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Big Apple’s big battle: Democrats vie to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor

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NEW YORK — Anthony Weiner paused from his campaign spiel about “being a middle-class kid from New York” when he saw something he didn’t like.

“Stand by,” Weiner said as he broke off an interview on a bustling corner in his old congressional district of Forest Hills. He eyeballed the “Weiner for Mayor” volunteers drifting aimlessly and turned to his young press secretary. “Umm. Hey, Barbara, are you teeing them up? Because if not, I want to give them a little bit of a pep talk.”

“Oh, yeah, no,” she stuttered. Weiner, who resigned from Congress in disgrace after sending dirty selfies to select women (and inadvertently everyone else) on Twitter, clapped once at the clipboard-toting volunteers.

“Okay. Uh. Let’s go!” he said, impatiently. “So it’s gonna be ‘Registered Democrats, would you like to meet Congressman — former congressman — Anthony Weiner? Would you like to sign a petition to get him on the ballot?’ ”

Despite everything — the scandal, his pariah status among top political operatives, a brutal wave of stories suggesting he’s a politically amorphous showman short on substance — Weiner is going to be on the ballot. And why not? Everyone else is.

A rush of city officials, ambitious pols and gadflies are seeking to take the place of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a municipal giant who has served three terms, played on a national stage and is one of the most consequential mayors in the city’s history. There is no obvious heir apparent. The result is arguably the most significant and screwball race in the country, a Cannonball Run that could elect the first Democratic mayor here in more than 20 years.

Weiner is by far the most politically gifted and attention-monopolizing candidate in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary race. But it’s not yet clear what that gets him, in a crowded and still-volatile field. The putative front-runner is Christine Quinn, the speaker of the City Council and Bloomberg’s preferred choice. A potentially historic figure as the first female mayor and a lesbian, and the only Democratic contender to have wielded significant power in city government, Quinn leads in public polls but has yet to inspire much excitement. (Her campaign-season memoir, relating her past struggles with bulimia and alcoholism, has so far sold 100 copies, according to the New York Times.) Bill Thompson, a mild-mannered former city comptroller who narrowly lost to Bloomberg in 2009, is the only African American in the race and is making sure that everyone knows what he looks like this time around. The city’s politically talented comptroller John Liu would be the first Asian American mayor except for a nagging federal investigation, and the campaign of Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has prominently featured his black, former lesbian wife in an effort to boost his progressive appeal.

No candidate is likely to get 40 percent of the initial vote, triggering an Oct. 1 runoff between the top two finishers. The Democratic nominee will face off against the Republican primary winner and assorted third-party candidates in November’s general election.

Nearly every night, the myriad candidates, including a former Obama administration official, a paroxysmal Green Party candidate, an anti-gay pastor and others gather in scarcely attended school auditoriums, churches and halls for Groundhog Day mayoral forums. There, the candidates debate serious questions about the Bloomberg legacy such as the role of stop-and-frisk policing in fighting crime, the effectiveness of Bloombergian mayoral control of the education system, and how to reconcile the economic, environmental and health renaissance in the city with the sense of some residents that they have been priced out and left behind. (They have also had to weigh in on the ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice of mohels sucking blood from the circumcision wound.) But after 12 years of the billionaire mayor’s transformative, unapologetically autocratic and data-driven rule, these candidates are betting that voters will relate and be drawn to a more life-size mayor. Flaws and all.

***

Weiner began Saturday morning celebrating Flag Day with a group of elementary school students and their parents at a towering pole on a grassy island surrounded by Tudor homes. Weiner, wearing frayed jeans, suede wingtips and an American-flag tie, spoke into a microphone about how great it was to be back in the community. As he spoke, Curtis Sliwa, the beret-clad founder of the Guardian Angels and now a radio personality, whispered to reporters that Weiner was “an egomaniac” who participated in “new age-y, avatar sex” and that he might be “giving him the razz” later in the day. Weiner then joined the small crowd to listen to children read their essays, folded his arms and talked local politics with Sliwa’s wife, Queens Borough presidential candidate Melinda Katz, whom Weiner beat for a congressional seat back in 1998 by a few hundred votes. As Weiner opened his program and quietly sang along to “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” Rep. Grace Meng whispered, “Oh, people still love you.”

Weiner ran for mayor in 2005 and lost. He nearly ran in 2009, before Bloomberg won a change in the law to run for a third term, and his operatives scared Weiner off by leaking information about illegal contributions to his campaign from foreign models. (“Weiner’s Naughty Hottie$,” read the New York Post headline.) That, of course, seems quaint now. (The current New York Post puns include “Fall on Your Sword, Weiner.”) But he is in need of political rehabilitation. Whereas a run and loss for city comptroller would be fatal, the long-shot bid for mayor is an opportunity with little downside.

“Look, I don’t think anyone goes through this, as hard as it is, and as much as you subject yourself to, if you don’t want the job,” Weiner said. “It’s certainly not happening in this case.”

Weiner started his career as a protege of then-Rep. Chuck Schumer and a champion of the middle class before winning national fame, and the astonished derision of progressives in his caucus, as a firebrand liberal advocating a single-payer health-care system. On Thursday, Weiner planned to resurrect that reputation by unveiling a “transformational plan” to reform health care in the city. But in the wake of the Twitter scandal, he has also again recast himself as a middle-class outer-borough boy, at first lying low in Queens with his wife, Huma Abedin, a Hillary Clinton confidante who is organizing a Women for Anthony cocktail session this month. (“Think about it for a second,” Weiner said about the incongruence of the elegant Abedin in Forest Hills. “She was 10 minutes away from the airport.”) During his brief hiatus from politics, he worked as a consultant (not an official lobbyist!) for corporations with business before Congress and moved to Park Avenue South with Abedin and their young son.

“Anthony Weiner lives on Park Avenue, let’s be clear. I live in a home in Brooklyn,” said de Blasio, whose candidacy has been the most imperiled by Weiner. “I’m the progressive candidate in this race.”

Since entering the race, Weiner has vacuumed much of the media oxygen out of the contest. And he is doing it all on his own. When one of the reporters following him around Queens asked how he was going to push the other candidates out, Weiner shot back, “I already have. Have you been following the race?”

In an hour, back in his old Austin Street stomping grounds, Weiner bathed in the adoration of his base under a yellow Cohen’s Optical awning.

“I signed your petition.”

“We miss you very much.”

“I’m voting for you.”

“Shabbat Shalom.”

“I want an 8-by-10 picture.” (“You want an oil painting?” he responded.)

Sliwa resisted the razz and simply waved hello. Others brought salutations from mutual friends and old girlfriends. (“No kidding! I haven’t seen her in a while,” Weiner responded to one. “If you see Alli before I do, tell her I said hello.”)

Not everyone was on board. The Clintons have forsaken him, Schumer is disappointed in him, and Bloomberg can’t stand him, according to sources from the respective camps. But only two passersby expressed skepticism.

“You won’t act like a madman anymore, will you?”

Said another: “What if I did what you did online? Would you let me be a police officer?”

And some strongly defended his risque tweets. “The most peculiar of all the perversions is abstinence,” one person said.

“I would be lying to you if I told you I thought the campaign would be going this well a couple of weeks in,” Weiner said in an interview. “And we’re doing well.”

The Twitter story isn’t going away; the Times inadvertently posted an article titled “For Women in Weiner Scandal, Indignity Lingers” before it was ready for publication, which was immediately taken down. And there are increasingly critical examinations of his scant legislative record. Yet no one in the race has the political capacity to relate to people like Weiner, who makes it a point to relate to everyone.

“You a registered Democrat?” he asked an elderly woman wheeling a shopping cart by him.

“I am,” she said. “And I’m not voting for uh, what’s her name? The dyke.”

“Okay. I just need you to sign the petition to get me on the ballot,” said Weiner, who then noticed the incredulous reaction of a reporter and added, “and you really shouldn’t talk that way about people.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman said.

“It’s okay,” Weiner responded. “It’s not your fault.”

***

Chris Quinn had a toothache.

“It’s pretty bad.” Quinn stood in a gray houndstooth blazer and glossy red shoes on her good-luck petitioning corner in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. “You can’t stop touching it.”

An arm-twisting, deal-making pragmatist with a Chelsea-liberal reputation, Quinn was not letting the pain get in the way.

“Not for nothing, talk is cheap,” she said when asked about Weiner. She argued that as the leader of the city’s legislative body, she had spent years getting things done for regular New Yorkers, an argument she has since made in more-pointed speeches as she embraces her role as the accomplishment candidate. But one act of Quinn’s council stands above all others in the race. In 2008, Bloomberg decided he wanted a third term and Quinn, who had hoped to run, reversed her position on term limits and wrangled votes to change the law. Since then, Bloomberg has rarely missed an opportunity to say nice things about her.

On the day of a Times story blasting Weiner’s legislative record, Bloomberg talked about his experience working with Quinn. “My experience with her is more as an executive, because that’s the job of a leader of a legislature,” he said. “And I have said this a thousand times: I don’t agree with her on some things and I violently disagree with her on some things, but she has been a very good Speaker.”

Quinn rejects the notion that there was a quid pro quo (“The mayor and I have never had that conversation,” she said), but she is undoubtedly the Bloomberg continuity candidate, even hiring his preferred political consultant, Josh Isay. But keeping the temperamental mayor happy without seeming like his lackey can be torturous. It can also result in tortured answers on everything from policing to Bloomberg’s effort to ban large soda drinks. (“This is a weird answer,” she said. “I don’t support it. But I hope I’m wrong.”)

In a Democratic primary, the Bloomberg taint can be a dangerous thing.

At the beginning of the race, Quinn sought to separate herself from Bloomberg. The media, looking for a star, obliged. First, her boisterousness, toughness and tendency to punctuate sentences with bursts of “AghHaHa” laughter was endearing. Then another story line of her as a belligerent bully who required a soundproofed office and who frequently threatened castration became dominant. (“Fighting hard sometimes means pushing,” she said. “And pushing is sometimes uncomfortable for people.”) Then came the sympathetic pieces linked to the release of her memoir, which explored her difficult adolescence, wrestling with her sexuality, alcoholism and an eating disorder. Former Republican senator Al D’Amato, who is supporting Thompson, mocked the memoir on local television: “Ha-ha-ha. Oh, gimme a break.” Quinn called D’Amato’s response “unkind.”

“Not for nothing, when did becoming like an alcoholic and a bulimic become a way to soften your image?” she said, with a characteristic burst of laughter. “I don’t understand it.”

But Weiner has eclipsed Quinn as the dominant media story. That has left the race’s tenuous leader fighting to keep her base among the Bloomberg-partial Manhattan elite while relying on her accomplishments to reach out to skeptical outer-borough residents.

She spent the morning securing her base and then the afternoon trying to branch out. Leaning on built-in surrogates in the City Council, she rode out to Corona Queens to knock on doors in a modest apartment building. The Spanish-speaking women who answered the calls of “una mujer for mayor” at the doors in housedresses asked about affordable housing (“my first job in New York was as a housing and tenant organizer”) and transportation (“my office will follow up”). One man asserted that “Dominicans have politics in their blood.” “Like the Irish!” Quinn replied.

“Nobody else who is running can present you with the kind of record I have,” she said in the back of her SUV on the way to another event. “Those people there whose landlord was harassing them, whose landlord wasn’t dealing with their issues, that woman who needed more bus service, they don’t need talk. They need action and results.”

***

On the corner of Beverley Road and Nostrand Avenue deep in Brooklyn, supporters of Bill Thompson gathered around a storefront Haitian radio station. Berrisford Allison, 32, stopped by and inquired about the candidate.

“Never seen the guy a day in my life,” Allison said. “What is he, Spanish?”

A campaign aide shook his head.

“What does he look like?”

The aide reached into his bag and produced a flier of Bill Thompson.

“Oh, yeah,” Allison said, a look of recognition dawning on his face. “I’ve voted for him before.”

Bill Thompson nearly beat Bloomberg four years ago. An exceedingly unexciting, moderate former city comptroller, he wasn’t taken seriously by anyone. But Thompson, who is African American, has a base of dependable support that will presumably still be there this time around. Add to that the institutional backing, including the endorsement of the powerful teachers union, and he is well positioned to make the runoff. He just needs to make sure everyone knows what he looks like.

“You want people to see you,” Thompson said after crossing a corner with a KennedyFried Chicken and a West Indian bakery to greet Allison and the volunteers. “People want to see their candidates, all of them. You are asking for their vote. Who are you? What do you believe in? It’s not just that you are black. It’s what do you stand for.”

He blamed the media for missing the last election and taking it as a “foregone conclusion that Mike Bloomberg could not be beat.” He said that he would take his message of representing working New Yorkers “definitely in black and Latino communities but in other communities as well.” He hasn’t missed any opportunity to evoke identity politics. He seized on Quinn’s use of the term “environmental racism” connected to the city’s garbage transfer system. “When you use the word racism you have to be careful,” he said. “You have to understand it is an insulting and hurtful word.”

On a recent afternoon, Thompson first went into Fay’s Beauty Salon, where Cheryl Crosby-McCain, who grew up on his block in Brooklyn, happened to be getting her hair done.

“How you doing, Billy?” she asked. “You know you got my vote, baby.”

At the Impeccable Barber Shop down the block, he shook hands and ventured, with some trepidation, into a dark back room — the headquarters of Impeccable Travel Services, where some guys were playing dominoes on a blue felt table.

“Are you ready to play?” asked one.

“I don’t think he knows how,” said another.

At Rosie’s Mystical Touch salon, he stood next to a pay phone and addressed their concerns about city schools.

His answers often meandered, and he seemed averse to human contact. He was hardly audible in intimate or public settings alike. At a forum on education at Murry Bergtraum High School in downtown Manhattan, an assistant to Comptroller John Liu didn’t even realize Thompson was onstage until the end of the forum. “Oh, Thompson’s here?” she said.

***

Waiting on the other side of the Democratic primary is a Republican candidate, and if the past 20 years of New York history is any indication, that candidate will get serious consideration. Polls of the relatively small number of registered Republicans in New York City favor Joe Lhota, a deputy mayor in the Giuliani administration who served as the chairman of New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. It is telling that Weiner, who has sharp political instincts, has already started attacking Lhota as the “Lord Governor” of the MTA. But Lhota, too, has to survive a primary.

The West Side office of John Catsimatidis, a billionaire supermarket magnate and oil baron, is lined with historic supermarket coupon sheets and vanity shots of him next to world leaders from the Clintons to Castro and the pope. There is a fake New York Times front page with the headline: “Catsimatidis Clinches Candidacy with Supermarkets’ Super Makeover” and a real New York Post page that reads “Grocery Tycoon Wants Mike’s Job.” Other framed clips recall his daughter’s wedding to the grandson of Richard Nixon, who met her while he was campaigning for John McCain in her high school. (Hillary Clinton sat on the bride’s side, and Rudy Giuliani sat on the bridegroom’s at the 700-person wedding.)

Last Christmas, the Catsimatidis holiday card featured the rotund magnate and his wife posing in front of white Christmas trees, his son smirking in a sled, his daughter stroking white furs and bursting out of a gold bandage dress with Christopher Nixon Cox grinning at her side. It has become a popular screen-saver for New York political reporters.

Catsimatidis, a political donor to the Clintons and former GOP nominee Mitt Romney, said he’s “better than Bloomberg” and is “the only one running who has the ability to get [House Speaker John] Boehner on the phone and [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi on the phone.”

As potential vendors set up a selection of danishes on a table in his office, Catsimatidis insisted that people should take him seriously because he has budgeted a million dollars a month for his campaign. And should Weiner be the nominee, he is willing to go nuclear. He said he’d run a version of the famous Daisy TV ad in which Lyndon Johnson asked voters if they would trust Barry Goldwater with his finger on the button, perhaps with Weiner’s finger on a keyboard. “There’s a little bit of a correlation,” he said.

But Catsimatidis doesn’t want to go negative. He says he wants to run an inspiring campaign. “I have a dream. I want the 2014, 2015 World’s Fair to be New York of the 21st century,” he said, envisioning “a riverboat servicing all five boroughs.”

***

On a night of steady rain, the three leading candidates shook off their umbrellas in the lobby of the First Baptist Church of East Elmhurst, Queens. They followed one another to the pulpit for a “Reviving Our City” forum about rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. As people packed the pews with “Jobs for All” signs and “United in Faith” posters, a white woman with a yarmulke and a black man with a priest’s collar quizzed the candidates.

With Quinn in the front row and Thompson in the wings, Weiner fired up the crowd, calling them “brothers and sisters” and saying: “I apologize if I started to testify a little on that last answer. You get in this environment and even in a skinny Jewish kid you start to get moved.”

The crowd ate it up. He promised that he would be so available to them that “you are going to get sick of me.” For a last question, the moderator said that there were scores more people watching in a spillover room in the church’s basement. Would he stop by and say hello?

“Can they hear me on this?” Weiner asked, tapping the microphone. Then he bent down and put on a deep nighttime DJ voice. “You guys downstairs,” he said, “Weiner’s coming down.”

© The Washington Post Company