Judging by the decibels of the applause he received at a Jewish debate in Brooklyn on Wednesday, Anthony Weiner stands a good chance of picking up a sizeable chunk of Jewish votes in his bid to become the Democratic candidate to replace Michael Bloomberg in the upcoming November elections for Mayor of New York.
Sitting alongside him on the dais of the synagogue at Manhattan Beach Jewish Center, Weiner’s six Democratic rivals could be excused for concluding that the reports of the certain political demise of the recently-disgraced former Congressman may have been a tad premature.
In the mayoral forum organized by the religious, right-wing Jewish Press newspaper, Weiner had his audience from the get-go. As his rivals struggled with the proper pronunciation of “metzitza b’peh”, the traditional yet controversial custom of oral suction during circumcision – the very first question asked by Jewish Press editors (!) – Weiner jumped on the chance to prove his Jewish credentials by prattling off half a dozen Hebrew/Yiddish words, including “simcha”(happy occasion), “melave malka” (the end of Sabbath meal), “tashlich” (sin-cleansing ritual), “kishkes” (guts, literally and figuratively) and Jonathan Pollard to boot.
Among his other advantages, Weiner is the sole Jewish candidate in a wide Democratic field that ethnically includes one Irish woman as well as a Puerto Rican, a Taiwanese, a Brooklynite with Caribbean roots and two Catholic Italians. In what many people consider to be the most Jewish city in the world – with or without Israel – in which almost a fifth of the Democratic voters are Jewish and which has elected two three-term Jewish mayors in Bloomberg and Ed Koch in recent years, being Jewish is a definite advantage.
And Weiner’s very decision to run can only be described as the height of chutzpah, in a city that cherishes the trait.
After all, it was only two years ago, almost to the day, that Weiner was caught in an excruciatingly embarrassing “sexting” scandal in which he sent lewd messages and photos to strangers while his wife was pregnant; when his suggestive Jewish name was turned into an eternal fountain for racy headlines and off-color jokes; when he ham-handedly tried to lie his way out of the quicksand of scandal and found himself sinking further; when he was finally forced to retire, hide at home, and be universally pronounced dead as a dodo as far as his political future was concerned.
But Weiner is a quick-thinking, sharp-tongued, almost quintessential New York politician whose fame converts into instant name-recognition and whose notoriety, however earned, might actually work in his favor. Whether it is Christian redemption, Jewish teshuva, Les Miserable or Walk the Line, most people are suckers for stories of bad guys gone good, even those who aren’t all that convincing. “I am not a perfect man,” Weiner told his Jewish audience, in what some people may describe as the understatement of the decade.
There is no doubt, however, that Weiner’s entry has injected public interest and media frenzy into a contest that, until now, had seemed drearily unremarkable. The organizers of the Jewish Press were more than delighted to announce that Weiner was joining their mayoral forum because that ensured both media coverage and an almost-full house at the South Brooklyn Jewish center that has yet to recover from the ravages of Hurricane Sandy.
I asked Ari Kagan, a Democratic candidate for the NY City Council who supports NYC Comptroller John Liu, to look around at the eclectic mix of Orthodox Jews, Russian immigrants and old-timers from Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay and tell me who they’ll vote for. Weiner, he said without hesitation “because of his name recognition.”
But that’s not all. These are Weiner’s old stalking grounds, in what used to be, before redistricting, the 9th Congressional District that he represented from 1999 until his resignation in May 2011, whose constituents wanted him to stay on, despite everything. And he is still espousing the same mix of liberal domestic line and ultra- hawkish positions on Israel and the Arabs that speaks to what political consultant Jerry Skurnik defined in the New York Observer as “Likud Jews” (though if you read the Jewish Press you may come to the conclusion that the Likud is just another leftist-leaning, Arab-appeasing, barely Zionist party…)
Weiner will face a tougher sell, of course, among Catholics, who constitute the biggest Democratic voting bloc, Manhattan liberals, who may take a dimmer view of Weiner’s un-politically correct transgressions or even strictly Orthodox Jews, who will be hard pressed to decide what they object to more: Weiner’s digital philandering or his Muslim-born, Saudi-educated, Washington-savvy wife, Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s trusted aide.
Early polls show Weiner closing in on frontrunner Christine Quinn, the fiery, redheaded and openly gay Speaker of the New York City Council, with more than a fighting chance to make into in a run-off second round of the Democratic primaries in late September. But the conventional wisdom that views Weiner’s prospects as dim continues to hold, with the blessing of projections Guru Nate Silver who has categorized Weiner’s run as “a long shot”.
But one must always leave room for the possibility that the memory of Big Apple voters is shorter than believed, that their willingness to forgive and forget is greater than estimated, that their thirst to confound conventions and defy expectations will all work in Weiner’s favor. A Weiner victory, of course, would be a stunning upset, the comeback of the century, a source of inspiration and hope for disgraced politicians everywhere.
As everyone knows about New York, if you make it here, you can make it anywhere. (Or is it “fake it”?)
Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev
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