Less than two years after resigning from Congress under less than ideal circumstances, Anthony Weiner is reportedly giving serious consideration to running for mayor of New York City. During his first bid for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2005, Weiner distinguished himself as a voice for middle-income outer borough voters who felt left out of Michael Bloomberg’s Manhattan-centric vision for the city’s future. To some, Weiner seemed like a younger, scrawnier Ed Koch, with the same bulldog tenacity and populist brio. Having graciously conceded defeat that year in the name of Democratic unity, many believed Weiner had a strong shot at winning the mayoralty once Bloomberg left the picture. Then, of course, he was caught sending creepy photographs of himself to various young female strangers, and then lying about it to the press.
So why, one might ask, is Weiner being taken seriously as a potential mayoral candidate? One reason is that he has $4.3 million in campaign funds, and he is entitled to an additional $1.5 million in public matching funds under New York City’s generous campaign finance system. The bigger and more depressing reason is that the leading Democratic mayoral candidates are hilariously ill-equipped to face the fiscal challenges to come, and voters are very open to someone new.
There are some solid candidates in the mix, but they’re not running as Democrats. Joe Lhota, the former MTA chief who served as Rudolph Giuliani’s right-hand man throughout the 1990s, has a wealth of administrative experience that would serve him well. Adolfo Carrión Jr., the Independence Party nominee and former Bronx borough president, is running on an innovative platform centered on revitalizing New York City’s neglected outer boroughs. But short of a miracle or a Bloomberg-level injection of super PAC money, it will be hard for either candidate to overcome the fact that they aren’t Democrats.
It is true that New York City hasn’t had a Democratic mayor since Giuliani’s election in 1993. Yet it is also true that the city is reliably, almost monolithically, left of center, with Democrats outnumbering Republicans 6 to 1. The city that elected Giuliani 20 years ago has changed in profound ways: The Latino, Asian and black shares of the electorate have climbed considerably; lower-middle-income white ethnics have lost political clout relative to upper-middle-income college-educated liberals; and crime rates have plummeted. In other respects, however, the city is much the same. While local public-employee unions have lost ground in states like Wisconsin and Indiana, they are as strong and influential as ever in New York.
As Christopher Elmendorf and David Schleicher, law professors at the University of California at Davis and George Mason University, respectively, observe in their 2012 paper, “Informing Consent: Voter Ignorance, Political Parties, and Election Law,” voters in cities such as New York with partisan elections for local officials vote for the party they support on the national scene. This is despite the fact that issues at the local level are radically different from those at the national level. One might be a “liberal” on abortion rights and federal higher education funding but a “conservative” on fixing potholes and controlling crime. In an ideal world, we might have local political parties ‑ say, the Free Subways Party, the Stop-and-Friskers and the Anti-Tax Free Love Alliance ‑ organized around specifically local issues. But national political parties have the First Amendment right to take part in local races, and they take advantage of it.