If Congressman Anthony Weiner’s day job in Washington has put him at a disadvantage at the start of the mayoral campaign, he is certainly making up for lost time now that the House is in recess.
The only Queens resident in the Democratic mayoral primary has hit the ground running since a long distance no longer separates him from campaigning.
During the past several months, the Forest Hills resident has earned a reputation as a policy wonk, who has thought out ideas on topics ranging from “boot camp” charter schools to increased ferry service in the city. Even the New York Post, whose editorial writers tend to be on the opposite side of the political aisle, ran an article with the headline “The Indelible Wonkness of Weiner.”
When the congressman arrived early at the Queens Chronicle’s office last Thursday to discuss his ideas for the city, he didn’t waste the extra minutes collecting himself. Instead, he went to a nearby subway station to shake hands in the sweltering heat until it was time for the interview.
Yet, despite the aggressive push to get ahead of former Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields and City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, only 13 percent of city Democrats favor Weiner for the party’s nomination in September, according to an August 9th Marist College public opinion poll.
But Weiner, 40, who worked for Charles Schumer when he was congressman, showed political savvy by pointing out that the numbers don’t mean he is polling last. Rather, because of the 5 percent margin of error, he prefers to say he is statistically tied for second. Besides, there is another poll that shows most New Yorkers are not paying attention to the primary yet. When they do, he is certain his standings will shoot up.
“I know that ultimately, New Yorkers want to hear ideas. They want to hear what you’re going to do,” he said. “They want a sense of connection. They want a sense of someone who understands.”
The congressman has put out an entire booklet of solutions to middle-class problems, which is also available on his web site, devoted to making that connection with New Yorkers. He also likes to point out that he is not from a political or powerful family, rather, he grew up in Brooklyn attending public schools, and is the son of a neighborhood lawyer and a teacher.
“Do I have as much as the other guy? No. That’s an asset. That’s something I pride myself on, being a middle-class guy from Brooklyn and Queens,” he said. “That’s part of the reason I want to be mayor and part of the reason I will be a better mayor than Bloomberg.”
Weiner, who was a councilman for seven years and is serving his fourth term in Congress representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, has, in fact, gone after the mayor on a number of topics from the West Side stadium—the congressman said it should be built in Queens—to a lack of affordable housing.
When he opposes an idea, or criticizes a rival, it is likely that Weiner has a detailed alternative. As far as skyrocketing rents, he has suggested that any newly zoned residential development area should include a 15 percent requirement for low- and middle-income housing.
While the mayor is an expert on the financial workings of the private sector, Weiner said Bloomberg’s lack of experience in the public sector is hurting the city. “It’s hard to imagine a less effective advocate in Albany and Washington. These are things that frankly, I have a great deal of experience with.”
But while the congressman is certain that “ideas trump money,” he is paying attention to how much the mayor has and what he is spending on his campaign. The Anthony Weiner for Mayor web site tracks the amount—currently close to $31 million—underneath the slogan, “can’t buy my vote.”
While Weiner is generally considered socially liberal—he has earned perfect scores from the National Reproductive Rights Action League and some of the nation’s largest environmental groups, but an F from the National Rifle Association—he did vote in favor of authorizing military force in Iraq and says he is “not opposed” to searching subway commuters.
Yet despite his voting record in Congress, Weiner’s ideas for the city can sound fiscally conservative. He has proposed a 10 percent tax cut for New Yorkers who are making less than $150,000 a year, decreasing the fines small businesses face for quality of life summonses and slashing waste among government agencies.
“I’m going to ask all my commissioners to pursue governance the way that Jack Welsh asked GE to pursue governance,” he said.
One of the areas the congressman is looking to streamline is health care. Specifically, since New York is one of the few states that has not computerized applications for public health insurance, a tremendous amount of time and money is being wasted, he said. There are also hundreds of thousands of qualified, but uninsured city residents, which costs taxypayers and providers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.
Another issue he is adept at discussing is the Department of Education. Perhaps because his mother recently retired from the city’s school system after 33 years, Weiner is passionate about changes he would make, some more seemingly feasible than others.
To make schools safer, the congressman proposes giving principals the power to suspend students with less bureaucratic interference and expanding the school safety program beyond 17 “impact” schools. He has also suggested paying more to those willing to teach in the most hard-to-staff schools and aligning teachers’ salaries with suburban schools, something Mayor Bloomberg has not done.
“We need to acknowledge that we are losing a lot of our best teachers because teachers are moving to the suburbs, getting paid a lot better and being treated a lot better,” he said. “I’m going to be a tough negotiator, but I hope to have a contract within the first 100 days.”
One suggested improvement likely to raise eyebrows is the creation of “boot camp” charter schools for students who have been suspended a number of times for serious infractions. While Weiner says it is a way to “test” the charter schools, educators may not have the stomach for experiments at the expense of the most troubled students.
Another issue that has already drawn sharp criticism from some Queens civic leaders is Weiner’s support for the Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel, which would link New Jersey to Brooklyn by rail. Opponents say it would increase the number of truck trips near a Maspeth transfer facility by 730 to 1,800 trips a day.
On the other hand, supporters say it would allow a huge volume of goods into the region at a lower cost, resulting in less truck noise, road damage and air pollution, as well as generating over 23,000 new jobs. “I will do whatever it takes to remove truck traffic from the streets of Queens,” the congressman said. “That’s what I’m going to do, the Cross Harbor Tunnel does that.”
To reduce roadway traffic, Weiner has also obtained federal funds that would cover 80 percent of the cost of three high-speed ferries for commuters who live in the Rockaways and Southwest Brooklyn. It is now up to the city to provide the remaining funds for the project.
Still, no matter how many ideas the congressman has, surviving the primary and defeating the mayor is his only chance for putting them into practice; a chance the congressman is certain he will get.
“I have never in my life run a campaign against a guy who didn’t have more money than me, I have never in my life run a campaign against a guy who didn’t have more organizational support than me,” he said. “I have never lost a campaign in my life.”