Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Weiner Won't Seek Mayoralty
Until Bloomberg's Retirement

By Henry J. Stern
June 1, 2009

Anthony Weiner’s decision last week to pull the plug on his mayoral campaign was a reasonable judgment for the 44-year-old Congressman to make. Weiner's move should be considered a strategic retreat, in recognition of circumstances that had changed since his campaign was launched. Weiner attributed his withdrawal, or declination to run, on the huge fortune that Mayor Bloomberg is prepared to spend to gain re-election.

That is not, however, the entire story. Bloomberg said over a year ago that he would spend whatever it took to win, even if the sum exceeded his $75 million outlay in 2005.

There was a major change in circumstances, however, between the time Weiner launched his campaign over a year ago and today. That resulted from the unexpected extension of term limits by the Mayor and the City Council, a decision overruled two public referenda on the subject. What had been a race between Weiner, Comptroller Bill Thompson and Speaker Christine Quinn, running as the Bloomberg candidate, became a direct challenge to the mayor by Weiner and Thompson.

Thompson has been Comptroller for eight years. Faced with term limits in effect since 2001, he prepared to run for mayor. That is what three of his predecessors did: Abe Beame lost in 1965 and won in 1973, Jay Goldin lost in 1989, and Alan Hevesi lost in 2001. The only recent Comptroller who did not run for mayor was Liz Holtzman, and that was because she was unseated by Hevesi in the 1993 Democratic primary. Hevesi had lost to Holtzman in his first try, in 1989.

Term limits for elected city officials, which had been obeyed for seven years, were unexpectedly extended after Mayor Bloomberg’s change of heart on a third term for himself in the fall of 2008. He said the national economic crisis required continuity in leadership, which he was uniquely able to supply. His decision was ratified by a self-interested Council, delighted to receive an unexpected four-year reprieve from gainful employment in the private or nonprofit sector

In overruling public referenda held in 1993 and reaffirmed in 1996, the Mayor and Council took advantage of an unintended loophole in the City Charter. Most provisions of the Charter can be amended by the City Council. That is appropriate because many deal with technical matters, and should not be in the Charter in the first place. However, the Council is specifically forbidden to change parts of the Charter dealing with their own powers and elections. For example, they are not allowed to reduce the salary of other officials, or to extend their own terms.

When the Charter was amended by the people to impose term limits, that was obviously an issue which was intended to be reserved for decision by referenda. Otherwise the Council could over-rule the public at its pleasure, and the referendum would be rendered meaningless, or nugatory, if you prefer a legal word. When the Council first sought to modify term-limits in 1996, it did so honorably by placing the matter on the ballot. The effort was defeated, but by a narrower margin than the limits won by three years earlier. It is entirely possible that a referendum in 2008 would have resulted in the extension of term limits from two to three terms.

The Council's last-minute repeal of term limits enabled the Mayor to seek a third term. Indeed, it is unlikely that either he or anyone beside the incumbents cared about the tenure of the councilmembers. When the mayor’s bill was adopted by the Council, 29-22, the councilmembers became collateral beneficiaries – or whatever you would call the opposite of collateral damage.

With the Mayor in the race, Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who had been the heiress apparent for at least the last year, withdrew and sought re-election in her council district. Then, in January, she sought re-election as Speaker by her fifty colleagues. Comptroller Thompson could have pulled back and would have easily won another four year term, but he viewed the mayoralty as most comptrollers do, so he stayed in the race.

If he loses, he has an excellent opportunity to be appointed to public office by either President Obama or Governor Paterson. (The Comptroller General, head of the General Accountability Office, is appointed by the President for a non-renewable fifteen year term with the advice and consent of the Senate. When a vacancy occurs, Congress nominates at least three potential replacements. Unlike the custom in New York State and New York City, the Federal position is not an elective office.)

Like Paterson, Thompson is a second generation politician. Paterson’s highly regarded father, Basil, was a long-term state senator from Manhattan, Secretary of State under Governor Carey, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor in 1970 (he lost, but his son was elected to the same office in 2006), deputy mayor under Mayor Koch in 1978, and is currently a partner in a well-known Nassau County political law firm, Meyer, Suozzi, English and Klein. Basil Paterson represents a number of trade unions, including many that represent public employees. Thompson’s father and namesake is a well known leader in the black community. He was elected to the New York State Supreme Court, and now sits on the bench.

The candidacy of Comptroller Thompson – even if he is defeated in the 2009 Democratic primary – will raise serious problems for Weiner, a relatively young Congressman who has never held office outside his Brooklyn-Queens district.

Weiner’s successful primary run would mean the defeat of a senior city-wide elected African-American official, considered by many politicos to be next in line for the mayoralty.

By some, Weiner’s victory would be attributed to racism, notwithstanding the fact that there were substantial issues of competence and policy between the two candidates. In the primary, Thompson would be likely to run a campaign stressing unity, relying on labor and traditional Democratic voters while showcasing his good temperament and maturity. Weiner would run as the policy wonk, with numerous new proposals for city agencies. Stylistically, he would be a forty-years-younger version of Mayor Koch.

This spring, Weiner found himself in the same position vis-a-vis withdrawal as four years ago, after the Democratic primary for mayor. There were four candidates in 2005: Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer, Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields, 36-year-old City Council Speaker Gifford Miller, and the 40-year-old Weiner. The first three candidates were compelled to run by term limits; they had each served eight years (in Miller’s case, ten) in their current offices.

The results of the contest were somewhat unexpected. Ferrer finished first, with 39.95 percent; Weiner, the newbie in the race, ran second, much better than anticipated, with 28.82 percent; Fields, the only African-American candidate, ran third with 15.92 percent; and Miller, an early favorite, came in fourth with just 10.19 per cent.

Under the law, if a candidate wins a plurality but not a majority (50.01 percent), and if neither of the candidates receive 40 percent of the vote, there is a run-off between the top two finishers. In this case, if Ferrer received 40 percent he would become the Democratic candidate. If he received 39.9 percent, a tad short of the goal line, he and the second-place candidate would compete in a runoff two weeks later.

The day after the primary, Weiner suddenly yielded to Ferrer, and enough votes were counted to put Ferrer just over the 40 percent mark. There was, therefore, no runoff. In November, Ferrer was swamped by Mayor Bloomberg, who was elected to a second term as the candidate of the Republican, Independence and Liberal parties.

We criticized Weiner for withdrawing four years ago, since his good showing exceeded expectations, but from a political point of view, he did the right thing. If Ferrer had been kept under 40 per cent by Weiner’s lawyers and vote-counters, an effort that would have required protracted and tedious litigation, there would have been a runoff weeks later, with Weiner starting out eleven points behind Ferrer. Even if Weiner won by picking up supporters of Fields and Miller, an entirely possible result, the outcome would be denigrated as a demonstration of anti-Latino bias.

In any event, Bloomberg was popular that year, and would most likely have defeated either challenger in November. Weiner left the field on a high note, having done surprisingly well in the primary by winning more votes than the combined total of the Manhattan Borough President and the Council Speaker, who had been a the second-most powerful city official for four years, and had warred with Bloomberg. Weiner came out the primary with substantially more name recognition. He followed Rule 19-Q2: Quit while you’re ahead. Weiner then turned his attention to the 2009 race, for which it was widely assumed that, as the City Charter required, the mayoralty would be an open seat.

Recently, facing Bloomberg, Thompson and Councilman Tony Avella, Weiner found himself in a different situation from the one he anticipated last fall. Two months ago, citing the press of Congressional business, he suspended his campaign and said he would decide whether or not to run for Mayor by the end of May. True to his word, on May 27tth, when the time approached to collect signatures on nominating petitions, Weiner chose to leave the field. He did not spend much of the $5.2 million he had raised in support of his candidacy. The Democratic county organizations were now free to support Thompson, avoiding ethnic division.

Perhaps Weiner consulted actuarial tables to calculate that, in 2013, Mayor Bloomberg, God willing, will have reached the age of 71, while Congressman Weiner will only be 49. More likely, the thought occurred to him on his own.

It is widely said that money is the mother’s milk of politics. The issue of race, however, may be called its hemlock (the poison extracted from the leaves of the hemlock plant, also known as conium. The coniferous hemlock tree, also called tsuga, is not harmful to humans).

Many political careers and campaigns have foundered due to indiscreet remarks seized upon by a rival candidate in an effort to show racism or bias. This is an area in which great care is required. One recent head to fall to that taboo was Senator George Allen of Virginia, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, who referred to a dark-skinned volunteer for his rival as a “macaca”, a type of monkey. It is a word that may be used as a slur against African immigrants.

When a minority candidate, or a woman, or disabled person is in the race, the white male must be extremely carefully in everything he says or does. Sometimes the mere fact of running against a minority opponent can be held against the candidate in future races. This could the case with Attorney General Andrew Cuomo’s possible 2010 gubernatorial challenge of Governor David Paterson. Despite Paterson’s low polling numbers, the Governor’s ethnicity and physical disability may dissuade Cuomo from running in the Democratic primary. In the media and political circles, Cuomo has already been faulted for opposing Carl McCall for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2002. Ultimately, Cuomo withdrew from the race although he was still on the primary ballot. Will he now oppose an incumbent African-American to seek promotion for himself? On the other hand, if Cuomo holds back, and Paterson is defeated by a moderate Republican, that would not be a satisfactory result either.

Resolving this sort of dilemma used to be left to party bosses. One result of their decline in power and influence is that there are no longer authority figures (Godfathers, perhaps) to address political problems of this nature. The voting public makes the decisions, in primary and general election, influenced by radio and television advertising. By then, however, it may be too late to achieve the desired political result.

Anthony Weiner, in his decisions in both 2005 and 2009, may be credited with keeping his powder dry, and not entering into a situation likely to lead to defeat. During both campaigns, he seems to have navigated tricky political territory with some agility, although the result is that he has remained in his current office, which is nothing to sneeze at.

For Weiner, the downside on his decision would be a Thompson victory over Bloomberg, an outcome he must publicly support while he may privately cringe. This observation is not based on personal knowledge of any individual’s psyche, but with experience in government one acquires a certain familiarity with “the business we have chosen” (Rule 29-B). It would require a far more altruistic temperament than any politician I know possesses not to be dismayed at the ascent of a rival to a position one thought unattainable. Recent example: Democratic heavyweights declining to seek the Presidency in 1992 because they thought Bush 41 was unbeatable after Kuwait. Without that, we might never have had Bill and Hillary.

What would politics be like then?


#561 06.01.2009 2148 wds

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