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Henry J. Stern

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September Surprise?

Posted: 08/25/11 04:10 PM ET

The possibility of an upset in the special election September 13 to fill Anthony Weiner's congressional seat should cause Democratic leaders some anxiety.

Although Assemblyman David Weprin, the Democratic candidate, must be considered the favorite in view of the heavy Democratic edge in registration, the Republican nominee, Bob Turner, is running hard. In 2010, Turner opposed incumbent Weiner last year and won 40% of the vote in what had been considered a deep blue district. When Weiner was forced to resign June 16 as a result of a sexting scandal, Governor Cuomo chose September 13, primary day, as the date for an election to fill the remainder of Weiner's term, which would have expired January 3, 2013.

Anthony Weiner, who had served eleven years in Congress before he was brought down by scandal, was not convicted or even indicted for any crime. He did not have sexual intercourse with any of his online acquaintances. He did not pay anyone for sex, nor did he threaten or abuse anyone to secure sexual favors.

Weiner did not cheat on his taxes or claim fictitious deductions. He did not assault anyone of either gender. He did not betray his office by seeking bribes for his vote. He did not kill, steal, or commit physical adultery. He did covet higher office, but that is no sin. Millions of men around the world have gone on the internet to find sexual excitation or release. Unless it involves minors, such behavior is not a crime.

What he did, in circulating nude pictures of himself and sending salacious messages to his pen pals, is ludicrous and pathetic. If a private citizen behaved that way, it would be the height of folly and a matter of serious concern to his family. For an elected official seeking the mayoralty to do such a thing and jeopardize one's career and one's marriage indicates a shocking lack of awareness of the sensibilities of the public.

However, foolishness and narcissism are not sufficient grounds for the removal of an elected official, particularly if his conduct did not violate the standards set by criminal law. Nor did his constituents demand his removal, according to public opinion polls at the time. They knew him, and wanted to reserve to themselves the right to pass judgment on his aberration. There was some sympathy for a nice boy gone astray. Nor did he want to resign; he desperately clung to his job, because that was the validation of his existence.

In the end, it was Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leadership that compelled him to go, because they felt his misconduct would injure the party in the November 2012 elections. It was a 'holier than thou' attitude which carried the day, as well as the mob mentality which often accompanies lynchings, physical or judicial. Weiner's abrasive personality, his arrogance and his self-promotion had won him no friends among his colleagues, and his office manners led to frequent turnover on his beleaguered staff. Weiner was not an appealing figure, and his public downfall created no mourning on Capitol Hill.

What is fascinating here is that Nancy Pelosi and company drove him out, not because they were necessarily horrified by his juvenile behavior, but because they thought it was to their political advantage to lance the boil, to cull the black sheep from the block, to fumigate and sanitize the party label. This was Pelosi's judgment even though Weiner had supported her for speaker in January 2007 over Steny Hoyer, a more moderate and less divisive Democrat. Perhaps she objected to the fact that he objectified women in his correspondence. Her attitude recalls Rule 32-Y: "Yes, but what have you done for me lately?"

Historical Interlude -- How the Seat Was Won and Held, 1923-2011

The Congressional seat itself has a noteworthy political history. Originally thought of as the Jewish seat in Brooklyn, it was occupied for fifty years (1923-72) by Emanuel Celler, who rose to become chair of the Judiciary Committee. He was the fourth-longest representative in the history of the House. The record holder is John D. Dingell of Michigan, who assumed office on December 13, 1955, succeeding his father and namesake, who served a mere 22 years. The silver medalist is Jamie Whitten of Mississippi (1941-1995), who chaired the Appropriations Committee. Third was Carl Vinson of Georgia (1914-65), who chaired the Armed Services Commitee. A nuclear-powered aircraft carrier was named in his honor in 1980 when he was 96 years old. He is a grand-uncle of former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Ga).

Three other men had longer tenure, aggregating the years in the House and in the Senate. They are Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia (1953-2010), Carl Hayden of Arizona (1912-69) and Daniel Inouye (1959 to the present). Hayden had been sheriff of Maricopa County and Inouye was a Territorial legislator before Arizona and Hawaii gained statehood.

Celler, a stalwart of the Brooklyn Democratic organization, was upset by 31-year-old Elizabeth Holtzman in the 1972 Democratic primary. She served eight years before running for the Senate in 1980. She won the Democratic primary over Bess Myerson, John V. Lindsay and John J. Santucci, the Queens DA, but she lost the general election to the town supervisor of Hempstead, Alfonse D'Amato, who had defeated incumbent Jacob K. Javits in the Republican primary. Javits stayed in the race, polling 664,544 votes on the Liberal line from New Yorkers who were not enchanted with either major party candidate.

The seat Ms. Holtzman vacated was taken by Charles E. Schumer, who had been an assemblyman since 1974, the year he graduated from Harvard Law School. Schumer, who was 23 when he was first elected, had defeated an organization candidate to win the Assembly primary, which in that district was tantamount to election. Schumer held the House seat for 18 years, until he entered, and won, the Democratic Senate primary, handily defeating (with 51%) both Geraldine Ferraro (21%) and Mark Green (19%).

It was to fill Schumer's vacated seat that Anthony Weiner, then a City Councilmember, was elected in 1998. Again, the real contest was the Democratic primary, where Weiner (28%) outpolled Melinda Katz (27%), Noach Dear (22%), and Daniel Feldman (22%). Weiner's margin over Ms. Katz was 285 votes. She was later elected to the City Council and chaired the Land Use Committee there. She came in third for City Comptroller in 2009, ahead of only David Weprin, who was fourth. Without making a judgment on the merits, it is clear that Katz and Weprin, both middle-class Jewish councilmembers from Queens and City Council committee chairs, appealed to precisely the same base.

Weiner was re-elected six times, and since Congressional terms end in even-numbered years, he had the odd-numbered years to pursue his quest for the mayoralty, which he did in 2005. After a surprisingly strong performance in the Democratic primary, Weiner could have made the runoff against Fernando Ferrer, the frontrunner, but he withdrew from the race rather than opposing the former Bronx Borough president in a bruising racially charged battle reminicent of the Ferrer-Green runoff in 2001. In any event, Weiner would most likely have lost to Bloomberg in the general election.

In 2009 Weiner planned to run but decided not to after Bloomberg's people said they would spend over $100 million on the campaign, 20 percent of which was to be devoted to what is called "oppo research" on his rivals. We do not know what skeletons Weiner had in his closet at that time, which was two years ago, when Weiner was single. There is, however, a major rule, 16-J, "Nobody does it once." If you are curious, you can ask us who the J stands for.

Back to the Future

To return to 2011 and the current campaign, both sides have printed misleading offensive literature. Weprin says that Turner would abolish Social Security and Medicare, while Turner implies thats Weprin would support a mosque on every corner and uses 9/11 imagery to make his point, which is incredibly tacky. And the good stuff is usually saved for the last week. Money from outside the district is flooding it to support each of the candidates.

We do not know what will happen in the September 13 election. "As luck would have it" (Rule 17-A), this will be a closely watched contest, and the result may be taken as a measure of President Obama's popularity, which is not overwhelming at the moment. Adding the scalp of Gaddafi to that of bin Laden would help the president, and no one can be certain of what will happen in the next three weeks. The political waters were roiled to an extent by Mayor Koch's vigorous endorsement of Turner, which Koch explained as an expression of displeasure at Obama's apparent lack of affection for Israel. Historically, many Jews are supportive of the authorities, who they believe will protect them from enemies. In the old country, they did not believe the czar himself was anti-Semitic, it was just his ministers who gave him bad advice. Some older Jews still believe they are voting for Franklin D. Roosevelt.

It is more likely that economic conditions will affect the outcome of the special election. This is a heavily Democratic area, part Brooklyn, part Queens. No matter who wins, the district is likely to be partitioned in the imminent decennial reapportionment, so the election must be viewed as a one-term proposition. Its principal effect will be the potential embarrassment that a Republican victory would bring. At this moment, that seems unlikely, but special elections are particularly hard to predict. The polls as yet unreleased will have influence on the outcome.

One observation we can make is that when the House Democrats tried to play it safe by throwing Weiner under the train in June, rather than leaving that task to his constituents, no one anticipated that, in September, the party would be struggling to avoid a greater shame: the defeat of a regular Democrat in a blue New York City district by a candidate running against President Obama. The 24-hour media cycle makes it possible today for elections to turn on a dime on the basis of new disclosures, whether they are true or false.

The latest Democratic defection may be Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who is quoted on page six of yesterday's Post, saying, "I will not support David Weprin." Hikind objects to Weprin citing his religion in voting for the gay marriage law in June. "Weprin basically used his Jewish orthodoxy to say gay marriage is OK. He used his orthodoxy to say gay marriage is kosher. That crossed the line." Hikind has previously supported Republican candidates in races where gay marriage was not an issue. He said he would meet with Turner in the coming days.

In the secrecy of the ballot box, one can only imagine how former Congressman Weiner will cast his vote. I suspect he will vote for Weprin, so he can answer questions truthfully and avoid responsibility for what may happen. What he wishes for in his heart I cannot tell, but I know how I would feel under the circumstances.

 

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