Sexting revelation raises fresh questions about electability; in Jewish Week interview he says voters favor issues over gossip.
Jockeying for first place in the Democrat primary with Christine Quinn, Anthony Weiner fought back Tuesday after the release of new explicit texts he sent to a woman last summer, saying they were “wrong” but that such behavior “is entirely behind me.”
“We are trying to move forward,” Weiner told a packed news conference with his wife, Huma Abedin, by his side. “We are in a lot better place today or else I would have not run for mayor.”
Weiner insisted he would continue his campaign for mayor and reminded reporters that he had said “other texts and photos were likely to come out” after he quit his congressional seat over the texting scandal in June 2011.
The latest inappropriate texts to surface were made with a woman Weiner said he did not know and were sent in August 2012. They were posted Monday on a website called The Dirty.
At the press conference, Weiner said that some of what was posted was accurate and some was not, but that he was not going to discuss it further.
“These things I did were wrong and caused us to go through many things in our marriage,” he said. “There is no question what I did is wrong. I have apologized to my wife, Huma … The things I did were problematic and destructive and caused stresses and strains in our marriage. I’m pleased she has given me a second chance, and I’m asking for a second chance” from voters.
Weiner said he would not bow out of the mayoral race because “things are not much different than they were yesterday.”
Abedin, who rarely speaks to the press, nervously took to the microphones at the press conference and said she still believes in her husband and supports him. "Anthony’s made some horrible mistakes, both before he resigned from Congress and after," she said. "But I do very strongly believe that that is between us and our marriage. We discussed all of this before Anthony decided he would run for mayor.
“So really what I want to say is: I love him, I have forgiven him, I believe in him, and as we have said from the beginning, we are moving forward.”
In an interview at The Jewish Week offices a week before the latest news broke, Weiner shared a novel theory about his unlikely, dramatic, political comeback bid: The Twitter jokes and the puns are good for tabloid headlines, but people are hungry for serious questions and answers.
“Voters have much more fidelity to issues and ideas than I think a lot of people give them credit for,” he said, in the wide-ranging interview. “They’re interested in the polls, the fundraising and gaffes, but what they really want to hear is your vision.”
Weiner dismissed as outmoded the traditional campaign mode of rounding up support from unions, prominent elected officials and political clubs, saying it’s the reason Democrats haven’t won a mayoral race in nearly 24 years.
“I’m surprised at the level of disconnect between what’s in the press and what actually gets talked about out on the street,” said Weiner, whose BlackBerry chirped for his attention, unheeded, throughout the interview. “People are crying out for a more serious conversation about issues than they’re getting.”
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He may be right. Since entering the primary in June in a haze of media scrums, tawdry headlines and deja vu late-night jokes, Weiner, 48, has shown the most momentum in the primary; he chipped away some of the support for frontrunner Quinn, the Council speaker, though last week’s New York Times/Siena College poll shows Quinn comfortably back at the top of the heap with 28 percent to Weiner’s 18 percent, with a margin of error of 4 points among Democrats. That puts him comfortably in second place in a seven-person field.
But the bad news for the scrappy, roll-up-your-sleeves career politician who stands out in debates by literally standing up to answer questions, is that he had the highest unfavorable rating — 37 percent — of anyone running for mayor, compared with just 22 percent favorable and 25 percent who are undecided.
And while people still line up to snap photos with him at debates or offer words of encouragement, the lack of union or political club support could make it difficult to get the people who tell pollsters they support him to the voting booths on Sept. 10.
While clearly counting on the Jewish vote as a core constituency (“yidlock at the top of the ticket,” he joked about the then-frontrunner status of himself and comptroller hopeful Eliot Spitzer), Weiner said he was focused on “unifying issues. I’m not dividing up the electorate like a pie.” He said he talks about the middle class when talking to real estate moguls and calls for ending the controversial police tactic of stop-and-frisk even when he is before a conservative audience. While the Orthodox are focused on aid to yeshivas and the controversy surrounding the circumcision technique known as metzitzah b’peh, other Jewish audiences want to hear about creating jobs, maintaining local shopping strips and optimizing public education, he said.
On the city’s attempt to regulate the circumcision practice the Board of Health believes exposes infants to dangerous infection, Weiner, who represented one of the most heavily Orthodox districts in America in Congress and is relying on Orthodox backing for mayor, says he is not convinced the threshold for government interference has been met. “My default position is to stay out of this discussion,” he said. “I would put the whole thing back to the drawing board. I think that government has to tread very lightly when it comes to religious customs. I’m going to leave health conversations to the health professionals.”
In Congress, Weiner distinguished himself as a supporter of Israel, and his views reflected the less-compromising outlook of his Orthodox constituents. He still refers to “Eretz Yisrael” (the Land of Israel) in his public statements and, when recently put on the spot by a questioner on the campaign trail, Weiner said the status of the West Bank should be decided by “the parties involved,” despite the United Nations’ and United States’ position that is occupied territory. He also noted that there are opposing views on the territories’ borders.
“There are those who would say Gaza is still occupied,” he told The Jewish Week.
“People engage me,” he said of the encounter. “Because I have a history of working on issues important to Eretz Yisrael … I put out an idea book of 64 ideas for the middle class [in New York], I don’t think there is a foreign policy section … but you frequently get thrust into these conversations. I have never been one to shy away when there are questions of foreign policy.”
Given his stated predilection toward unifying issues, Weiner, when asked about the reaction in Muslim and Arab communities to his tough pro-Israel stance, said he hasn’t encountered any hostility.
“It gets me some Twitter blowback and blog blowback,” he said, but later added, “There’s a cultural gulf that exists between people who everyday stare at these issues and parse what people say and try to make fires and the rest of the population that understands that things are filled with nuance and some issues defy a simplistic dogmatic explanation.”
Then again, Weiner isn’t your typical Jewish pro-Israel New York politician. He’s the only one with a Muslim wife. Do his views make for awkward dinner-table conversation?
“We don’t agree on everything,” he says of himself and Abedin, 36, who was born in Michigan and raised in Saudi Arabia by Indian and Pakistani parents, and who until recently was a top aide to Hillary Clinton both when she was a very pro-Israel New York senator and a more middle-of-the-road secretary of state. Asked if he has influenced his wife’s views, Weiner said, “We’ve grown in each other’s presence.” But he added, “we have a different perspective, I think a lot of couples do,” declining to be more specific.
Weiner, whose wife and toddler son, Jordan, have both appeared on the campaign trail, also declined to comment on the nature of his interfaith family, whether they intend to blend elements of both faiths or how they will raise their children. “I’m not running for anything that would require me to have lengthy conversations about my wife’s religion or mine,” he said. Referring to his son, he said jokingly, “He’ll be here soon enough running for something. You can ask him.”
He added, “In a household that hasn’t had much stay private, for entirely reasons of my career choice and my poor decision-making, I still want to protect some things.”
Weiner’s campaign has a strong populist flavor, and that means riding the wave of opposition to the police department’s stop-and-frisk procedures, perhaps the most heated public policy in this year’s election season. In a lengthy exchange on the topic, Weiner insisted Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly had created a “false choice” between upholding law enforcement and civil liberties.
“We’ll do both when I’m mayor,” he said, noting that “with the lawsuit going on, stops have dropped 50 percent and crime has gone down, not up.”
Weiner’s nearly $6 million war chest includes cash from a wide range of prominent Jewish New Yorkers, though a majority of them contributed to his campaign before his fall from grace. They include former New York Post publisher and former MTA chairman Peter Kalikow, Slimfast founder and left-wing peace activist S. Daniel Abraham, former National Council of Young Israel leader Rabbi Pesach Lerner, Ohel Family and Children's Services CEO David Mandel, billionaire real estate mogul Alexander Rovt and Coney Island waterfront developer Joseph Sitt.
Barbra Streisand gave him $1,000 in 2008 but hasn’t contributed since. Rovt, meanwhile, has more recently contributed to Quinn and Bill de Blasio, though Sitt as recently as June gave Weiner another $400.
Though Weiner boasts that his policy wonkiness helped get him into an aborted runoff in 2005, there seems to be something about him that irks people that has nothing to do with the Twitter scandal.
“He’s the only one of the major candidates whose favorable rating is underwater,” says Siena pollster Steven Greenberg. “People who are unfavorable to him are more than those who are favorable, and it’s not necessarily that they are holding what happened in the past against him. Nearly six out of 10 people — and more than that among Democrats — say yeah, he has earned another chance despite what happened.”
Greenberg said Weiner, whose dating history, high-profile marriage and viral-video House floor rants gave him national press before the scandal, had the highest name recognition in the primary. That gave him good early poll numbers.
“But with eight weeks to the primary, people are starting to pay attention. He has to give voters a reason not to support his opponents. It’s going to be a low turnout primary. He’s got to identify his voters and get them to the polls.”
Having earned a reputation in Congress for putting grandstanding above teamwork, Weiner offered no apologies, saying he only showed impatience with colleagues in the House who preferred inaction on important matters. “The critique is that is that I wasn’t patient enough and didn’t work well with others, to some degree a new York mayor has to be someone who works with people … a lot of what I accomplished I did with others on both sides of the aisle.”
As to whether he was capable of humility, Weiner said “I don’t think anyone has gone through more humiliation than I. I brought it upon myself and I paid a price.”
As an example of a determined agenda to improve the lives of the middle class, he pointed to his efforts to keep Catholic schools from closing in the city and said he had helped yeshivas defray the cost of necessary security upgrades by helping them apply for homeland security grants and advocating for a bigger share of the funding for New York.
“For too long we have not had a mayor that realized that you’ve gotta look at the landscape of the New York education system and see all different parts, not just the public schools.” He said he would appoint a deputy chancellor to see after the needs of non-public schools.
Asked if he had drawn any inspiration from other public figures who weathered scandals, Weiner said his situation was unprecedented. “This was an unusual thing, it wasn’t about my public life it was about my something in my personal life that became very public because of mistakes I made. All I can say is, there wasn’t a lot of precedent and I’m not sure that would have been helpful anyway.”
But he did profess to draw inspiration from another public figure who saw highs and lows in his career, the late Ed Koch, whose 1978 transition from the House to City Hall was supposed to be a blueprint for Weiner’s career.
“He began the arc of the notion of the manageable city, and [had] a general joy of dealing with the cacophony of New Yorkers, hearing the voices having back and forth and not being threatened by it,” he said, adding what might be a note of caution.
“He had an almost psychic connection with his constituents, [but] it had its limits … when he lost a little bit of his mojo, he forgot that he was being a jerk sometimes.”
Staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this article.
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