Anthony Weiner Tells All

(This is a repost of an interview I conducted in 2009 for a now-defunct New York magazine called City Scoops.)

Larry Getlen talks to Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner about Michael Bloomberg, vice, the stimulus, New York City nightlife, being a Jew in Congress, and his big-time beef with his old roommate, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart.

Anthony Weiner — 44 years old; born in Brooklyn; the son of a schoolteacher and a lawyer and a product of our state university system — positions himself as a champion of the middle class, which he feels is exactly what a city of eight million financially and culturally diverse residents needs in its mayor. But while his background might provide some instant bourgeoisie cred, city voters weren’t convinced the first time he ran for the office, in 2005, when he finished second to Fernando Ferrer in the Democratic primary and bowed out — to unify the party, he said — before a mandated runoff. Now, with Americans itching to string the rich up by their bespoke britches, and with Mayor Bloomberg having shivved his credibility by power-grabbing a potential third term against the express wishes of the voters, Weiner would seem well-positioned to send the city’s wealthiest man crawling back to his modest little media empire. At least, that’s what he’s clearly been thinking.

While polls have had Weiner anywhere from 7-15 points behind Bloomberg (though slightly ahead of his likely Democratic competitor, city comptroller Bill Thompson), he had been all but officially campaigning for months, including raising over $6 million, before City Scoops sat with him for this interview in mid-March. But then, just days before our appointment, the six-term congressman sent a note to his constituents that spoke of the need to focus on governing instead of campaigning, leading some in the media to conclude that his mayoral aspirations were all but dead. As we soon found out in an illuminating conversation in Weiner’s midtown Manhattan office, while the situation is a bit murkier than before, those aspirations are — as of this article’s late-March press date, anyway — far from put to rest.

LG: As one who was there, tell us about the day-to-day process of getting the stimulus package written and passed.

AW: It was imperfect lawmaking. You’re trying to do things very fast. Normally, a billion dollars for the COPS program would go through hearings, and get marked up, and you’d amend it on the floor. That didn’t happen in this case because we had to get this done quickly, because we were concerned that if we didn’t, the economy would take a tougher hit. There were a lot of House and Senate members working the phones with the administration, [trying to figure out], how do you do it in a smart way. Do you just give everyone a $300 check? Do you give everyone a debit card? Do you space it out so they don’t spend it all at once, and it doesn’t just become a stimulus for China, for example, with everyone buying flat-screen TVs? It was not the normal legislative process. It was the making of sausage.

LG: You’ve criticized former President Bush for shortchanging New York on anti-terror funding. What are you personally doing to make sure President Obama comes through on that for New York City?

AW: I’m the sponsor of legislation that would make the Urban Area Initiative, which is the part of the money that’s supposed to go to big cities [but] which is going just about everywhere, to try to make that more efficient. It’s still gonna be a legislative fight, because a lot of what the homeland security fight has been about is not partisan as much as it’s regional. You’ve got rural areas who say, “we consider ourselves a target of homeland security threats.” If they attack Wyoming, we know we’re all in trouble. But that’s Democrats and Republicans alike.

LG: What’s your personal response when you hear a congressman from Wyoming, for example, say, “well, we could get attacked too?”

AW: What I say to them is that maybe I should get wheat subsidies in my district, or, maybe I should get agriculture subsidies representing Brooklyn. I could grow tomatoes. I could grow wheat here. But it’s a serious thing. We’ve had a coalition that’s held together — although it’s frayed — but guys like me would support agriculture programs, and they would support mass transit and housing. But I’m pretty direct with my colleagues to say, “this is not an entitlement program.”

LG: There’s been a lot of speculation about this. Will you be running for mayor?

AW: It’s always been my intention to. I’m in a good position. I’ve raised all the money I’m allowed to spend on the campaign [due to] finance laws. I’m stepping back and assessing, based on what I think my obligation is to my constituents and to the country. But in March and April, I think most New Yorkers don’t want us doing politics. There’s gotta be some window of time that we’re not out doing partisanship; that we’re trying to figure out how to solve problems. In a couple of months — end of May sometime — I’ll check back. But it’s always been my intention.

LG: A few months ago you were saying that you were definitely running. It seems like the tone’s a little different now.

AW: I think that’s fair. I must confess that it’s different for you, too, than we thought it would be a year ago. It seems like the world is on fire. There are challenges everywhere, and the job of Congressman has changed. We spent two trillion dollars the last couple of months. We’re not in normal times. So to some degree, it’s fair to say that the tone is different, but the tone is different everywhere.

LG: If you ran and won, how would a Weiner administration differ from the Bloomberg administration?

AW: I think it would be more democratic, with a small “d.” Part of what I worry about in New York is that we’ve lost the sense of New York being a place where we have arguments and debates, and then we settle them the old fashioned way: we have elections. We have an open government process. That didn’t happen, obviously, with term limits. I think you’ll also see much more of a focus on those struggling to make it in the middle class. My family experience — middle class kid, son of a schoolteacher, not from a wealthy family but my parents were able to find a home they could afford — that middle class experience is much tougher. There will be much more of that focus when I’m mayor.

LG: What did you learn from your 2005 campaign for mayor that would make you a better candidate this time around?

AW: I learned that you can do the same message in every community and do well with it. The conventional wisdom is, you need a Hispanic thing, and a Haitian message. You need an uptown, a Brooklyn, a Queens. But the idea that you need to create this different vision is false. I think what unifies New Yorkers is a pretty powerful political arrow. It’s remarkable the level to which people agree on basic things.

LG: There’s a drugstore, a Starbucks, and a bank on practically every block, and a lot of people feel this has really hurt the city’s character. What are your feelings on that?

AW: I have a strong bias against chain stores. The neighborhood shopping strip is so much a part of what I think is unique about New York; the idea that your mother sends you down the block for a loaf of bread, and that kind of stuff. It’s not simply an economic question. It’s the culture of New York that has changed, and I don’t like it. It worries me. I led the charge against Walmart coming to Queens Boulevard because I feared for the omnivorous economic vision of Walmart just wiping out neighborhood shops. It was not a good deal for New York. I’m a leading organizer in Washington for neighborhood pharmacies. I’ve helped them with legislation that lets them band together to negotiate for lower prices with the benefit managers and drug manufacturers.

LG: Manhattan has largely become too expensive for struggling artists, performers, and other creative types. In your opinion, did Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg fail to account for that important aspect of New York’s character?

AW: Yeah. There’s a great book by Richard Florida called “The Rise of the Creative Class,” where he looks at some of the traditional indicators of cities: economic activity, close to the water, major airports, what languages are spoken there. He draws the conclusion that we’ve all been wrong about what makes a successful international city. He says what it’s really about is culture — progressive ideals, a welcoming environment for the GLBT community, etc. — that make people feel that in the cultural sense, it’s a fun place to be. That’s why he thinks that New York, through the ebb and flow and boom and bust, has always returned: because people like you still wanna be in a city like New York to bounce off each other. I don’t think Giuliani understood that, and I don’t think Bloomberg understands that. When you rezone big swaths of the meatpacking district so that now there are fewer nightclubs there and fewer bars, it misunderstands one of the reasons you need communities like that. There’s a reason there are nightclubs in the meatpacking district. It’s because you’re not gonna wake the fuckin’ meat. There are reasons why CBGB’s closing is a blow to the soul of New York, even if you never would have gone there in a thousand years. It’s important that it exists to keep us in a place. When you have an economic downturn and people are trying to figure out where they go, you want them to say, “whatever I do, I want to stay here in New York, because this is the thing I like.” I think we’ve lost sight of that, and I think it’s important for any mayor to not lose sight of it.

LG: So if you become mayor, what would you do to re-encourage that aspect of city life?

AW: A couple of things. I would recognize that the nightlife community is not only important as an economic engine, it’s an important social engine for our city. It’s one of the reasons that people like New York. I would realize that — and I would articulate this — there is a certain grittiness to New York that’s not to be cleaned. You kind of want that. I always tell my friends this: we have a relationship with vice in New York. It’s still vice, but the idea that there is a place where you can put a quarter into a slot and watch someone gyrate; sure, it’s not something you take your aunt to go visit when you’re here, but the idea that it’s there makes the energy of New York that much more. I would stop this crackdown on nightclubs that has become part of the city. There are gonna be appropriate and inappropriate places for everything, but we have to make sure that we reserve places you can go at two o’clock in the morning after you go to the place that was open at midnight. We have to find that balance better than we’ve found it so far.

LG: You used to be roommates with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart. How did that come about?

AW: We knew each other after college. I worked on Capitol Hill for [then-Congressman Chuck] Schumer with a guy who played soccer with Jon at William & Mary. So we were all in the same circle. I was dating a woman at the time, she lived where he did and we all kind of…it was a classic New York [situation]. We were all making twenty grand.

LG: Where did you all live?

AW: Soho. I was living there more or less because I was bumming off of my girlfriend who was living there. Technically speaking, I was living in my mom’s house. We were all living together, and we shared a beach house, too.

LG: Are you and Jon still friends?

AW: Yeah, we stay in touch. We talked a lot during the campaign.

LG: Have you been on “The Daily Show?”

AW: No. I don’t have a book. You gotta be selling something to go on his show.

LG: Well, if you run for Mayor…

AW: If I become Mayor, then they’ll probably waive that requirement. I wouldn’t want to go…I don’t know.

LG: Because it would be too weird?

AW: No, I love Jon’s show, and I TiVo it and watch it every day. But I think it has a bit of a corrosive effect on my business.

LG: In what sense?

AW: Its entire ethos is to make fun of politicians. Colbert’s worse…or better at it, I don’t know. I guess it’s really not fair to say it’s corrosive. It’s just that for a remarkable number of Jon’s viewers, that’s the sole source of news, and that’s both good and bad. It’s good that they’re gonna get it somewhere, and if it’s gonna be at a comedy show I’d rather it be there than Bill Maher or something like that. But on the other side, I don’t like the idea that there’s such a cynical view of politics and government.

LG: But you understand why that cynicism exists, right?

AW: Do I understand why that cynicism exists? Yes. I think it exists because of Jon’s show.

LG: Do you really?

AW: We could have the circular argument if you want. I think it accelerates itself. I think there becomes a feedback loop that’s corrosive. Congressmen do dumb things, yes, then are highlighted for doing dumb things, and highlighted some more, and people watch it and say that congressmen do dumb things, and so then when another congressman does a dumb thing, it’s like, “well, my audience wants to watch a congressman do a dumb thing,” and then the audience laughs at the congressman doing a dumb thing, and then Jon says, “hey, I got a great scam here, lemme go find another congressman doing a dumb thing,” and where do I get in? Where do I get in not doing a dumb thing? Not being a bozo?

LG: Have you ever expressed that to Jon?

AW: Oh yeah, we had….yes. The answer is yes.

LG: What did he have to say?

AW: The argument was somewhat predictable.

LG: Well, after last night, we know very well how Jon argues. (This interview took place the day after Stewart’s takedown of CNBC commentator Jim Cramer – Ed.)

AW: What I thought was interesting about last night was the irony of watching the comedian be critical of the news guy for being funny.

LG: I don’t think that was the reason…

AW:…at the crux of it, it was the news guy defending himself by saying, I’m being an entertainer. I’m being funny. And the comedian saying, dude, don’t do that. You be the serious one and I’ll be…which is kind of a theme of Jon’s joust with the “Crossfire” guys. The irony with Jon…we have to remember that Jon was critical of “Crossfire” because it dumbed down the debate. Some of my concern about Jon is that, it’s smart, but it can be just as corrosive, because we’re being treated like we’re dumb. And maybe some of us are.

LG: We now have an African-American president. Do you think America could ever elect a Jewish president?

AW: If he’s black, they could. (Laughs) I guess so. Look, the election of Barack Obama has made us re-calibrate a lot of our assumptions about our country. Time is on the side of all of us who think prejudices are gonna get left behind. Look at the polling that came out of Prop 8 in California. It’s basically more senior people who are more likely to be fretful about gay rights. That’s good. That means people are coming up; that they don’t think it’s that big a deal. I have a tough time getting my mind around issues like this, because I’m so New York that I can’t quite get to the core of even being Jewish, and knowing when I went to Washington that…you’re not in Kansas anymore, that kind of thing. But I do see it every once in a while, in a way that is hard to believe, the anti-Semitism and all. But the fact that Barack Obama competed basically everywhere…it makes me proud to have a half-white president.

LG: Did you just say you see anti-Semitism in Congress?

AW: No. I see..not anti-Semitism, but I see culturally that it’s mysterious to some of my colleagues. They come from places where they couldn’t raise a minyan. And then me being this New York Jew guy who wears it on his sleeve…I’ll give you an example. In Congress, there’s a Black Caucus, and an Asian-American Caucus. We don’t have a Jewish Caucus, because while we get together every so often, we just fear that if you call it that, people’ll say, “Aha! You guys are trying to run the international banking system!” You’ll have an exposé: “The caucus does exist!” That kind of thing.