Live from New York, It's Anthony Weiner
A Master Of Political Theater, Congressman Anthony Weiner Has Leveraged His Strong Liberal Opinions, New York Attitude And Willingness To Go Head-To-Head With Republicans On Cable TV To Fill A Void In The Democratic Party.
A few minutes into my conversation with Anthony Weiner, the Democratic congressman excuses himself to vote on the House floor. Ten minutes later, he is back in his spacious office in the Rayburn Building on Capitol Hill, not the least bit concerned that the health care bill he championed was just repealed by a vote of 249 to 189.
“It’s largely symbolic,” Weiner says calmly, shrugging as he once again makes himself comfortable beneath photos of himself posing alongside figures ranging from former President George W. Bush to the late Lubavitcher Rebbe. Leaning back in his leather armchair, feet on the coffee table, arms crossed against his chest, the tall, lanky 46-year-old exudes cockiness and poised confidence. Indeed, it’s that self-assuredness—coupled with an in-your-face brashness—that has made him into a national figure. He’s reluctant to pinpoint a single date or issue that thrust him into prominence. But he’s eager to make one thing clear: “I’m a big deal.”
On any given night, the Democrat from Queens, New York, can be seen sparring with Republicans on cable TV. Weiner can yell, interrupt and verbally joust with the best of them. On shows, he smiles directly into the camera and, even in a roundtable discussion, looks straight into the lens. He’s also funny and makes for great—if somewhat irreverent—television. In one widely reported appearance on Sean Hannity’s show on Fox News, he faced off with Tea Party darling Michelle Bachmann (R-MN) about raising the debt ceiling. “All the surplus in Social Security is a big vault stuffed with IOU notes,” she said. “There’s not one dime sitting in there.” He responded without missing a beat: “Are you surprised to learn, Congresswoman Bachmann,” that “we don’t have a room filled with dimes?”
Indeed, Weiner is filling what some onlookers say is a gaping hole in the Democratic Party. Republicans have their fair share of talking heads and headline-grabbing gurus, ranging from personalities such as Rush Limbaugh to Sarah Palin, but few Democrats today have the kind of pizzazz that holds audiences in rapt attention. “He’s very telegenic and he gives great sound bites,” says one ABC News producer. “Everyone wants him on their show.”
With a narrow face and a prominent nose, Weiner certainly isn’t telegenic in a traditional way. But he’s got that certain something that keeps viewers coming back for more. He’s also got a fair share of star power. There’s his long-time friendship with Comedy Central’s Daily Show host Jon Stewart—the two lived together in Manhattan and shared a beach house in the 1980s. Then last year, Weiner married Huma Abedin, a close aide to Hillary Clinton, who had been on Vogue’s Best Dressed list of 2007. Abedin’s connections and background—she is Muslim and was raised in Saudi Arabia—have made the Jewish congressman even more of a celebrity.
If you ask Weiner, snagging the spotlight is not difficult. “Being the most interesting guy on C-SPAN is kind of like being the tallest pygmy,” he’s quipped in the past. All he is doing, he says, is speaking out where others aren’t. “There’s a desire among many Americans, among Democrats, to become more committed to the fight for the values we believe in,” he says. “I think I am saying things that a lot of Democrats want to say.”
Weiner, whose ninth district includes parts of Queens and Brooklyn, represents what is arguably the most Jewish congressional district in the U.S. Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a middle-class Jewish family, he now lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and is—as he likes to remind people—a true New Yorker. His parents are divorced: His father, Morton, is a lawyer, and his mother, Frances, a retired public school teacher. He had two brothers, Jason and Seth (who was killed in a 2000 hit-and-run accident). Weiner and his mother are close, and she has accompanied him on campaigns—though he refused to have his mother answer questions directly. “She’s completely out of control,” he tells me. “You have no idea what she’s going to say.”
Weiner attended New York public schools, from Brooklyn Technical High School to SUNY Plattsburgh, where he graduated in 1985 with a degree in political science. He went to work for then-Congressman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and became something of a protégé; he reportedly said to his boss, “I’m going to take your job some day.” He learned quite a bit from his mentor—also Jewish, and now the senior senator from New York—and, most notably, has absorbed much of the media acumen for which Schumer is known. “As a staff member to Schumer, he learned how to take advantage of the electronic media and how to get on television,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Former Republican Senator Bob Dole once said the most dangerous place in Washington was the space between Schumer and a camera, and critics could say the same of Weiner.
In 1991, at the age of 27, Weiner became the youngest person elected to the New York City Council. He was considered an underdog, but he won—and once on the City Council, focused on issues ranging from graffiti and public housing to stairwell fires and increasing police presence. In one project he dubbed “Weiner’s Cleaners,” he put at-risk teens to work cleaning graffiti on New York City streets. Soon, he was hooked. “I had no great aspirations for a political career,” he says of his youth. “But I ran for City Council, and I haven’t looked back since.”
When Schumer decided to run against Republican Senator Al D’Amato in 1998, Weiner seized the opportunity to run for the open seat. With his former boss’s support and a dogged campaign that took him to doorsteps across the district, Weiner emerged victorious. He was appointed to the Judiciary Committee and was nominated “whip” of his freshman class. In the years since, he’s been re-elected easily in his heavily Democratic district, and following the September 11 attacks was appointed to the Homeland Security Task Force.
Currently, Weiner also serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with issues ranging from overseeing telecommunications and public health to air quality and interstate trade. Now in the minority, he doesn’t head any important committees—or any subcommittees, for that matter—and isn’t considered a heavyweight within his party.
“He’s gained a national profile that exceeds his power and seniority,” says Moss, the NYU professor. “He doesn’t have enormous power in the House, but he compensates for that by getting on cable news programs. His style is well-suited to cable television—he’s aggressive, sharp and thrives in hand-to-hand combat. That’s not how legislation is passed, but it’s how he’s able to get national exposure.”
Not surprisingly, Weiner is said to work his staff incredibly hard. A 2008 New York Times article found that he’s had more turnover than any other member of the New York House delegation. And former employees, lobbyists and congressional colleagues told the Times that he is particularly intense and demanding.
If you go on YouTube and type in “Anthony Weiner,” a list of videos appears with words such as “rant,” “catfight” and “shouting match” in the title. In one of the more popular videos, named “NY Rep Weiner’s Anti-GOP Rant,” the congressman yells vociferously on the House floor, the veins in his neck protruding, as he chastises Republicans for voting against a bill to provide health care to New York City’s Ground Zero first responders from September 11. “You vote yes if you believe yes,” he shouts. “You vote in favor of something if you believe it’s the right thing.” His “performance” has received considerable attention—much of it positive—with YouTube views in the hundreds of thousands. “I was certainly angry and I think I spoke for a lot of Americans,” he tells me. Ultimately, the bill was passed in both the House and the Senate, but not without a little help from his friend Jon Stewart, who interviewed first responders who became ill as a result of their rescue efforts. Stewart played the Weiner diatribe on his show, joking, “That’s exactly what it looked like when you used his peanut butter.”
For the most part, Weiner is a poster boy for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party. He’s been praised by groups that support women’s reproductive rights and has won accolades from environmental groups. Predictably, he received an “F” grade from the National Rifle Association, which called him the seventh-worst lawmaker because “he promotes New York City gun laws [among the most restrictive in the nation] as a model for the rest of the country.”
Weiner does not mince words when it comes to issues he considers of top national concern, especially in the health care arena. In the weeks and months leading up to the health care reform bill, he seemed to be everywhere—from criticizing President Obama’s tax bill to blasting Republicans with bombastic and somewhat outrageous claims. “You guys have chutzpah,” he said from the floor of the House, addressing GOP members in February of last year. “The Republican Party is a wholly owned subsidiary of the insurance industry.”
Weiner even manages to generate media attention for mundane legislative issues. Last year, he brought two goats to a bipartisan press conference on Capitol Hill to highlight the need to cut long-standing mohair wool subsidies. One of the goats attacked him, delighting the media, and all—except the goats—seemed pleased. “It was definitely more Anthony’s idea than it was mine,” laughs Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who participated in the stunt. “There are thousands of bills before Congress, and sometimes the ones that get passed are the ones that get attention.”
Chaffetz, who has worked with Weiner on other bipartisan issues, concedes that Weiner can be “over-the-top,” adding that “his style offends a lot of people and he sometimes makes issues a little too personal. He’s aggressive, which works for some people. When we’re on the same side, it can be helpful.”
Jousting with conservatives can sometimes come across as a sport for Weiner, although he insists otherwise. “It’s a necessary thing to do,” he says. “I have a choice: I can shout at my television or shout at the host directly. I’m not afraid of having a debate about these issues. And some of these programs are so deep in lies and demagoguery that someone needs to be there to correct the record.” Then, with a smile, he adds: “It allows me to burn off bile.”
One of his colleagues is Florida Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the new chair of the Democratic National Committee, who serves with him on the Judiciary Committee and is a personal friend. “Anthony is one of the most quick-witted legislators there is, and once he gets hold of an issue, there’s no letting go,” she says. “He’s very well-spoken and knows how to get a point across succinctly and effectively. He’s an excellent debater, and when a back and forth is necessary, he’s someone you can call on to be the standard-bearer.”
Still, his tactics have ruffled more than a few feathers. Congressman Peter King, a Republican from Long Island, co-sponsored the 9/11 health care bill but then got into several high-profile shouting matches with Weiner on cable news shows. King accused Democrats of irresponsibly using procedure and requiring a two-thirds majority vote that didn’t permit Republican amendments—rather than the usual simple majority. New York magazine covered the brawl with the headline: “Anthony Weiner and Peter King Do Their Best Kindergartner Impressions.”
Months later, the two lawmakers sat next to each other at the State of the Union address in January, in a break with tradition meant to project a spirit of bipartisan cooperation in Washington. “It was my wife’s idea for us to sit together,” King recalls. “She said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if the two biggest loudmouths in Congress who people think don’t like each other sat together for the night?’”
Adds King: “Anthony takes a point, pushes it as far as it can go and then pushes it even beyond that. People in other parts of the country find him loud and abrasive, but to me, he’s the kind of person you meet on the street corner of New York. He’s a character.”
Weiner has always been assertive about his Jewishness. In his own words, he’s spent “more time at melaveh malkahs [post-Shabbat gatherings], a lot more time at shul, at sisterhood breakfasts, and at bond breakfasts than probably just about anybody else.” He doesn’t belong to a synagogue or consider himself close to a single rabbi—except to say, consummate politician that he is, “all the shuls in my district are my home shuls.” Says Warren Hecht, president of the Queens Jewish Community Council: “He’s a Jewish official who hasn’t forgotten” his roots or his district.
Weiner, whose middle name is David, had his bar mitzvah at Union Temple in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As part of a promise to his Twitter followers, he recently released a photo of himself on his big day as an awkward-looking 13-year-old boy, complete with a self-described 1970s Jewfro. “We weren’t a very religious household, but we had a very strong sense of our Judaism,” Weiner says of his upbringing.
He came by his solid Zionist inclinations early on. “Support for Israel was always a very big focus in my household growing up,” says Weiner, who has been to the Jewish state more than a half-dozen times. He remembers wearing a homemade pin to Sunday school that read, “I am a Zionist.”
As a congressman, he has consistently pushed pro-Israel legislation, and Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), counts him among the “top 10 congressmen” in terms of Israel issues. In 2006, he supported legislation that would ban the Palestinian Authority delegation from the United Nations and urged its members to “start packing their little Palestinian terrorist bags.” Last year, he announced his opposition to the administration’s decision to sell a fleet of F-15s to Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia has not behaved like an ally of the United States,” Weiner wrote in a letter to President Obama, criticizing the move. “Saudi Arabia has a history of financing terrorism, is a nation that teaches hate of Christians and Jews to their school children, and offered no help to the U.S. as gas prices surged during the spike in oil prices. Furthermore, this deal would destabilize the region and undermine the security of Israel, our one true ally in the region.”
He has consistently criticized President Obama for going “too far” in opposing natural growth in the West Bank. In addition, he is actively working to secure the release of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, who he describes as “confined to a sentence that far exceeds the appropriate term for the crime he has committed.”
Recently, Weiner’s remarks on Israel raised eyebrows across the political spectrum. At a March 3 debate in New York about the Goldstone Report—prior to its author’s public mea culpa—featuring former Congressman Brian Baird from Washington state and New York Times columnist Roger Cohen, Weiner repeatedly reiterated that there is “no Israeli occupation in the West Bank.” He also said there was no Israel Defense Force presence in the West Bank and that Israel’s eastern border was the Jordan River. These statements were covered in the Jewish press, as well as in liberal blogs, and as Gal Beckerman wrote in The Forward, “Weiner undermined his credibility completely by making statements that showed that he was either a) on the most extreme right of Israel’s political spectrum, or b) ignorant of basic facts about the conflict. Whatever the explanation, his lack of information on crucial and basic points made for much intense heckling.”
From the outside, Weiner’s hawkish Israel views appear to have collided with his personal life. His wife, Huma Abedin, was born in Michigan to a Pakistani mother and an Indian father, and raised in Saudi Arabia. Her late father, an Islamic scholar, established an institute there that aimed to deepen religious tolerance, while her mother, who is a sociology professor in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, helped create one of the first women’s colleges in the country.
Abedin has worked for Hillary Clinton since 1996, first as an intern for the first lady, then as right-hand aide to the senator, presidential-hopeful and secretary of state. Her beauty and legendary fashion sense have attracted a fair amount of attention, and for Weiner, who was known for bachelor exploits with some of New York’s most eligible women, the connection is said to have been love at first sight. In his speech at the wedding, former President Bill Clinton, who performed the ceremony, hinted that the feeling wasn’t mutual, but that Weiner’s determination paid off. “I have one daughter,” Clinton has said in the past. “But if I had a second daughter, it would be Huma.”
The pair dated for two years before announcing their engagement, and Weiner was uncharacteristically tight-lipped about their courtship. In a meeting with the New York Daily News editorial board in 2008, Weiner dodged a number of personal questions but was adamant when asked if his relationship posed a potential risk to his political ambitions. “I’m certain that the relationship was not the product of a political calculation,” he said. Later, he also refused to answer what his Jewish mom thought of his girlfriend. “It’s not something I want to talk about.”
The July 2010 wedding was covered widely. The reports were gushing, accompanied by photos of the couple with the beautiful bride in a white Oscar de la Renta gown. Response in the Jewish community was tepid: “Christian President Marries Jewish Congressman to Moslem Political Aide on Shabbos,” read the headline on The Yeshiva World News after the Saturday nuptials.
The ZOA’s Klein is more direct: “People I’ve spoken to in his district said they wouldn’t support him because he intermarried.” In fact, before Weiner came to the ZOA dinner in December, Klein warned him that his marriage to a Muslim might elicit jeers from the crowd. Weiner told Klein that he could handle it, and in the end, the night went off without a hitch. Weiner says that “most people have congratulated me and chided me for how long it took me. I can’t say that never did anyone have something discordant to say, but it’s very rare. Her faith and my faith are things that are important to our identities and things that we talk about. Our faiths and our grounding in religious ideals have made us closer.”
As for what’s next, Weiner has long had his eye on New York City’s highest office. “It’s a job I’m interested in,” he says frankly. “It’s the only job in politics that’s better than the one I have.”
In 2005, he threw his hat in the ring to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg by running against Fernando Ferrer, former Bronx borough president, in the Democratic primary. He came in a close second, with a respectable showing. Four years later, he expressed interest in the post again, but opted out, hinting that he couldn’t possibly compete against Bloomberg’s billions. “As a native of Brooklyn, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t savor a good scrap,” he wrote in a May 2009 New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Why I’m Not Running for Mayor.” “But I’m disappointed because I’m increasingly convinced a substantive debate simply isn’t likely right now.” He was less gracious later with his friend Jon Stewart. “I would have beat Bloomberg like a rented mule,” he told Stewart in a 2010 Daily Show appearance, amid laughter and applause.
At this point, though, he’s coy about a run in 2013 and, when asked, gives an atypical, sheepish “perhaps” as an answer. But all indications point to another mayoral campaign. “Senator Schumer, Senator Gillibrand and before her, Senator Clinton—these are people who are not ready to retire,” says Ira Forman, a political consultant and former executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Cuomo was just elected governor [of New York] and I would assume he will run for re-election. These are all fellow Democrats, and Weiner wouldn’t run against them, and so that means that his pathway to these offices is blocked.” Also significant, analysts say, is the fact that running for mayor of New York allows him to hold on to his congressional seat in case of defeat, since mayoral elections occur in odd-numbered years, while elections for Congress take place in even years.
It’s unclear what Weiner’s chances may be. At the 2011 Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner, noting the absence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Weiner, one of the event’s headliners, said: “Who knew that what it takes to be mayor of a big city is to be a hot-tempered, arrogant, loud Jew with nine and a half fingers. Who knew? And in other news, I’ve taken a job as a meat cutter at Arby’s.”
But changing demographics, as well as a shifting political reality, may present something of a challenge to what until now has been a meteoric rise. Political strategist Hank Sheinkopf says, “New York is less white than ever and less Jewish than ever, and traditional social class lines don’t hold.” Weiner’s only chance, he says, “is to position himself as a non-billionaire from the outer boroughs. He can do it, but it will be difficult.”
Biding his time, Weiner continues to strengthen his name recognition on the national political stage. He gained plaudits for his performance at the Congressional Correspondents’ Dinner, where he masterfully delivered a string of jokes about his family’s surname. He’s been weighing in on everything from Clarence Thomas (he called on the Supreme Court justice to recuse himself on the health care law because of a possible conflict of interest) to the U.S. Institute of Peace (he is against taxpayer funding for the think tank). He remains an aggressive supporter of health care reform—so much so, in fact, that Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank opened a recent piece with a pithy one-liner: “Democrats would be better off if more of them acted like Weiners.” He then showered the congressman with accolades for his straightforward defense of the health care law.
Marriage—and a stated ambition to settle down and start a family—hasn’t slowed him down. Congressman King jokes: “My main disappointment with his marriage is that we all thought getting married would calm him down, but he’s as crazy as ever.”
Weiner himself admits he’s almost always working. “I don’t really have hours,” he says. “I’m working during the day, at night I have meetings and on the weekend, I also go to things. I’m running around a lot. There are not many times a year when I turn off and say, ‘Today I’m not working.’”
That unstoppable, no-holds-barred intensity may be part of his appeal. “He’s passionate—people respect that and respond to that,” says Queens Jewish Community Council President Hecht. “If he was a phony, people would see right through him. There’s nothing wrong with being gung-ho.”