Anthony Weiner, as promised, starts an issue debate among Democrats

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Anthony Weiner is the only Democrat currently running for mayor who has taken the position that municipal employees and retirees "have to start paying" for some of their health care costs.

Most of his rivals in the Democratic primary have avoided making any kind of painful demands from organized labor unions, who are currently screening candidates and deciding whom to endorse.

When I asked Weiner about retroactive pay raises for union workers, he circled back to the city's rising health care costs. Effectively, he said, "Every dollar available for salaries is being eaten up by health care costs. I want to have an adult conversation with the working people of this city [about] how you link those two things."

His rivals don't agree, substatively or strategically.

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Asked for a comment on Weiner's proposal, Bill Thompson's spokeswoman, Dani Lever, said in a statement, "Families in Rego Park, Bed-Stuy, and the North Shore just can't afford higher taxes and health care costs. It will never be Bill's first choice to make New York's working class families pay more. But, as he has said multiple times, he is not going to negotiate contracts in public."

Public Advocate Bill de Blasio criticized Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration for floating a similar proposal. City Comptroller John Liu said the Bloomberg administration gave retroactive raises in prior union contracts and that Mayor Michael Bloomberg should settle the outstanding contracts. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, like Thompson, declined to discuss specifics about what they'd like to see in new union contracts, citing a desire not to negotiate in public.

In reaction to the proposal from Weiner (whose mother is a retired public school teacher), Michael Mulgrew, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, said in a statement, "Attacking retirees who have dedicated their lives to this city and are now living on fixed incomes is not what we expect from candidates for office. We will be more than happy to explain to Mr. Weiner why health care for retirees is sustainable and important."

Former councilman (and school teacher) Sal Albanese, who is running for mayor as a Democrat, said, "Tony had a Congressional health plan, so the guy doesn't exactly understand the average worker's situation."

Albanese said he would "work with labor" to find a solution, instead of "making them empty their pocket."

The non-Democratic candidates in the race, by contrast, seem to like Weiner's proposals.

"Contributions from employees are commonplace in the private sector," supermarket and oil magnate John Catsimatidis said in a statement. "We need to take a close look at our options so we can create commonsense solutions for both city employees and the taxpayers."

Joe Lhota, the former budget director for Mayor Giuliani and poll leader in the Republican primary, supports the plan too. A spokeswoman for Lhota said he "has long supported making public employee unions contribute a percentage towards their health care, just like everyone else."

"While we won’t agree on much," Republican mayoral candidate George McDonald said in a statement, "Anthony and I agree here. The time has come for NYC employees to join the rest of America and contribute to their health coverage."

Adolfo Carrion, the former Bronx Borough president and White House director of urban affairs who is running on the Independence Party line, said in a statement that "we need to share these costs." 

UPDATE: Nicole Gelinas, a Manhattan Institute senior fellow who specializes in economic and fiscal issues, cheered Weiner's proposal.

In an email, Gelinas wrote that Weiner "is spot on with this idea on the fiscal merits. 95 percent of New York City workers pay nothing, and they should be paying a good 20-25 percent to be in line with the private sector. He says they should pay 'small' premiums, so we’ll have to see how small is small – in some situations, size does matter.

"It is interesting, too, that the only Democrat who is saying this specifically is the only Democrat with nothing to lose in terms of union endorsements. So, there’s a benefit to having someone go-for-broke in the race, helping the city, possibly, not go broke."