NEW YORK -- The race to be the next mayor of New York poured itself -- along with the humidity -- into an un-air-conditioned basement meeting room in the Lincoln Houses off 135th Street in Manhattan on Saturday night. Pipes layered with years of thickly-applied paint covered much of the ceiling, while the normally bare walls were adorned with resident-captured pictures of the defects of the New York City Housing Authority project in East Harlem -- trash piles where they shouldn't be, disgusting elevators, a demand to "Fix My Sink Now!"
Older men and women -- mainly women -- waited in the sweltering heat for the candidates to arrive for a Democratic primary forum, which was sponsored by the Reverend Al Sharpton's National Action Network, the Urban Justice Center and Community Voices Heard. It was supposed to start at 6:30, but the candidates dribbled in late for their overnight stays with families in the projects -- just one more adventure in their contest to be the next mayor of a city of dizzying wealth and gritty need, where poverty has risen three years in a row, the median household income is just under $50,000, and the majority of general-election voters are minorities.
Weiner arrived last. Sharpton had already given up on waiting and started the forum. Carrying a duffel bag, Weiner looked distracted and chastened. It was two days before his most recent sexting escapades were revealed. The other candidates spoke one by one, introduced by Sharpton, who had just come off a day of leading rallies on behalf of justice for Trayvon Martin. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was warm and measured. Bill Thompson, John Liu, and Bill deBlasio were exactly as compelling as you'd expect of people who were, respectively, the city's former comptroller, comptroller, and public advocate. And Weiner? He was, as is his wont, on fire.
"The fact of the matter is for too long people have been ducking responsibility. Way back in 1997 ... I don't know how many of you remember this. Do you remember that the stairwells in public-housing projects were bursting into flames?" he asked.
"Yes!" affirmed the audience. "That's right!"
"I took on Rudy Giuliani back then."
"I did too!" said Carmen Quinones, an East Harlem district leader.
"You did too. We had hearings all around the city."
"And what did it turn out happened? It turned out Rudy Giuliani's cousin's nephew's brother-in-law got the contract for the paint and it was creating fires all over the place."
"And we stopped it. We reversed it. We made it better."
"These are good people who are running for mayor," he went on. "These are all good people. We are devoted to change. Reverend Sharpton was right to call us all together because it reminds us, for all the things that divide us in this city -- and how we come from different neighborhoods, we root for different ball teams, we have different religions, different culture, different politics -- we are all unified by one abiding thing that's represented by the aspirations the Housing Authority was built upon. We all want to leave a family, a city, a life a little better than the one we found."
It was another in a long list of Weiner connecting moments, moments that had helped propel him to the front of the pack in polling mid-summer. Watching him on the stump in New York over a period of two weeks, Weiner reminded me of a warmer, rawer, Jewish John Edwards -- all momentum and connection and down-with-the-downtrodden positioning that was at once deeply calculated and totally heartfelt. Quinn, to continue the 2008 comparisons, seemed to be playing the role of Hillary Clinton -- the establishment frontrunner, female, more of an old-school transactional politician. Her remarks, as at the First Central Baptist Church on a Sunday in Staten Island, drew fewer cheers and aroused a less enthusiastic reply, but were peppered with a greater array of references to leading figures in the community she'd had a history of working with. (There doesn't appear to be any Obama in this race, though Thompson has surged with Weiner's collapse.)
The mayoral race is of interest to the national press primarily as a referendum on the comeback chances of the former seven-term congressman from Queens. It is of interest because of his 2011 sexting scandal and resignation, the redemption narrative of a disgraced national figure seeking to return to national life by governing one of toughest cities there is to run.
But on the ground, that's not what the contest is about. It is about privatization. It is about the poor. Ending stop and frisk. Unemployment, especially among the city's substantial black and Hispanic population. It's about what deBlasio had called "a tale of two cities." It's about the fact that New York City, after nearly 10 years of Republican (and independent) rule, is ready for a Democrat. Hungry for a Democrat. The extra final term of the Bloomberg administration has made some in the wealthier precincts of the city wish he could be appointed mayor for life. But to many others in the other New York, it has felt like democracy has been on hold for the last four years, stopped up like a rusty municipal-housing pipe. Nearly three-quarters of New Yorkers regret allowing him that final term.
The most interesting question about Anthony Weiner is not about the nature of his ego, or even his recent online sexual adventures, but what New Yorkers saw in him to begin with. Because they saw something.
It wasn't just name recognition that made him a contender, immediately and improbably, in a city that absorbed his disgrace with surprising generosity. Weiner quickly emerged as the best speaker on the stump in the Democratic mayoral field. Raw. Passionate. Hungry, as only someone seeking redemption as fervently as he is can be.