Anthony Weiner is probably the farthest thing from people’s minds on the Friday before Labor Day at New York’s Pier 11. Yet if a small group of campaign volunteers milling around with signs are any indication, he’ll be here momentarily. With the ferry terminal still under construction after Hurricane Sandy damage, passengers buy their tickets at a portable trailer and await boarding announcements from a man with a megaphone. As proven by the storm’s effects on its already struggling infrastructure, New York is more vulnerable than anyone would care to admit. In addition to storm preparedness, the issues facing our city’s next mayor are vast — police tactics, education reform, income inequality, housing chaos, union contracts and much, much more. These things may be too big for one person to take on, but if New York has any hope of remaining one of the world’s greatest cities, someone has to try.
As a Brooklyn native, the youngest City Council member ever elected, former U.S. congressman and past mayoral candidate, Anthony Weiner believes he’s uniquely qualified for the job. This summer he’s released a total of 125 ideas in two volumes entitled “Keys to the City” and, unlike the standard vague campaign promises, many of them are simple, specific solutions that could actually be accomplished. Though with only 11 days left until the primaries, he’s stuck in fourth and barely draws enough reporters to merit press conferences anymore. Tonight, he’s scheduled to take the 6:50 Rockaway Ferry out to Queens for a meet-and-greet at a Despicable Me showing on the beach. At 6:45, the candidate is nowhere in sight and it would appear that I’m the only person here to cover it
Just as the ferry docks at the end of the pier, already full with passengers from uptown, Weiner arrives. Wearing a white dress shirt — sleeves rolled up as always — a light purple tie, jeans and dark loafers he begins running down the pier with aides, volunteers and ever-present Made filmmaker Josh Kriegman in tow. Weiner’s surprisingly tan face looks older than I expected. These last two years of infamy have taken their toll.
Sprinting ahead, I pay my $2 for the trip and step aside.
“What’s cookin’?” Weiner asks the ticket guy as he saunters onto the boat.
Spotting my notepad, Weiner offers a terse greeting on his way past. The team descends into the cabin where they stake out a table in the middle. Weiner tells an aide to buy the volunteers drinks on him and then heads to the top deck.
Up above, his presence is undeniable. Seated near the back, he draws a bevy of mystified stares. The infamous Anthony Weiner is suddenly feet away — the Statue of Liberty off in the distance against a warm orange sky — with a large camera filming his every move. He says hello to anyone who glances in his direction, but otherwise stares ahead into the fierce wind looking strangely content. Some people begin taking pictures with their phones. They may or may not know what he plans to do as mayor, but they’ve almost certainly seen his embarrassing photos and private messages. Especially after his second wave of scandal this summer, the media has made especially sure to drive that point home.
Eventually, one woman comes over to have her picture taken with him. Two young boys seated behind follow suit. A young aide in a gray suit with official-looking cuff links records Weiner saying something into an iPad. It turns out to be a short video about his plan to establish ferry service to all five boroughs and make this boat a permanent fixture. After being blocked by Kriegman and his camera for too long — though no one will talk about it, the general assumption is that some kind of documentary film or show is in the works — I finally get my chance as we approach the ferry’s first stop at Brooklyn Army Terminal.
I introduce myself to Weiner and slip past him to sit in the same row. As expected, Realcity’s name and mission evoke critical skepticism. This is a common occurrence for most journalists he meets from unknown outlets. He asks where I’m from, and then replies, “As they say in Wizard of Oz, you ain’t in Maine anymore, brother.” Temporarily thrown, I don’t bother clarifying that I didn’t exactly just step off the lobster boat yesterday and move on.
We begin by talking about the importance of the ferry service, which Bloomberg and co. have “grudgingly” kept extending since Sandy but made no promises about establishing permanently. It’s cheaper than the train — which was rendered inoperable for months after the storm — and much more picturesque. I’m beginning to see the appeal. Weiner admits that this is his first time riding the Rockaway Ferry but seems to be enjoying it.
The two young boys get off once we dock at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, smiling as they go.
“Don’t forget to vote!” Weiner calls after them jokingly.
A grizzled older man in a suit pauses on his way down just long enough to snarl, “I hope you don’t get a single vote.”
“Thanks, that’s nice of you to say,” replies Weiner.
The exchange continues briefly, but the man soon gives up.
“That takes a lot of courage saying it on your way out,” Weiner calls after him.
While a number of these instances have been documented on the campaign trail over the summer — each time prompting similar responses from Weiner down to the word — he claims that they’re pretty rare. Afterwards, he says that maybe the guy was just mad about his vote on Obamacare. While it’s true that Weiner was known for fiery rhetoric during his time in Congress, I have a feeling that’s not what this is about. By making his past the story of his campaign this summer, rather than the campaign itself, the media has done a very effective job of telling voters what to think.
While he’s been back on the scene for months now, the question of whether he should be at all is still one of intense debate, even though he’s been planning this run for years. After narrowly losing the nomination in 2005, and sitting out 2009 in the face of Bloomberg’s bottomless war chest, he was the early favorite for 2013 before everything went to hell.
Weiner says the 2005 campaign took him through even more communities than he’d seen as a congressman and gave him a different perspective on the city. “Neighborhoods change, but there’s an ethos, a commonality.” Though he says it’s also been alarming to see how little has changed since then as he traveled around the city this summer. Older issues such as the proposed West Side Stadium and hosting the Olympics are now moot, but longstanding problems like housing and development have still not been addressed. Though he won’t state it directly, it would seem that Weiner feels Bloomberg is to blame, saying, “The mayor is who the mayor is,” and calling the recent New York Times special edition on his tenure “a valentine to market rate housing.”
The question of Bloomberg’s legacy and what to do next has of course been quite heated this summer, though on one issue everyone but Weiner has been surprisingly quiet: healthcare. Carrying on his unsuccessful fight from Congress, he’s once again championing a single player healthcare system that would cover all citizens and help keep hospitals open. When I say he seems to be the only one who will talk about the issue at debates, Weiner replies, “They don’t talk about issues in general.” He quickly clarifies that others have talked about healthcare before and that to be fair, it’s a hard subject. Weiner goes on to explain that people have been trying to figure out healthcare since Truman, yet it’s only gotten more complicated with the rise of insurance companies and the expectations of employer-provided benefits. “When you have those types of assumptions baked into the pie, it makes it difficult,” he says.
As we pass under the Verrazzano Bridge, a magnificent site to behold, both of us look up and I realize how strange my evening has become. It seems like the right moment to ask Weiner if his life still feels like a David Lynch movie — a quote from New York’s July cover story. Little context was given outside of that, but it can be assumed that he was referring to how surreal these past couple years have been. He laughs in surprise and says he doesn’t remember saying that, but will stick to it.
Even before his resignation, Weiner’s life had begun to change drastically. After years of living the bachelor life in his boyhood borough of Brooklyn, and then Queens when his congressional district was redrawn, Weiner recently moved to Manhattan with his wife. Aside from a brief time after college when he lived there with a former girlfriend and old friend Jon Stewart, it’s his first real stint downtown. “No denying, it’s nice to be in the middle of the action,” he says. While he’s developed an affinity for the domestic life, often taking care of his young son, it’s clear that Weiner is anxious to get back into the mix.
In this final stretch leading up to the primary, it’s going to take everything he’s got to have a shot at making it into the run-off election. Winning the nomination outright stopped being possible weeks ago as frontrunner Bill de Blasio began to widen his lead. All Weiner can do now is keep putting himself out there.
“Anywhere they have three and need a fourth for bridge, we’ll be there,” he says with a smile.
Out of pressing questions and not wanting to try his legendarily thin patience any longer, I thank Weiner for his time and stand up. On the way out, I tell him that he has my vote.
“Thank you, that’s nice of you to say,” he says as we shake hands.
“Are we all gonna squeeze into the Weinermobile?” the candidate asks as he stands on Beach 108 St. in Queens, part of his former congressional district.
We’ve all disembarked into the dark, mild Rockaway night and are waiting for the next step. Weiner has signed a poster that says “Mayoral Pledge: Ferry Service Will be Permanent in Rockaway” on the chain link fence and taken a couple pictures. The barbed wire and concrete terminal may need an upgrade if the service is to become official. I receive a chilly reception from the Weiner aides who whisk everyone into vehicles and head down Beach Channel Drive. The screening is at the end of Beach 129 St. and will likely be starting soon. It seems that running is my only option.
Loping into the night, I get a glimpse of how the area has been rebounding from the storm that nearly destroyed it. While many houses are still boarded up, if not abandoned, others look like nothing ever happened. Down at the beach, tall concrete seawalls have been built along the entire perimeter with sand bags on top, which children climb over gleefully. Like the rest of the city, even the residents of Rockaway have done their best to move past Sandy but they also know it could easily happen again. Whoever wants the area’s support will have to instill confidence that they could lead us through more of those dark times.
A large projector screen has been set up in front of the ocean and a crowd has begun to form with lawn chairs and blankets. Weiner and his team— having taken off their shoes and rolled up their pant legs — are mingling with potential voters.
I ask some of the volunteers why they’re supporting him, but all I get from one is, “He was our congressman” before an aide shuts down the conversation.
At one point, a large black woman mistakes me for the candidate himself.
“I thought you was Mr. Weiner running for mayor,” she says, pronouncing it “whiner.”
We do have similar builds and noses, but it’s still a stretch.
When I ask how she feels about him being there, she pauses and says, “I have no comment,” before walking away.
Standing behind the sea wall with his wife, wearing a sweatshirt and wide-brimmed panama hat, Scott is more willing to talk.
“I think he’s got cojones the size of coconuts,” he says.
Scott met Weiner years ago and thought he was just “some scrawny guy” who chose running for office over getting a real job. A local resident, Scott works in building supplies and is generally unimpressed with the state of modern politics, though he recognizes that it’s “hard to bring everyone together.” He says Obama is a “failed experiment,” the banks are crooked, the police are overzealous, the schools are underfunded and the local government is ineffective. It’s hard not to blame him for feeling left out. Even before the storm, this end of the Rockaways got far less attention than its trendier counterpart down the beach. Scott sees it as a missed opportunity. “Potentially, this is the Hamptons of the west.”
Once equipment is tinkered with and a table is moved, the event begins. A local man thanks Weiner and his team for helping fix the projector before introducing the candidate.
“Thank you to the American Legion for putting this together…” Weiner begins, launching into a few boilerplate lines and wrapping up quickly.
As an announcement is made about free trees being given away that weekend, Weiner and his team trudge through the sand back out to the street. Scott comes up and says I’m missing my chance, but the decision to hang back is a conscious one. My mission tonight was to get a sense of the Weiner experience and I did. He’s exactly the charismatic dick that I’d expected and completely qualified to run this crazy city.
Scott says that Weiner looked sad, but I think it’s more complicated than that. This campaign has clearly been a humbling experience. In a matter of months, he went from the imperfect new hope to a barely noted punch line. The job he seems to want more than any other is slipping out of reach with no one to blame but himself.
I try to catch Weiner one more time during the next week, but between my work schedule and his multi-borough dash, our paths don’t cross. I sign up for his “tele-town halls” but never receive a call for any of them. Instead, I watch from the sidelines and still get quite the show.
The ferry trip got no attention, but Anthony Weiner certainly made the most of his final week before the primaries. He rode a float through the West Indian Day Parade, did the weather on Good Day, New York and delivered his best debate performance yet — acting above the fray as he simultaneously defended other candidates and explained why they were all part of the “primordial ooze” of municipal government. On his 49th birthday, while buying traditional Rosh Hashanah sweets at a bakery, he even got into a heated argument with a Jewish man who insulted him for being “married to an Arab.”
“You don’t get to judge me because you have shown no sign you are superior to me and you are not my god,” Weiner says defiantly in the video, finger stabbing into the air as he chews on a baked good.
While no one said he was wrong for defending his wife, the media’s general consensus was that he’d gone off the rails. Perhaps they didn’t like the idea of Weiner challenging anyone’s authority to judgment since that’s been their de facto role for years now.
Just in time for the primary, everyone took their parting shots. Many asked why he was even still in the race, as if he was going to drop out now of all times. Jon Stewart declared with typical finality, “He’s just a guy with self-control issues who never should’ve run for mayor.” Today’s Savannah Guthrie repeatedly pushed him on his personal life, particularly his marriage, to the point that he looked ready to get up and walk out. In the most absurd interview of them all, conducted mere hours before the polls opened, Lawrence O’Donnell began by asking, “What’s wrong with you?” and essentially ranted without letting Weiner get a word in for the better part of 15 minutes. Though Weiner came out of the last one victorious, he still looked worn down — the color now gone from his face. A man who once relished any opportunity to spar with the press now appeared fed up with the entire system.
While he refuses to talk about what will happen if he loses, and continues to insist that he’ll win, it’s unlikely that Weiner will make it past today’s election. Though not surprised, I am disheartened. After following this election very closely for months and struggling to choose a candidate, I finally have one. It just took time to see past the commonly held belief that his past should be an instant disqualifier. I truly don’t care about Weiner’s “sexting” habits, however foolish they may be. That’s between him and his wife. I’m not looking for a husband, I’m looking for a mayor. As Weiner himself says, he’s an “imperfect messenger” with the best ideas around. His plans are creative yet practical, his tenacity is perfect for the job and he’s the only one willing to speak frankly about the issues.
One of his final ads, called “Everyone,” even feels like something straight out of a Realcity piece: “We all come together at the end because we have one common aspiration. And that is we want to leave a city, a family, a country a little bit better than the one they found. Everyone’s committed to that.”
Maybe someday our media and general voting population will be able look past their sexual fascinations toward a better future. Hopefully it doesn’t take another terrible hurricane or a downswing in the quality of life to make that happen. Perhaps a few more years away from the scandal will help the people of New York remember the version of Anthony Weiner that’s been there all along. Because despite how much he’s been beaten down, I know he’s still in there and that’s the mayor we need.