Council slot, at least from a media standpoint, provoking Mayor Rudy Giuliani with a stream of embarrassing reports. Weiner fought with the administration over its efforts to restrict street vendors and made a scandal out of the Housing Authority’s decision to give a contract to a flame-retardant paint company owned by a Giuliani contributor. The paint proved to be defective in some cases. After a run-in with Weiner over the paint issue outside City Hall, Giuliani told reporters, “If you wanted to play the part of political opportunist out of Central Casting, you would do what Anthony Weiner just did.” Weiner’s youth also earned him attention. Cosmopolitan named him one of America’s 101 top bachelors in 1996—and suggested that he might be president someday.
But while he relished needling the mayor and getting his name in the paper, Weiner’s outspokenness had its limits. In the 1993 mayoral race, he refused to endorse Dinkins, his party’s nominee, proclaiming himself disappointed with the incumbent. More likely, Weiner simply realized that Dinkins’ name was poison in the 48th District (where Giuliani ended up winning 80 percent of the vote). Better to go with the flow on that one.
The same instinct had been apparent a year earlier, in the wake of a notorious episode in which 10,000 police officers—some voicing baldly racist sentiments—set upon City Hall to protest Dinkins’ plan to make the police complaint board a full civilian body. Giuliani was a featured speaker at the rally. When the police union’s president, Phil Caruso, appeared before the Council the next day, Weiner spoke up—not to join the members who were challenging Caruso over his officers’ conduct but to chastise a black Bronx councilman for his aggressive questioning. It was an illustration of the rule that has guided Weiner’s career: Calculate carefully, then speak boldly, as if you meant it all along.
Weiner won reelection 1993 and 1997 with ease. He may have started out on Capitol Hill, but city politics agreed with him. Still, the limits of a Council seat from southern Brooklyn were painfully obvious. The 48th District was no place to launch a citywide campaign. Congress was a different story.
IN APRIL 1997, SCHUMER ANNOUNCED HE WOULD RUN FOR THE SENATE the next year, and not governor. It ended up being an easy decision. Pataki, who had upset Cuomo in ’94, looked unbeatable: Polls showed him 21 points up on Schumer. But D’Amato, who had not gotten the political boost he’d expected from his pursuit of the Clintons over the Whitewater matter, was a ripe target. Early polls gave Schumer a seven-point lead. It would be a winnable race, if he could secure the Democratic nomination. Schumer’s move meant that his House seat would be open in 1998. Weiner wasted no time jumping into the fray. If things worked out, both mentor and protégé would soon be players on Capitol Hill.
Oddly, each faced a similar primary predicament, with gender and geography conspiring to make them both underdogs. Schumer faced opposition from Mark Green, the New York City public advocate who had run against D’Amato in 1986 (when no other Democrat would run; Green ended up with 42 percent) and Ferraro, whose ’92 primary campaign had fallen apart at the finish line, when the hopeless Holtzman had hit her with a storm of mud. Ferraro had emerged from that mess as a sympathetic figure and then further rehabilitated herself with a run as the co-host of “Crossfire,” back when CNN was still the preeminent cable source for politics. As the lone woman running against two liberal Jews from New York City, Ferraro was regarded as the clear and overwhelming front-runner—so much so that commentators speculated into the early months of ’98 that Schumer would ultimately back down and retreat to his House seat.
In Weiner’s race, the favorite was Melinda Katz, a 33-year-old assemblywoman from Forest Hills. Not only was Katz the sole woman running against three men, she was also the only candidate from Queens—which, thanks to a court-mandated adjustment (a ripple effect of the 1992 round of redistricting and its emphasis on majority-minority districts) suddenly accounted for 50 percent of the district. A protégé of Alan Hevesi, who was then the city’s comptroller and an influential figure in the Queens half of the district, Katz also ran with the support of the Queens Democratic organization, which was eager to steal a House seat back from Brooklyn. Also in the contest was Dan Feldman, a veteran assemblyman (he had won the race to succeed Schumer in 1980) and Noach Dear, a culturally conservative Orthodox Jewish councilman who promised to raise $2 million for the race.
In the spring of ’98, the smart money had both Weiner and his mentor going down to defeats. But they were stronger than they looked. There was, of course, their ability to work longer, harder and smarter than any of their foes. And they shined in debates, albeit for different reasons (Weiner through his energy, wit and ability to formulate compelling 60-second orations on the fly; Schumer by demonstrating an impressive policy mastery).
For Schumer, money was crucial: He’d begun stockpiling it in his first term but had never needed it before. Thus was he able to hit the statewide airwaves early, gaining crucial separation from the cash-strapped Green and emerging as the main alternative to Ferraro. And once it became a Ferraro-Schumer race, it was over. On issue after issue, he could point to some bill or law he had helped craft in his 18 years in Washington. The cumulative effect was to make clear to Democratic voters that Schumer was unusually prepared to pursue their agenda in the Senate. Ferraro, who had last held office in 1984, was left offering broad platitudes and echoing Schumer’s sentiments. The money never ran out for Schumer, but it did for Ferraro. By Primary Day, it wasn’t even close, with Schumer registering a stunning 51 percent, Ferraro at 26 and Green at 19.
For Weiner, money wasn’t a weapon; it was an obstacle. Dear, who had raised $2 million for Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996 (and who would brag to anyone who’d listen about his access to the White House and top Democrats in Washington), was in a different class; he ended up having more money than any non-incumbent House candidate in the country in ’98. But even compared to Katz and Feldman, who each ended up raising well over $500,000 for their campaigns, Weiner was a pauper.
But his opponents had deficiencies. Dear was far to the right of the voters on cultural issues—opposed to abortion, hostile to gay rights, and prone to expressing racially inflammatory sentiments. Plus, his Midwood Orthodox base wasn’t even in the district. Feldman was a diligent legislator, but not one who inspired much passion. He unwittingly summed up the fundamental flaw of his candidacy when he said of the race: "Ultimately, it's pretty simple. I've written more than 120 laws in New York. On substance, this shouldn't be a close election." And Katz was relatively new to the political scene and her Assembly district actually accounted for a smaller share of the district than Weiner’s Council district. Against this competition, Weiner played what he considered his trump card.
"My greatest advantage is that I worked for Schumer for six years," he declared. "I think that my longstanding and very close relationship with the congressman will inure to my advantage.”
That “very close relationship,” tellingly, didn’t translate into an immediate endorsement. Weiner brought up his old boss’ name constantly, but Schumer, perhaps not wanting to risk his own Senate campaign by wading into a House contest in which several powerful Democrats had vested interests, stayed quiet. Only in early September, when Schumer had zoomed past Ferraro and was on his way to victory, did an endorsement come. Weiner said it was all part of the plan—waiting until the last minute to maximize impact—and when he eked out a 650-vote win over Katz, he gave the credit to Schumer.
The true significance of Schumer’s endorsement remains hard to discern. Some believe Weiner was always destined to win, since so much of the House district overlapped with his council district. Others point to the tragic death of Assemblyman Anthony Genovesi just days before the primary. Genovesi, an old Schumer ally, had been backing Weiner (it was part of his war with Norman, whose organization had endorsed Feldman) and his grief-stricken army seemed to work extra hard on primary day to deliver a final, posthumous victory for him. Schumer’s impact might have been more indirect, too, with Weiner simply representing the natural choice for the extra voters from Schumer’s corner of the district who turned out to back him in his Senate race.
Whatever the exact reason, the 29 percent Weiner secured was just enough to secure the Democratic nomination—which was as good as winning the general election. His ticket back to Washington had been punched. But would his old boss be going back with him?
Even after Schumer's commanding primary win, there were doubters. Something of a mythology had developed around D’Amato, thanks to his improbable victory in ’92. Polls that year had shown him trailing Abrams by a double-digit spread. No incumbent senator since 1980 had fallen behind his or her opponent by that much in an election year and come back to win, but D’Amato did it.
He’d gotten lucky, of course; the Abrams-Ferraro-Holtzman primary had been perhaps the ugliest ever, leaving the party unusually divided through the fall, and Abrams himself essentially melted down in October, labeling D’Amato a “fascist” in exasperation. Even as Bill Clinton carried New York handily, D’Amato held on to claim a third term in the Senate. So when ’98 rolled around and early polling showed Schumer—and Ferraro and even Green, for that matter—leading the incumbent, most pundits still treated D’Amato as the favorite. He was Rasputin with a Long Island accent.
And sure enough, the Democratic primary campaign played out, D’Amato regained his footing, pulling back ahead of his potential rivals. When Schumer was crowned the Democratic nominee and D’Amato—his coffers flush with Wall Street money raised through his service as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee—immediately attacked him as a “New York City liberal,” there was a sense that we’d seen this all before: The G.O.P. senator was about to ride mastermind conservative consultant Arthur Finkelstein’s divide-and-conquer strategy to one more ugly victory.
But Schumer’s campaign was everything Abrams’ hadn’t been: focused, disciplined, well-funded, and supported by a unified party. Bolstered by a rapid-response unit staffed by burgeoning young Democratic operatives Howard Wolfson and Josh Isay, Schumer sought to make the race a referendum on the incumbent’s character.
"Al D'Amato has been in the Senate for too long,” Schumer said in his primary night victory speech. “You can't trust him, and New Yorkers deserve a senator they can be proud of.”
Like any good Finkelstein client, D’Amato warned voters that his opponent had been “too liberal for too long.” Schumer fired back by claiming that D’Amato had told “too many lies for too long.” By the end of September polls gave the challenger a small lead.
This time, it was D’Amato, and not his opponent, who committed the costly gaffe, referring in a most unsenatorial manner to Schumer in a closed-door meeting of Jewish leaders in mid-October as a “putzhead.”
D’Amato denied it until he was forced to fess up, at which point a lengthy media debate ensued about the precise meaning of the term: Had he been calling his opponent a “penis head” or just a “jerk”? Either way, it was a gruesome story for D’Amato—one that allowed Schumer to claim the high ground, and one that pushed him into the lead for good. The result on Election Night ended up surprising no one, apart from the margin: Schumer ousted D’Amato by 11 points.
Schumer was sworn in to his first term in the Senate on the same January 1999 day that Weiner was sworn in to the House. It was a moment of immense triumph for both, even if each man saw his new home as more of a stepping-stone than a permanent landing place.
WEINER HAD BEEN BITTEN BY THE NEW YORK CITY politics bug. Fiorello La Guardia, John Lindsay and Ed Koch had all mounted winning mayoral campaigns from the House, so why couldn’t he? His approach to Congress would be far different from Schumer’s. Why spend years gaining seniority, developing working relationships, and finessing small-ball amendments and bills? Weiner’s skill was performance art and his new credential—Member of Congress—made it easier than before to attract attention from the New York City media. He was a mayoral candidate masquerading as a congressman. Timing, though, would be a problem. The next mayor’s race would be in 2001—too soon for Weiner, with his limited name recognition, empty campaign account, and uneasy grip on his House seat. (Remember that 71 percent of the ’98 Democratic primary voters had voted for someone beside him.) But with Giuliani term-limited out, the odds strongly favored a Democratic restoration in ‘01—meaning that Weiner might have to wait until 2009, a full decade later, for a shot of his own.
So Weiner set out to control what he could, seeking to shore up his seat and build a name around the city—and a war chest, too. In 2000, he faced a primary challenge from Dear, who had claimed 23 percent in the ’98 race. But this time, Dear had no prayer. Twenty-three percent was about as good as anyone with his conservative views was going to do in the district, and Weiner won with ease. Redistricting following the 2000 census moved reoriented his district toward Queens, which now controlled about 70 percent of the votes. Weiner moved to Forest Hills and coasted to another term. He survived his first re-election and a round redistricting without any serious threat. His House seat, it could safely be said, was secure.
What’s more, he wouldn’t have to wait until ’09 to make his mayoral move. In a development no one could have envisioned when the ’01 campaign began, a Republican political newcomer named Michael Bloomberg—keyed by tens of millions of dollars and an unusually influential endorsement from Rudy Giuliani—had overcome a late 14-point deficit to upset Green in the mayor’s race. Grappling with the aftermath of a recession and the devastation of 9/11, Bloomberg pushed a massive property-tax hike through the City Council—and watched his popularity plummet to ghastly depths. He was looking supremely beatable for 2005, and Weiner was free to run. Unforeseen opportunity had once against presented itself, and, just like with the Council opening in ’91, Weiner was ready to pounce.
Schumer spent these years living in a shadow. In early ‘99, Moynihan announced that he’d retire in 2000—meaning that Schumer, then just weeks into his first term, would soon be New York’s senior senator. But Moynihan’s replacement wouldn’t be an ordinary freshman. The idea that Hillary Clinton would run for the Senate had originally seemed like a novelty, but by the spring of ’99 the first lady was establishing residence in the state and the Democratic field had been cleared for her. A year later, after Giuliani begged off a campaign that that had been eagerly anticipated across the country, Clinton cruised to a double-digit victory over Rick Lazio. Officially, she would be a freshman. But there was no denying that she was New York’s marquee senator, and that she would be as long as she stayed in office. Publicly, Schumer was supportive, but Clinton’s emergence clearly diminished his ability to command the public’s attention. There was speculation that he’d seek to trade in his Senate seat for the governorship, and a chance to be the undisputed big fish, in 2006.
That thinking changed in November 2004, when George W. Bush beat back John Kerry’s White House challenge. Had Kerry won, Clinton would have been stuck in the Senate through 2012, at least. But his defeat meant that the 2008 Democratic nomination would be wide open, and there was never any doubt that Clinton would run. As she disengaged from state politics and from the Senate to run her national race, Schumer rushed to fill the void, taking control of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2006 cycle—the perfect year, if ever there was one, to hold that job.
When the Democrats gained six seats to take back the chamber, he was hailed for his strategic genius and fund-raising mastery. The praise was somewhat over the top (a congressional campaign committee chairman, like a baseball manager, gets too much credit for success and too much blame for failure) but that’s how the game works. He was rewarded with the third-ranking slot in the Democratic leadership and signed on to run the committee again for the 2008 cycle—which looked just as promising for the party as ’06 had been. Schumer had been liberated from Hillary’s shadow. He enjoyed a safe seat, the respect of his colleagues, and a role in every major policy and strategic decision Senate Democrats faced. His next step wouldn’t be governor; it would be majority leader.
THE DISTANCE BETWEEN SCHUMER AND WEINER WAS PLAIN to see in Weiner’s mayoral campaign. As the race began, Weiner was polling in single digits on the Democratic side. But his competition—Fernando Ferrer, Virginia Fields and Gifford Miller—wasn’t overwhelming and by the spring of ’05, Weiner was gaining traction. With little to lose, he launched one broadside after another at Bloomberg, treating him just like he’d treated Giuliani when he was a councilman. But when Weiner claimed that the mayor had failed to advocate for the city’s interests with Washington leaders, Bloomberg found an unlikely defender: Chuck Schumer.
"I know the candidates don't like me to say this, but the facts are the facts,” Schumer told the press. “Whenever I call Michael Bloomberg and ask him to help in Washington, he has. And even though I will support a Democratic candidate—there are a lot of things that I disagree with Mayor Bloomberg on—I am not going to take that away from him."
Moreover, Schumer steadfastly refused to endorse Weiner in the Democratic contest, claiming that he never took sides in primaries. This was untrue: Schumer had backed Carl McCall over Andrew Cuomo in the 2002 governor’s race, and a few years later, he’d provide crucial support to Dan Squadron, another former aide, in his primary challenge to Martin Connor, a 30-year veteran of the State Senate. In other words, there was nothing to stop Schumer from throwing his weight behind Weiner if he’d wanted to. But the preliminary election came and went, and Schumer never spoke up.
When the initial returns were tallied, it looked like Weiner had forced a run-off—holding Ferrer just barely below the 40 percent mark necessary for a first-round primary victory. Weiner then refused to contest the run-off in the name of party unity, winning effusive praise for his magnanimous gesture. In reality, it was all calculation: Polls showed Ferrer well ahead of him in a two-way race, and anyway, the Democratic nomination was worthless—by September ’05, Bloomberg had bounced back to post an approval rating of over 60 percent. So Weiner called it a day and reaped the respect of his peers along with some friendly headlines. The final tabulations that came in a few days later put Ferrer over the magic 40 percent mark anyway, as it turned out. Weiner had made himself a party hero for refusing to contest a run-off he wasn’t even eligible for.
Since then, Weiner and Schumer have been pursuing fundamentally different goals in fundamentally different ways. For Weiner, the mayoral campaign still hasn’t stopped, even if he backed out of the 2009 race when Bloomberg convinced the City Council to let him seek a third term. That development simply shifted Weiner’s strategy. Stuck in D.C. in the summer of 2009 while Bill Thompson carried the party’s banner against Bloomberg, Weiner discovered a new way to exploit his House credential. The debate over health care was heating up and cable news producers were eager to book anyone with a title and an ability to convey a strong point of view. Weiner launched a passionate—not to mention completely theoretical, thoroughly unproductive and ineffective—campaign for a single-payer healthcare system. In reality, he was nowhere near the negotiations. But the purity of his position and the way he argued it were compelling.
One appearance led to another, and soon he was a primetime regular. Nationally, liberal activists took notice. Bloggers began saluting him for his “courage” and “backbone.” Many liberal voters in Manhattan and Brownstone Brooklyn had dismissed Weiner as the outer-borough white ethnic candidate—another Ed Koch— in 2005. Surely, some of them were coming to see him in a different light.
This was the same game Weiner was playing last week, when President Obama made his deal with Republican leaders to extend the Bush tax cuts in exchange for increased stimulus efforts. Liberal activists and cable news hosts were enraged, and Weiner scrambled to make himself their hero. When Vice President Joe Biden pleaded the White House’s case to House Democrats last Wednesday, Weiner stood up and branded Obama “the negotiator in chief” (which prompted Biden, according to The New York Times, to fire back: “There’s no goddamned way I’m going to stand here and talk about the president like that”). And at a Democratic caucus meeting on Thursday, Weiner reportedly started a chant of “No we can’t!” among some of his colleagues.
This is the behavior that landed Weiner on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. And it’s the behavior will forever separate him from Schumer, who believes that being effective is just as important as being visible. Schumer has irritated plenty of his colleagues over the years through his aggressive cultivation of the media (and he’s endured plenty of jokes, too), but he’s also labored to make himself useful to them, and to use his visibility to promote shared goals. He’s been willing to put the time and the effort in behind the scenes to build partnerships, earn the trust of his colleagues, and achieve substantive results.
A cynic could argue that Weiner has simply outsmarted his old boss, that he’s found a way to generate the same media bang for a fraction of the work. Let Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler knock themselves out behind the scenes putting 9/11 healthcare legislation together—with one well-timed explosion on the House floor this summer, Weiner was able to make himself the face of the bill. Almost certainly, he will be a candidate for mayor in 2013, so we’ll find out then just how brilliant his strategy has been.
For now, we can say that in his first six terms in the House, Weiner has been on television far more frequently than Schumer was over the corresponding period in his career. We can also say that, YouTube clip reel aside, Weiner has far less to show for it.