Nice Guys Finish Third


Anthony Weiner was born at the stroke of midnight, and that posed a problem in his mother’s hospital room. If the staff put 12:00 on the birth certificate it wouldn’t be absolutely clear which day he was born on. It would depend on how you looked at it.

Forty-one years later, it still depends. The congressman appears to be locked in a wrestling match with Gifford Miller for second place in a Democratic primary that’s headed toward a runoff. Weiner’s fighting with the council Speaker for the white voters that Fernando Ferrer and Virginia Fields won’t get. That’s why the two men clashed in a recent Channel 2 debate, and that’s why Miller has slammed Weiner’s vote in Congress for the Iraq war and support for weakening rent control when he was on the City Council.

But is midnight tonight or tomorrow? There is an alternative view of the last week of the mayoral primary race: that Weiner is competing not with his fellow Caucasian candidate for white votes, but against the instinct of potential supporters to stay home. In the latest Quinnipiac poll, 61 percent of Weiner voters say they’ll vote for Michael Bloomberg in November if Weiner isn’t the nominee. No other Democrat’s backers are nearly as keen on the mayor as Weiner’s. The logical conclusion is that Weiner is appealing to Bloomberg Democrats, and so his fate hinges on whether those types cast a ballot on September 13 or sit this one out.

Hence his campaign stop at the Riverdale Senior Center last Thursday, where a chicken lunch drew a healthy crowd to ask Weiner, among other things, why he’s running for mayor. Weiner gives his usual answer: New York needs a mayor who cares about the middle class. “People like us,” he says to the room of white, mostly Jewish old folks, “need a voice in government.”

Later in the day Weiner will issue the second volume of his “Real Solutions for Real People” policy platform. This one has 44 policies to complement the 39 in volume one, including help for minority hospitals, cleaning up Newtown Creek, e-mail traffic alerts from the Department of Transportation, and sex-offender-free zones around schools. As he ticks them off, Weiner will declare victory “in the ideas primary.”

But at the senior center, as he moves from the TV area to the card tables to the rumba dance session, Weiner isn’t talking detailed policy. Instead he calls the ladies “sweetheart,” cracks jokes (“This is why I’m in this line of work—I have no marketable skills,” he admits to the watercolor class), and speaks in broad themes. “I don’t come from a political family,” he tells the dining room. “I don’t come from a wealthy family.”

Of course, Miller does. But some of the senior center clientele are confused between the two. “Miller?!” one old lady scolds her stooped friend who misidentified the luncheon speaker. “No, this one’s Weiner!”

On the opposite side of the Bronx on Thursday, Miller was also shaking elderly hands. His schedule had him hitting five senior centers in 75 minutes. Both Miller’s and Weiner’s stops fall in districts where there are hot City Council races, which could boost local turnout in a mayoral race that isn’t supposed to attract long lines of voters elsewhere in the city.

You can’t really blame the old lady who confused them. The similarities between Weiner and Miller are easy to list. They’re both young (Weiner 41 , Miller 35) and bright, and both got their start in politics as congressional aides before making it to the City Council. Weiner is rail thin and says he loses weight if he doesn’t exercise; Miller says he never needs to work out because a ferocious metabolism keeps him trim. Neither man conceals irritation well: Weiner’s jaw muscles visibly tighten when something pisses him off; Miller gets snippy, as he did at the first primary debate after he felt ambushed by a yes-no question about his kids. Both are genuinely funny—a surprisingly rare trait among politicians. Weiner’s obscure reference in that first debate to the “Freddy Ferrer Ouija board” was a gem. And there was Miller last week at the Queens Jewish Community Council in Jamaica Estates, trading humorous asides from the podium with the councilmembers seated at the dais.

It’s easy to say that these personality traits are irrelevant in a campaign about important policy issues, but being mayor involves style as well as substance (e.g., Dinkins versus Giuliani). That’s why Weiner has been given friendly advice to limit his wisecracks lest he appear too flip, and why Miller mentioned his youthful appearance—before listing all his accomplishments—in his first TV ad.

The Speaker hasn’t promoted as broad an array of policy proposals as Weiner, but he spoke “wonk” with ease during his evening in Jamaica Estates. Hire more Department of Buildings inspectors; with the fines they generate, “they would pay for themselves.” Hiring more cops would save money by reducing overtime (something Commissioner Ray Kelly disputes). Preserving affordable housing should be the priority because that’s far cheaper than building new units. No private-school vouchers, but support for yeshivas like grants of computers. And of course, there’s Miller’s proposal to cap public school class sizes at 17 students.

Miller has built his stretch-run campaign around that proposal, devoting his second TV commercial to it. But while the well-funded Miller (he’s raised a lot more than his rival Democrats, boosted to a small extent by at least $150,000 gathered by lobbyists who’ve had business before the council) can afford to go on the air, he will also rely on a ground game staffed by political clubs and unions that have backed him along with the Brooklyn and Queens county organizations. Without a natural ethnic base of support, and with Fields competing for his home borough’s votes, Miller needs the troops.

Weiner won’t have that kind of citywide operation. Instead, his voters will have to decide to get out and pull the lever based on what they see of him in the media, and on his showing in a crucial September 7 televised debate.

There’s a whole menu of possible primary outcomes, because all recent polls have Fields, Miller, and Weiner essentially tied and show the share of undecided voters large and growing. It’s conventional wisdom that if Ferrer doesn’t win outright, he certainly makes the runoff. But this being Ferrer’s third run for mayor, one has to wonder if undecided voters are really waiting to learn more about Ferrer, or to break to someone else. That question extends beyond the primary: If Ferrer leads the way into a runoff, will supporters of the defeated candidates be up for grabs, or do they represent an “anybody but Freddy” bloc?

Leaving the Riverdale Senior Center, Weiner—who has little patience for questions about punditry and process—asserts that he may well top 40 percent on the 13th. No poll gives any justification for that claim. But back to that hospital room: In the end, a coin flip solved the problem, and Weiner’s time of birth was nudged to 12:01 a.m. The date ended up also being Mike Piazza’s birthday, which is a nifty plus for a Brooklyn-Queens pol. A lucky break.

Forty percent? Does he mean that candidly? “Well,” he says, “not candid—confident.”