Claiming the Mantle of Ideas

Anthony Weiner, after seven years in Congress, aims to move to Gracie Mansion

Anthony David Weiner leaned back in a chair, propped his legs up on a windowsill, and yawned now and again as he spoke with a visitor at his William Street campaign headquarters early on an August weekday morning.

Normally, the four-term congressman would be living at a slower pace, perhaps even vacationing, with Congress out of session until after Labor Day, but he wants to be the 109th mayor of New York City and Weiner is running hard with an eye toward the September 13 Democratic primary.

“I’m trying to do three things in this race,” he said. “One is I’m trying to restore the notion that campaigns should be about ideas not just conflict. I think anybody would have to concede that I’ve won the primary of ideas.”

Weiner, 40, discussed his proposals for covering the estimated 1.8 million New Yorkers who have no health insurance, cutting taxes for the city’s middle class, improving public education, and, of course, a number of issues that are of particular concern to the queer community. These ideas are the tangible expression of his second campaign theme.

“We have to start realizing that the traditional ways of organizing campaigns in this city for Democrats haven’t worked terribly well, gathering up the largest political machinery, getting endorsements from as many other famous people and elected officials as you can,” Weiner said. “It doesn’t resonate with where most people are. They want to see your affirmative vision. They want more of a grassroots sense from a campaign and that’s what we’ve tried to do.”

Currently, the Democratic Party uses “1970s and 80s thinking” when it should be speaking to the city’s middle class, Weiner said, spelling out his third theme.

“The third thing that I think really animates this campaign is the idea that there are really millions of hardworking, middle class New Yorkers and those that aspire to make it into the middle class whose challenges are not being confronted,” he said. “Mike Bloomberg talks clear past them and I think to some degree my Democratic colleagues sometimes don’t pay enough attention to them either.”

A Mayor Weiner would give any New Yorker earning less than $150,000 a year a 10 percent tax cut. He would pay for that—it would cost an estimated $206 million a year—by creating a new, seventh tax bracket on those earning over one million dollars a year that would generate $79 million annually and by cutting waste in the city budget five percent per year. Weiner estimated that reducing waste would generate $1.7 billion annually. Some of that cash would also contribute to another proposal that would benefit the middle class.

“I talk about giving teachers a raise, restoring a sense of discipline in the schools, getting back to the basics in our schools,” he said. “These are animating ideas to me because we need to preserve the place the public schools have as an economic ladder for middle class families.”

To achieve his $1.7 billion, Weiner would require city agencies to rank their programs by “most effective, least effective, the most bang for the buck, the least bang for the buck, the most successful in solving the problems and the least.” Those that do not improve would face an uncertain future.

“Every commissioner is going to have to come to me at least twice a year and say, ‘This is how I rank them,’” he said. “We’re going to say to the bottom five percent you’re either going to have to reprogram it to make it work or we’re going to eliminate it.”

His defense of the public schools is personal. Weiner, a New York native, attended the city’s public schools his entire life and his mother taught in the schools for 31 years. His support for the middle class extended even to giving his father, a lawyer, a gentle lecture.

At a May 7 campaign event, held at the Park Slope brownstone in which he grew up, his father appeared after it was over carrying two large Rite Aid shopping bags. Weiner told his father he should take his business to the small locally owned pharmacies instead of patronizing the big chains that do not provide health benefits to their employees.

Whether those small businesses provide health insurance to their employees is debatable, but Weiner proposes to give them a hand on that score. The city, in a Weiner administration, would get those businesses to join in insurance-buying pools that might make health insurance more affordable for them. That is good for the employees and it certainly benefits the city to reduce the number of uninsured. As Weiner said at the May 7 event, “They are not not getting healthcare, they are getting healthcare in the most expensive way possible.”

When uninsured people get sick they can end up in hospital emergency rooms, including those in city-run hospitals, getting treated for illnesses that are better handled by a clinic or a private physician. The emergency room care is far more expensive and in the city-run hospitals the city pays the entire bill. Weiner will save some of that money by enrolling more residents in Medicaid, the government-run health plan for the poor and disabled.

Roughly 10 percent of the city’s $48.3 billion budget goes to Medicaid and that program has seen annual double-digit increases. The city, the state, and the federal government all contribute to Medicaid, but the city pays for, on average, 18 percent of an enrollee’s medical costs as opposed to 100 percent of those costs if that person uses a city-run hospital. Weiner would also achieve some savings by computerizing some Medicaid functions and moving enrollees into preventive care programs.

“We want to save money, but our priority must be to provide healthcare,” he said. “The high cost of Medicaid does not mean you stop providing healthcare to those who are most in need. What it tells you is that we should be doing everything possible to structure the program to maximize efficiencies.”

While his programs would realize “substantial” savings, he expects that costs will continue to grow though at a slower pace.

“Medicaid is not going to be a zero growth program,” Weiner said. “We’re going to have some growth in Medicaid so long as the City Of New York is left with such a large portion of the burden that is being passed along by the state and federal governments.”

In his political career, Weiner has risen rapidly. Beginning in 1985, he worked for then Representative Chuck Schumer for six years. In 1991, at 27, he became the youngest person ever elected to the City Council where he represented parts of Brooklyn. Weiner was one of 21 new members in the Council that, under Charter reform, grew from 35 to 51 seats.

In 1998, Weiner won Schumer’s House seat, where he represents parts of Brooklyn and Queens, when his former boss was elected to the U.S. Senate. Weiner is a Democratic whip and he sits on the judiciary and transportation committees.

“It’s the perfect combination of small thought, big thought,” Weiner said. “On the judiciary committee you’re dealing with gun control, criminal justice, intellectual property, gay rights, and everything else. Then on the transportation committee you’re dealing with bricks and mortar.”

Weiner said that he was able to garner $45 million for various New York City projects in the recently passed $268 billion transportation bill.

“Every six years it’s where you want to be,” he said. “Our gas taxes go into a trust fund and then every six years we pass the big transportation bill… I lobbied very hard among my colleagues to be put on the committee.”

On issues of interest to the queer community, Weiner has been particularly outspoken. He is a supporter of gay marriage and has been since he ran for Congress in 1998. Weiner is critical of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg for refusing to take a position on same sex-marriage for several years then saying he was a supporter even as his administration opposed a February ruling in a New York state court that required the city to issue marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples.

“I think Mike Bloomberg should be held accountable for the contradictory positions he’s taken here,” he said. “I think this issue shows, in fact, he does things based on a political calculation on how to keep his right flank satiated.”

Bloomberg argued that because such marriages would not be recognized by the state government allowing those couples to obtain licenses in the city would create false hopes. In Weiner’s view, allowing same-sex couples to wed would show that those marriages would not be somehow harmful.

“This notion that people would get false hopes, there would be chaos, there would be indecision, I think is a subset of the argument that my anti-gay rights constituents would make which is the sky will fall, we’ll have chaos, the city won’t be able to function,” he said. “I think on a political level the mayor denied us an important window of time to make our case.”

If elected mayor, Weiner would abandon the lawsuit initiated by the Bloomberg administration. He would also end the, to date, successful legal challenge brought by the Bloomberg administration against the Equal Benefits Bill, a city law that required contractors doing $100,000 or more worth of business with the city to offer the same benefits to the domestic partners of their employees that they offer to employees’ spouses.

“The mayor is, despite his protestations to the contrary, showing himself to be a very political creature when it comes to civil rights in this city,” Weiner said. “I take some lumps on this every day because, more so than anyone else in this race, I’m trying to lead my base on this issue rather than cheerleading for my base on this issue… I’m not going to parse on these issues. I support gay rights, I support gay marriage, I support people having the same basic benefits of living in this city and living in this country regardless of their sexual orientation.”

The Bloomberg administration has also refused to implement the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying bill that includes protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Weiner would implement it.

“It seems to be nothing more than their chafing at the idea of legislative control over their executive agency,” Weiner said. “There has been a certain level of contempt of outside suggestions from the Department of Education.”

Weiner is even willing to take on issue that can be difficult for any local politician—sex and AIDS education in the city schools.

“Here’s what we’re having,” he said. “We’re having again a dispute that hasn’t been successfully mediated by the mayor… I would empower the health department to come up with what it is every child should know by the time they’re 10, by the time they graduate intermediate school, by the time they graduate our high schools, and then task our education department to make sure it happens.”

The city has not updated its elementary school HIV curriculum since 1992, the middle school HIV curriculum since 1995, and the HIV curriculum for high school students since 1996. At a state Assembly hearing last year, Joel I. Klein, the schools chancellor, acknowledged that the city was not delivering effective HIV training or sex education to its 1.1 million students.

“Let me acknowledge the obvious at the outset,” said Klein, a Bloomberg appointee. “We need to foster healthy lifestyles among our young people and I think we’re beginning to take steps. While we are moving in the right direction, we have a lot more work to do.”

Those curricula and condom demonstrations were once hot button issues for New York City voters. How would a Mayor Weiner respond?

“If I do encounter that I’m going to deal with it the same way I countered resistance in my district on gay rights,” he said. “I’m going to lean into it and I’m going to lead. I’m going to try to make people understand that we believe that educating kids in a smart way about sexuality, about disease prevention, not only benefits those kids, it benefits all of us.”

Weiner is even willing to challenge those organizations doing HIV prevention work, though perhaps not as aggressively as he might his own commissioners. Since 2003, there has been growing sentiment that HIV prevention efforts among gay and bisexual men are not working. He would insist that they be “efficient” and “adaptable,” though he could not say how that would be determined.

“We’re going to have to figure out a way to measure it because every year they are going to be applying for money and I’m going to want to say show me it’s working and show me that you’ve got a plan to make it work tomorrow,” Weiner said.

There are no exceptions to the Weiner doctrine.

“The fundamental ethos of my campaign, the ethos of my administration, is going to be we’re going to be questioning things all the time the way we do things in the city to see if we can do them more efficiently,” he said.

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