Anthony Weiner and the post-professional mayoral campaign

anthony-weiner-and-post-professional-mayoral-campaign
Weiner with a volunteer in Sheepshead Bay. (Reid Pillifant)
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Sure, Anthony Weiner's mayoral candidacy has changed the political calculus for all of his leading rivals, and may yet change the terms of the policy debate, too, as the campaign progresses.

And for a small but well-established subgroup of political professionals, Weiner's campaign does something more than all that: It tests the proposition of whether it's necessary to run for mayor with their help in the first place.

"What does this mean for the future? It means there may be people who decide not to hire political professionals," said Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime consultant who currently serves as a senior strategist to Bill Thompson, but was speaking only in his capacity as a veteran of the industry.

"So what political professionals should hope for is that he doesn't win," Sheinkopf said.

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Notwithstanding his preexisting reputation for keeping his own political counsel, Weiner would seem to be the most handler-worthy candidate in the race, as he tries to overcome the particularly odd scandal that drove him from office in 2011, a comeback that hinges on balancing a modicum of public contrition with his natural penchant for brash political combat.

And yet Weiner, who as a function of his circumstances is operating without any veteran consultants, seems to be doing OK on his own.

He has navigated his re-entry to public life with relatively few hiccups, notwithstanding his willingness, consultants or no, to let fly with reporters present, and the regular indications he provides that his contrition only goes so far. 

He's got top-tier standing among Democrats in the polls, based on near-universal (if not universally positive) name recognition, which has held steady in recent weeks against a field of rivals running more traditionally consultant-laden operations.

Each month, for instance, Bill Thompson's mayoral campaign pays $8,750 to the fund-raising consultants at Bedford Grove; $4,500 to the fund-raising consultants at Peeler Allen; $6,000 to the public relations consultants at the Butler Associates; $7,500 to the Latino-focused consultants at the Mirram Group; and $4,000 or more to the media consultants at Particle.

Through March, Thompson's consultant-related activities have totaled $751,063, according to his filings with the Campaign Finance Board (though some of that money, it should be noted, goes to tasks performed by those consultants, like fund-raisers, mailings and polls).

Other candidates have similar, if slightly smaller, commitments. Christine Quinn has spent $359,405 on various consultants and their activities; Bill de Blasio has spent $490,532; and John Liu has spent $291,743.

That money has bought them whole hierarchies of experienced hands. 

Quinn has Josh Isay, who worked on Chuck Schumer's successful campaign for the Senate in 1998, before founding the high-powered firm SKD Knickerbocker, which also employs Jennifer Cunningham, a longtime adviser to the governor and the attorney general.

Isay has helped Quinn broker her book deal, served as a de facto spokesman in the early going, and crafted Quinn's message as the results-oriented candidate in the race. (His firm also supplies Mike Morey, another Schumer alumnus, who serves the Quinn campaign's primary spokesman.)

Thompson has Jonathan Prince, an accomplished veteran of both the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigns, communications specialist John Collins, and, of course, Sheinkopf. 

Liu has Bill Lynch, the Harlem graybeard who helped steer David Dinkins to victory back in 1989.

And De Blasio has a team that includes Obama-campaign veteran Jon Del Cecato, Rebecca Katz, who previously worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Jonathan Rosen, the co-founder of Berlin Rosen, the powerhouse progressive consultancy.

"The cadre of professional consultants, for whatever that's worth, has been bought up," said Doug Muzzio, a professor of political science at Baruch College. "But that's [Weiner's] style anyway. He is his own campaign manager, he is his own strategist. That's his personality, that's his psyche."

By the time Weiner entered the race, many of his preferred advisers already committed to other campaigns, and others were unwilling to help in more than a friendly capacity.

Weiner reportedly reached out to Joel Benenson, his longtime pollster, about joining his campaign, but Benenson declined to break his commitment to Christine Quinn.

Jim Margolis, a top ad man for President Obama and a longtime Weiner consultant, was spotted at the  shoot for Weiner's kick-off video in Park Slope, but has said he won't be joining the campaign. Risa Heller, a Schumer-press alumnus and rising crisis-p.r. specialist who was on Weiner's payroll during the worst days of his scandal, has helped with the media side of his comeback, but also won't be joining the campaign.

So Weiner has assembled a younger campaign team, and often seems to be formulating strategy as he goes.

His only paid consultant, according to the campaign, is a pollster, Paul Maslin, who polled for Howard Dean in 2004. 

Weiner recently hired a former staffer Amit Bagga, as a policy advisor, but, prior to that, he reworked his big policy book, Keys to the City, with a playwright unknown to the city's political world.

"Be careful with that 'professional politics' stuff," Weiner told me in an email about his potential hires in April. "Most of the people you listed came to me from non politics backgrounds."

Weiner has said the operation is "kind of like a start-up at this point," and the organizational structure might be charitably described as flat, compared to the other campaigns.

His communications director, Barbara Morgan, currently does double-duty, handling the bulk of the press inquiries, while also shadowing Weiner at events and keeping the press at bay when necessary. 

After a press conference in Sheephsead Bay last week, when reporters appeared to be consumed by an aborted New York Times story about the lingering effects of Weiner's scandal, it was Morgan who cut them off.

"Alright, that's it, thanks guys," she said after the second question about the Times story.

After the event, Weiner approached an elderly man in a flat cap who was collecting signatures on a clipboard.

"Who are you carrying for?" Weiner asked the man, who, as it happened, was collecting signatures for Weiner. 

It can be a contrast to the well-oiled machines constructed by some of the other candidates.

While Weiner was making his big debate debut last month, Quinn was in Brooklyn Heights with a small army of sign-waving volunteers who were urging constituents to come meet her, and Quinn, after nearly ever conversation with a voter, dutifully instructed staffers to record their names and issues of concern, with a promise to follow up from her campaign or her district office.

Things will get tougher for Weiner, who himself knows from dirty politicking and who was chased out of the 2009 contest by the Bloomberg campaign's pre-emptive oppo dumps, the longer he stays in contention.

Up to now, Quinn has been the front-runner attracting attacks from her rivals, and other than some oblique criticism from de Blasio and a more direct shot from Sal Albanese that was all but shouted down at a mayoral forum, the subject of Weiner's scandal has hardly come up at all.

And for the moment it's Quinn who's being compelled by her opponents to react, going on the attack this week in a speech criticizing her opponents, and it's Weiner who has the luxury of refusing to respond.

That's going to be harder to pull off, as primary day gets closer and Weiner looks to be making the runoff.

But needless to say, he likes the idea of being the exceptional candidate, and will continue for as long as he can to take every opportunity to encourage the idea that his circumstances have liberated him to do his own thing.

"I must confess I'm running this campaign a little bit different than candidates usually wage this," he told a group of business owners on the Upper West Side, characteristically asserting a positive on the strength of what would normally be considered a negative. "There is a tendency … for people to wage campaigns for mayor where they try to line up as many constituencies as they can and piece together what they consider the electorate. And that's how they run.

"Well, Democrats haven't won an election in 24 years … and I think it's to some degree we lost the mantle as the party of ideas," he said, promising to "talk about ideas," and "give people an idea how I might run the city."

One professional I talked to said that the lack of a well-polished message might actually be helping Weiner cut across a field that's spent months customizing pitches to highly specific constituencies.

"In Anthony's case, voters want to see energy, they want to see that you're fighting for something," said Basil Smikle, a political consultant in Harlem, who is not currently working on the mayor's race. "They don't want to see that you've just crafted this really distinct, well-honed message."

"People sense that if you're trying to be too cute by half, that you're not genuine, you don't have strong convictions," Smikle added.

Which is surely right, and is something Weiner's Democratic rivals have good reason to be thinking very hard about right now.

Still, Sheinkopf holds, Weiner is missing something without experienced paid advisers.

"A campaign without consultants does not benefit from decades of experience that usually spells victory," said Sheinkopf, speaking, again, only in his capacity as a longtime consultant.

Sheinkopf was among the many high-priced consultants who were absorbed into the 2009 re-election campaign of Michael Bloomberg, who put most of the local consulting world on retainer, in part to ensure that his challenger, Thompson, wouldn't have access to them.

"Would Michael Bloomberg have been elected twice and then re-elected a third time if he hadn't had professionals around him? The answer is no," Sheinkopf said.

"When you need your teeth filled, you don't go to a butcher. When you need your shoes soled, you don't go to an investment banker. When you need a wedding done, you don't go to a horse," Sheinkopf said. "It's ridiculous. You want to run a campaign without consultants, see what happens."

What Weiner needs and doesn't necessarily have, Muzzio said, was a countervailing voice.

"There is a real danger in a candidate being the campaign manager," said Muzzio.

He cited the old adage about attorneys who represent themselves having a fool for a client.

So what would a Weiner victory prove?

"Individual brashness and sort of thinking and acting outside the box beats people inside the box," said Muzzio, who added that he didn't think it would have any seismic effects on the city's consultant-industrial complex either way.

"I think it's so firmly entrenched they will consider him a mutant, an anomaly," Muzzio said.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article referred incorrectly to David Binder, instead of Paul Maslin, as Weiner's current pollster. Weiner paid Binder to conduct a poll before he entered the campaign.