Two scandal-tarred pols may be one too many
By Jonathan Lemire
After weeks of carefully managed political repair work that has lifted Anthony Weiner from sexting scandal punch line to front-runner in the New York City mayoral campaign, he suddenly faces a threat from someone who's not even in the same race: Eliot Spitzer.
The former New York governor's surprise entry into the city comptroller's race now means there are two sex scandal-comeback stories competing for the media's attention, and the constant mention of both in the same breath has once again put Weiner back under the lens of infamy he has worked so hard to escape.
"It's horrible timing, just as Weiner was rising in the polls," said Democratic strategist Dan Gerstein, who is not affiliated with any candidate in the 2013 race. "Now, we've had a weeklong conversation about sex. Character may become a central issue again."
Asked Baruch College political science professor Douglas Muzzio: "One sex scandal is one thing, but do we have enough forgiveness for two redemptions?"
Weiner, a fiery Democrat who used to represent Brooklyn and Queens, resigned his congressional seat in 2011 after an embarrassing scandal that included racy online exchanges with women and lewd Twitter photos of his bulging, underwear-clad crotch. He entered a self-imposed exile from public life only to return with his brash mayoral bid two months ago.
In the first days of his campaign, he patiently answered voters' questions about his wrongdoings and gave a series of lengthy interviews in which he apologized and asked for a second chance. His opponents barely mentioned the scandal, their campaigns believing Weiner's seemingly longshot bid would implode on its own.
But many New Yorkers seemed to respond with an everyone-makes-mistakes shrug. Drawn to Weiner's celebrity status and compelling campaign style, would-be voters largely cheered him at his campaign events and sent him to the top tier of candidates in mayoral polls. The buzz around his surging bid allowed Weiner to largely move past the scandal and instead run an issues-based campaign, all while drawing media attention that dwarfed what was received by his rivals.
Spitzer, who resigned in 2008 after admitting he paid for sex with prostitutes, endangers that, experts believe. Suddenly, two men who did not have much of a relationship while each was in office could effectively be joined at the hip.
"Anytime you talk about Spitzer, you're reminded of his scandal. ... He becomes a constant reminder of Weiner's transgressions too," said Tom Doherty of Mercury Public Affairs, a political consulting firm that does not have a client in either the mayoral or comptroller race.
"The two of them, in two different races, may have the effect of pulling each other down" by giving Republicans an opening to portray Democrats as morally challenged, added retired Hunter College political science professor Kenneth Sherill.
The latest cover of New York magazine, for example, shows a mash-up photo of Spitzer and Weiner's faces. And Weiner's main Democratic rival for mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, lumped the two scandal-scarred candidates together this past week, questioning in a news conference: "What have Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer done to earn that second chance? ... I would say not very much."
During his time as attorney general and then governor, Spitzer made several powerful enemies in conservative circles, some of whom could decide to spend big to thwart his return. Weiner may end up in that line of fire.
"Anthony could be collateral damage if there is a major ad campaign against Spitzer," Doherty said. "If those ads are all over TV and a constant reminder of scandal, it could bleed into the mayoral conversation."
Spitzer and Weiner may be forced to run similar campaigns. Shunned by the Democratic establishment and bereft of endorsements from unions and political organizations that can provide key ground troops, both men have assembled lean campaign staffs and will need to rely on formidable campaign bank accounts.
Weiner has also benefited from an extraordinary amount of media coverage, some of which he may lose as the spotlight shifts to Spitzer. The former governor's first public appearance as a comptroller candidate drew a scrum of reporters far larger than any that has followed Weiner.
Meantime, the former congressman tried to deflect question after question about Spitzer from reporters who suddenly had little interest in the mayoral hopeful's latest policy proposal. "It is because I'm doing so amazingly well that this happened," a clearly annoyed Weiner snapped about Spitzer's return.
"Spitzer is sucking all of the air out of the mayor's race right now," Muzzio said.
But many political observers feel that won't be a permanent or fatal development for Weiner's campaign, especially if Spitzer opens up a significant lead over his primary opponent, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer. In that first poll, Spitzer enjoyed a 9-point lead.
"Weiner is still going to get attention because his race is going to be competitive throughout and because mayor trumps comptroller," Doherty said.
Weiner himself insists that his chances aren't affected by Spitzer's comeback.
"I'm focused entirely on my campaign and I think that I'm being rewarded because I'm waging the fights that people want," he said. "The voters are going to decide what subjects they want to have a conversation about."
Associated Press writers Jennifer Peltz and Jon Gerberg contributed to this report.