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One of the harder ways to launch a campaign for mayor is to say something that, right off the bat, lands a picket line and a giant inflatable rat outside your office.
That was one result last spring when Congressman Anthony Weiner opened his Democratic mayoral bid by releasing a study condemning the Bloomberg administration's plan to build a stadium for the New York Jets on Manhattan's West Side. Weiner said the plan was too expensive for taxpayers and aimed at the wrong site. Better to build it in Queens, he said, in Willets Point near Shea Stadium, where the transportation infrastructure already exists and the public costs are far cheaper.
For his trouble, Weiner found himself denounced by the Jets, City Hall, and construction union leaders. The unions sent members to razz Weiner at his press conferences, drowning him out when he tried to talk above the buzz on the City Hall steps. They also picketed his office, bringing along their trademark 10-foot-tall rat, originally adopted as a symbol of rage at exploitative non-union employers.
Weiner, who has a 100 percent rating from the AFL-CIO for his congressional votes on labor legislation, said the unions were confused, and that his Queens stadium would produce just as many jobs as the one in Manhattan. Meanwhile, he kept refining his analysis of the stadium and, to the chagrin of the Bloomberg administration and the building trades organizations, critiquing other projects that he felt shortchanged small businesses and taxpayers.
At the time, Weiner's aggressive posture stood out. Fernando Ferrer, the former Bronx borough president and nomination front-runner, had declared the Jets scheme "nuts," but hadn't offered an alternative. Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields had questioned the project's financing, but not the stadium itself. And Weiner's most direct competitor for the Democratic nomination, City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, was stuck in neutral, refusing to take a clear position, even telling a business gathering that he was "not reflexively opposed to a stadium for that site."
A year later, all four Democrats seeking the mayoral nomination are outright opponents of the plan. But they do so from a far more comfortable posture than the one held by Weiner when the skinny congressman from Brooklyn was being taunted by husky men in nylon union jackets.
Weiner, 40, a former councilmember and four-term congressman representing sections of south Brooklyn and western Queens, entered the race as the darkest of dark horses. He was widely perceived as a (literally) lightweight, Mini-Me version of his mentor and former boss, Senator Chuck Schumer. But a year after his lonely confrontation with that rubber rat, as the four candidates speak at forums and political clubs, it is Weiner who is attracting attention. While most stories have focused on his relentless bent for nifty economic development ideas and comedy-club shtick, his candidacy has sounded the toughest notes on the Bloomberg administration's shortcomings, while laying out his own ideas for reforms.
George Arzt, the crusty ex-Koch aide and political consultant who once represented Fields, said that he viewed Weiner as the clear winner of last week's important Crain's breakfast forum.
"He wowed them," said Arzt. "A lot of insiders think he is the real up-and-coming guy. He has the facility. Numbers roll off his tongue. He knows the issues. He is more articulate and unambiguous than his rivals."
Hank Sheinkopf, a former campaign adviser to Ferrer and 2001 Democratic candidate Mark Green, agreed. "He is the one creating the excitement right now," said Sheinkopf. "He has energy and is willing to take on the mayor and his opponents, and that makes him newsworthy. He is getting more mileage than anyone else in what has been a very dull venture."
Even Bill Lynch, an architect of David Dinkins's 1989 mayoral victory and a key member of Ferrer's brain trust, acknowledged that the debates have revealed Weiner to be a comer. "He has all those Schumer tendencies going," said Lynch. "He keeps coming at you. You can tell he is a 24-7 kind of guy. I think he is the one Freddy has to watch in this whole thing."
Not that those plaudits are reflected in the polls as yet. Weiner and Miller are running neck and neck, barely breaking double digits; Ferrer, despite the fallout from his Amadou Diallo missteps, has remained at the top of the pack, the only Democratic candidate who can beat Bloomberg, polls show. Fields's numbers have inched up, largely by default as a result of Ferrer's miscues.
But if voters get a look at the kind of moxie Weiner has shown at the early forums and debates, it could make him a formidable contender, say some observers.
"He has that New York spunk," said Gerson Borrero, the El Diario columnist and Latino activist. "He comes off like a pissed-off citizenpeople like that. If the guy ever gets the money to be seen by New Yorkers on TV, he becomes a big problem for Freddy."
There are also downsides. "He is a little bit of an I-doctor'I did this,' 'I did that,' " added Arzt. "If he can curb that and propel his message out to the voters, he will be tough in the primary. If he gets into the runoff, he would give Bloomberg a run for his money."
That Weiner was the one catching notice last week was even more significant in light of Ferrer's almost desperate effort to break out of his post-Diallo funk. The former Bronx leader launched the week with a carefully orchestrated speech at Pace University calling for a new stock-transfer tax before an audience that included teachers' union president Randi Weingarten, whose crucial endorsement is still in play. At the Crain's forum, Weiner jumped on Ferrer's proposal, calling it a "mind-bogglingly bad idea," saying the tax could push the exchange to relocate jobs elsewhere.
The stock-tax notion isn't new, and was frequently urged by liberal politicians in the 1980s as one way to add revenue without hurting average New Yorkers. But a lot has changed since then. "The technology has caught up with the times, and it is not a viable option anymore," said Harvey Robins, a former adviser to mayors Koch and Dinkins. "Ferrer could rightly be faulted for not doing his homework."
"We've lost jobs in the securities industry while the rest of the nation has gained them," said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. "The industry really is decentralizing and doesn't have to be here anymore."
Weiner's own proposal to cure city budget ills is a tax hike on millionaires, a notion that has so far generated little criticism. "It seems like that is a progressive tax that would hurt taxpayers the least," said Bowles.
Thursday night at a Democratic mayoral candidates' forum at Hunter College, sponsored by radio station WWRL, the Urban League, and Brooklyn Young Democrats, the crowd appeared to be clearly pro-Ferrer, judging by the hoots and applause as he was introduced. Later, however, Weiner got the biggest hands, mixed with laughter at his own expense. The crowd laughed good-naturedly at his steady self-promotion as he repeatedly urged them to consult his anthonyweiner.com website for his "50 ideas for the city." And they laughed again, this time with cheers, when he talked about how he would substitute "a little vinegar" for the "sugar" approach he said Michael Bloomberg had used to win increased aid from Republican leaders in Albany and Washington. "I might not look like much," said Weiner, "but I can handle myself. And I relish a fight."