Does Anthony Weiner's Redemption Really Mean He Has to be Mayor?

NEW YORK, NY - MAY 23: Anthony D. Weiner is seen in the West Village on May 23, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Alo Ceballos
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 23: Anthony D. Weiner is seen in the West Village on May 23, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Alo Ceballos/FilmMagic)

In any discussion of electoral politics that lasts long enough, usually ten or fifteen minutes, somebody will nod sagely and say "all politics is local." This expression is heard so frequently that many forget who coined that term, former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill, or are likely to stop saying it simply because it is no longer true.

The sudden resurgence of Anthony Weiner, from disgraced has-been to leading candidate for mayor of New York City in about a month, is evidence of this. A mayor's race in New York, particularly one where there is an open seat, is unlike any other election in the U.S. It is a major race in a city that is the global media capital and has more people than most states, but it is often decided by ethnic ties and highly localized issues. It is a strange hybrid that feels like part presidential election and part city council race.

Weiner is now one of the two leading candidates for the Democratic Party's nomination for mayor. A lot can happen between now and the primary, which is still more than three months away, but Weiner is a strong candidate who has real chance of becoming New York's next mayor. One of the more interesting things about Weiner's candidacy is not how he has come all the way back from resigning from Congress due to a bizarre Twitter-related scandal, but that his appeal has so little to do with local, or even city-wide, issues; nor is his appeal based on communicating a feeling like the anger that drove Rudolph Giuliani to victory in 1993, or the urgency of racial harmony which was central to David Dinkins' successful campaign four years earlier.

Weiner's appeal seems to be that as a member of Congress, he was loudly critical of President George W. Bush during his eight years as president. In a city that on national issues leans very heavily Democratic, this has made Weiner very popular. Weiner deserves some credit for his criticisms of Bush, and later support of President Obama, but it hardly makes him stand out in a field of liberal Democratic candidates. Bill de Blasio, for example, has a record of progressive activism, serving in Democratic administrations and helping elect Democrats to office that is at least as impressive as Weiner's. The same can be said for several of the other Democratic candidates.

Weiner has better name recognition outside New York largely because of the scandal that cost him his seat in Congress, but he also is reasonably well known among progressives nationally. If all politics were truly local, it would be difficult for Weiner to translate that reputation into support in a Democratic mayoral primary in New York City, especially when running against four other Democrats who have visible positions in city government.

Before Weiner won his seat in Congress he was also in the City Council, but during his time in that legislature he was more known for his ambition than for a progressive record or any real accomplishments. His time in Congress was defined more by his outspoken progressive views than for any particular legislative accomplishments. This, on its own, is not unusual. Many elected officials are ambitious, and there is a need for people who are strongly partisan in congress. However, they also do little to make Weiner the kind of person who is likely to be a good mayor. Since leaving the City Council, Weiner has not been involved in many local issues, other than taking the standard progressive positions. The one New York issue for which he is best known is his strong views against bike lanes. Cyclists are a contentious issue in New York, but Weiner's comment to the mayor, who for all his ample faults is a supporter of cyclists, that he wants to "tear out your f*cking bike lanes," does not seem to reflect a progressive approach to environmentalism or urbanism.

Weiner's campaign, as it stands now, is largely about his personal narrative of making a mistake, paying the consequences and now seeking forgiveness and a new lease on political life from the voters. People outside of New York may think Weiner is the best candidate because he is a progressive, but voters in New York have a different choice to make. For voters here, the question is not whether or not to elect a progressive, or even whether or not to forgive Anthony Weiner. Instead, the question is which progressive should we elect. Weiner is one of several progressive candidates. In that field of candidates, Weiner is unusual not for his progressive positions, but for his relatively thin record on local issues and relative lack of experience in local government. It may be true that a few unfortunate indiscretions on Twitter should not be enough to end a political career, but it is equally true that forgiveness for these transgressions should not have to entail making Weiner mayor.