After a nationally watched campaign in upstate New York, Kathy Hochul made her New York City debut June 13 at the stately University Club in Manhattan. Hundreds of guests attending the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Breakfast milled around a breakfast buffet of muffins and fruit salad, while their host, Nora Brenes, introduced Hochul as the winner of a special election “that came about as a result of our male New York Congress members who keep taking their shirts off,” according to one attendee.
The crowd laughed, because an Anthony Weiner joke at a Democratic political function is one that needs no explanation. He is, much to the chagrin of his New York colleagues, everywhere: overshadowing their message, imperiling a safe congressional seat and affecting their redistricting plans.
This won’t change anytime soon. Unlike Hochul’s predecessor, Chris Lee, who quickly resigned after a shirtless picture that he had posted on Craigslist surfaced in the media, Weiner has reacted to his unwanted exposure by digging in his heels. And even if he resigns—as many Democrats seem to expect he will—his colleagues are likely to be dealing with the after-effects until the next election.
Just before 9 a.m., Hochul exited the University Club with one male aide and headed north on Fifth Avenue. When asked about Weiner, the aide said simply: “We’re running to another event.” Hochul stared ahead, kept walking and never looked back.
“Her rock-star status may have been cut short, briefly, by this other item in the news,” Assemblyman Sam Hoyt of Buffalo, a supporter of Hochul, said dryly.
Hochul isn’t the only one feeling muzzled.
Hours after Weiner’s remarkable June 6 news conference, when he admitted sending lewd images of himself to “about” six women over the past three years, Nancy Pelosi attended a Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee fundraiser, hosted by wealthy gay and lesbian supporters, in SoHo. Although the House minority leader had already called for an ethics investigation into Weiner’s behavior, she made no reference to him in her remarks at the event, according to attendees. Outside, she waved to a well-wisher across the street, but ignored a reporter’s shouted question, before climbing into a large black SUV.
Two days later, Weiner was still consuming all the oxygen in New York.
“I know there must be somebody collapsed out in the hallway because the media have walked out on what I think is probably the most important issue of the day,” complained Congressman Joe Crowley of Queens, after reporters bolted from a news conference inside Queens Borough Hall to ask one of the attendees, City Comptroller John Liu, about Weiner’s fate.
(Asked whether he had ever sent indecent messages, Liu said, “I think social media is like every other form of communication, and elected officials should maximize communications with constituents and with the general public as much as possible,” before humorously jabbing his questioner.)
The news conference had gathered dozens of elected officials for the intended purpose of pushing for same- sex marriage.
“I’d like to focus back the attention, if we can, on the issue at hand,” Crowley said.
He wasn’t exactly successful. At the end of the hour-long news conference, Crowley expressed his displeasure.
“To make a statement like we’re making today, and instead of talking about being able to further the rights of all New Yorkers, we’re talking about a colleague of ours,” Crowley said, was disappointing. Weiner, who supports the issue, was not invited.
Weiner’s implosion has put Crowley, the Queens county leader, in a particularly difficult position—both personally and politically. He and Weiner were elected in the same year, from adjacent districts, making for a closer relationship than Weiner enjoyed with almost anyone else in the delegation.
“This has been a distraction for all of us,” Crowley told reporters. “I had a conversation with Anthony, and he certainly was very disappointed in himself and I think he expressed it. And I think he’s a friend of mine, and I’m very friendly with Huma,” he said, referring to Weiner’s wife. “I wish the best for both of them.”
As the local county leader, Crowley also has to worry about the slew of potential successors should Weiner resign. Reporters were eager to know who might be in line for such a special election.
“May I answer that question?” said Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez, whose district includes portions of Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan.
“Thank you,” Crowley said.
“The Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, has requested the Ethics Committee conduct an investigation. So, let’s allow for that process to move forward and see what it yields,” Velazquez said. “We don’t know if he broke the laws and the rules. Let’s wait, and then, if anything, he will have to answer to the voters. This decision is between him and the voters.”
A few days later, a triumvirate of top Democratic leaders—including Pelosi—began calling for his resignation, leaving in doubt whether Weiner could hang on to face the voters in 2012.
His resignation would trigger a special election in what is not entirely friendly territory for Democrats.
“If the stars were aligned, a Republican could win the district,” said Democratic consultant and statistician Jerry Skurnik. He called Weiner’s two-borough district “the most Republican district in the city” outside of Staten Island, and said it could be appealing despite the threat of redistricting.
“If you have a chance to be elected to Congress, and you’re young and ambitious, you might want to take it, even if there’s a possibility that the district will be wiped out,” Skurnik said.
Republican Councilman Eric Ulrich already is considering a run for the seat. The 27-year-old is almost comically similar to Weiner in youthful zest and oratory skills.
Two Democrats whose names have been floated are Assemblyman Rory Lancman (who attended the Eleanor Roosevelt Legacy Breakfast that featured Hochul) and Councilman Mark Weprin (who maintains close ties to Crowley).
Lancman declined to speak about Weiner’s seat, and Weprin was decidedly deferential. “Anthony has been a great congressman, and if he and his wife want to, I think he will ride this out and go back to trying to be a great congressman,” Weprin said.
With Democrats slated to lose one congressional seat, Weiner would seem to present them with an ideal opportunity to cut out an incumbent.
The Jewish and white ethnic neighborhoods that were so delicately slipped into his Ninth Congressional District suddenly are likely to be absorbed by Weiner’s colleagues. Independent redistricting advocates, such as former Mayor Ed Koch, acknowledge that political factors—like Weiner’s toxicity—will play a role in how lines are redrawn.
“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Koch said about Democrats carving up Weiner’s now-vulnerable district. In an interview, he said, “If you have someone who is under attack for a host of reasons, similar to that of Weiner, and the Democratic Party believes it would lose that seat if Weiner ran, there’s nothing wrong with, if they have to give up the seat, saying that’s the seat we will give up. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
Dick Dadey, executive director of the Citizens Union, a government watchdog group, agreed.
“Before this revelation, he was assured of having a safe seat,” Dadey said. “He’s given them the opportunity to consider his seat now, given his actions.”
Decisions about redrawing legislative lines “are based more on merit but they’re not apolitical,” Dadey said. “You can never take the politics out of redistricting, whether it’s nonpartisan or not.”
“There’s always going to be decisions made about who to place up against each other,” Dadey said. “Those who are not on strong ground are more vulnerable, no matter who draws the line.”
Eliminating Weiner could allow Crowley to cut the Bronx portion of his own district, and Gary Ackerman, who mostly represents Long Island, could potentially shift westward into more friendly Queens territory.
But all of that is secondary to the overriding concern of Weiner.
“They just want him fucking gone,” said a delegation source.
But there’s also the chance that Weiner simply will not quit.
Despite his obvious shortcomings, Weiner’s electability one year from now is hard to dismiss entirely.
“He’s unstoppable,” warned Democratic consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who has a complicated relationship with the congressman.
Sheinkopf worked on Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2009 re-election campaign, which fed unflattering stories about Weiner to the media. The resulting coverage, and Bloomberg’s blank check, drove Weiner to drop out of the race in May.
But earlier this year, Sheinkopf leapt to the congressman’s defense when he was attacked by a millionaire reformer unhappy with Weiner’s opposition to independent redistricting.
Now, Sheinkopf is cautiously observing the scene.
“Nobody wants a primary with Weiner, because Weiner is indefatigable,” Sheinkopf said. “He raises money. He works hard.”
“Not only can he come back, he can completely rehabilitate himself in about a year,” said one Democratic lawmaker. “He can’t be as funny, but can be self-deprecating … I can see it going away.”
Even his old adversary Bloomberg seemed to agree. In a conversation with gossip columnist Cindy Adams, the mayor said, “The public quickly forgets. Half don’t even remember Monica Lewinsky. In São Paolo recently, they’d forgotten Goldman Sachs’ chairman Lloyd Blankfein, who contributed to our financial crisis.”
“I think some of these people do things like that just because they’re bored,” Bloomberg was quoted as saying.
Many, though, doubt Weiner has much left to hang onto, after the release of so many damaging pictures made him a national punchline.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic consultant, echoed the David Broder sentiment that “the worst thing that can happen in politics is if they laugh at you.” “There is a very high quotient of him looking ridiculous,” Shrum said. The congressman “lost his capacity to be a credible, persuasive public spokesman.”
And that, ultimately, may be the longest lasting scar from Weiner’s implosion.