No matter how Freddy Ferrer does in November, matched as he is against a wealthy and popular incumbent, the city’s Democrats scored a win last week, one that has eluded them for more than a decade. Ever since Rudy Giuliani captured City Hall in 1993 by picking off a crucial slice of disaffected white Democratic voters, the Party of the People has been looking for an answer to its ills. It floundered in 1997 when many leaders bolted from nominee Ruth Messinger. It self-destructed in 2001 when a tough runoff campaign collapsed into hostile ethnic warfare. It meandered through the post–9-11 years, feckless and unable to capitalize on a Republican mayor who called for lavish stadiums at the expense of mass transit, who held political fundraisers at his East Side townhouse for allies of George W. Bush.
And then, seemingly on the edge of another precipice, the party found its voice in the person of a scrappy, rail-thin congressman from Brooklyn. Anthony Weiner’s idea of a good time is playing goalie in ice hockey, where his job is to fend off high, hard slaps of the puck. This was one fight, however, he wisely decided to duck. His announcement not to contest the razor-close primary denied Michael Bloomberg a free 10-day pass while an agonizing recount captured the media’s focus, and while the mayor tsk-tsked the fractious Dems. Weiner’s decision sucked so much air out of Bloomberg’s re-election playbook that the hiss could be heard above the Rockaway breakers in Weiner’s home district.
Righteous rage quickly poured forth from on high. How dare these men not duel to the death, brayed the mayor’s friends in the tabloids. How dare they cheat us out of a racial brawl, one we paid to see with millions from the Campaign Finance Board.
His knickers in a knot, Bloomberg’s chief spokesman, Stuart Loeser, issued a screeching denunciation that same afternoon: “It’s pathetic that after presenting himself as such a reformer, Weiner took a backroom dive for the party bosses,” he seethed. “To add insult to injury, the taxpayers are picking up the tab.” (Never mind that Loeser himself served as a campaign operative for Democrat Mark Green in 2001; Bloomberg pays much, much better.)
Weiner owed the voters a runoff? This lecture comes from Mike Bloomberg, who abandoned his own party affiliation precisely to avoid a troublesome Democratic primary in 2001. It comes from a man who wouldn’t even tolerate a primary election this year in his adopted party. When former city councilman Tom Ognibene, a Giuliani loyalist with rock-rib Republican chops, threatened to challenge the mayor’s GOP credentials in a primary, Bloomberg’s troops first tried to buy him off with a lucrative job offer. When that didn’t work, they flattened his nominating petitions. The result? No risky primary.
Weiner’s decision made possible something else the mayor’s people had hoped to avoid, at least for another two weeks, and possibly—if enough blood flowed in an ethnic tribal clash—for the campaign’s duration. That was Thursday’s rousing, photo-op rally where all three of Ferrer’s opponents—two white men and an African American woman—locked hands together less than 48 hours after the polls closed. Two hundred people, black, brown and white, crowded the City Hall steps, and another 100 filled the plaza.
“They hoped we would destroy each other,” Virginia Fields, the ever genial third-place finisher in the race, told the rally, that the Democratic contenders would fight so brutally “that we couldn’t look each other in the face.”
Gee, what ever gave her that idea?
It couldn’t have been the New York Post—Michael Bloomberg’s biggest booster. For the paper’s primary-day edition, the Post editors decided—oh, just for the fun of it—to publish a new, even more grotesque version of their infamous 2001 cartoon of Ferrer kissing Al Sharpton’s butt, the one that inspired a handful of cynical Green supporters to pass it out in white neighborhoods in South Brooklyn and Staten Island.
“Maybe we can get them to do it again?” some corner office card at the tabloid must have cackled.
Later in the week, the Post found straw men to decry Weiner’s withdrawal: a bartender in Rego Park who said she wanted Weiner in the race so she could “smoke and have a drink at the same time”; a plumber, who never mentioned having voted but who used the magic words the paper sought: Wimp. Weenie.
There are many with a legitimate right to be angry at Weiner’s decision. One is Bronx congressman Eliot Engel, who backed Weiner right from the starting gate. At a primary-eve rally in Brooklyn, Weiner called Engel “one of my mentors.” As much as he liked Weiner, Engel certainly wasn’t about to back Ferrer, at least in the primary. In an infamous political trade-off, Ferrer went along with a deal brokered by then Bronx Democratic leader Roberto Ramirez in 2000 to back a black challenger against Engel, then a six-term incumbent. The trade-off was Al Sharpton’s support for Ferrer in the 2001 mayoral race. Engel won, but the damage was done. “It’s no secret that I have not always gotten along with them,” he said last week of Ferrer’s crowd.
But he is comfortable with Weiner’s decision. “It is a very personal call, and Anthony made it. He had to reach into his heart and soul to decide what was best for him and his party.” Were supporters shortchanged? “Yes, that’s an argument,” said Engel. “I could’ve written you the Post‘s headline (“Kick in the Ballots”). It was discussed that night. But Anthony felt that 39.945 [percent] was so close. Had it been 38 it might’ve been a different decision. That heavily influenced him. He believed he could win, as do I. But even if he won, the party could be so badly divided that it could be a Pyrrhic victory.”
Like Engel, state assemblyman Jeff Dinowitz from Riverdale also backed Weiner from the start. “Sure, I wished he’d stayed in. I thought he had a reasonable chance to win,” said Dinowitz. “But I didn’t argue with him. His decision was his decision. He felt a runoff could be divisive. I don’t feel disenfranchised.” There was also an issue of practicality. With Ferrer just 250 votes away from the required 40 percent, the likelihood was that most of the affidavit ballots would be filed in areas where Ferrer is strongest, thus making the entire debate moot. “I assume Ferrer will be reaching out to us,” said the assemblyman. “No one wants to see a Republican elected for the fourth time in a row.”
Scott Klein, a former president of the gay Democratic club Lambda, in Brooklyn, is another Weiner supporter with reason to gripe. Klein went to hear the mayoral candidates at an NYU forum last March. Weiner was late, running behind as usual from Washington. Klein was about to leave but decided to wait to hear the little-known congressman. “I thought he was amazing,” Klein recalled last week. “I called his staff—it was just bare bones then—and said I wanted to help.”
Klein stayed through the campaign. Just standing on a street corner Weiner “created a certain excitement. He engaged people,” said Klein. “Was I happy he dropped out? No, I was very disappointed. But it’s not like Ferrer got 38 percent. He got 39.95. He basically got 40 percent. [Weiner] could have put in a lot of effort and then there would be no runoff. What would the point be? It would’ve been divisive. Now the focus is on one candidate. What Anthony says about Bloomberg having unlimited resources, that’s true. The runoff could’ve been good for the party, or it could’ve been very bad.” Last week, Klein wrote a letter to the Post, complaining about its coverage. “It was ridiculous. They have their own agenda.”