Weiner and Spitzer: Will Voters Reward Bad Behavior At the Polls?

Disgraced New York politicians try to sell the public on forgiveness.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Mike Segar / Reuters

Democratic candidate for New York City Mayor Anthony Weiner stops to speak to the media outside his New York City apartment July 24, 2013

This article is featured in this week’s magazine under the headline “Men Behaving Badly.” Not a subscriber? Click here to purchase a year’s worth of TIME for only $30.

It was hard to believe that New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner could fall any further. But then an anonymous tip to a gossip website revealed on July 22 that he continued his lewd online behavior more than a year after resigning from Congress in disgrace—even after the birth of his child, while he was boasting to the press about the recovery of his marriage. It turns out there were more selfies of his crotch, more unprintable fantasies and, now, the revelation that he had communicated online under the pseudonym Carlos Danger.

In another era, this would have ended his public life. But instead, he appeared the next day before the Big Apple’s ravenous press, looking confident and in command, his lovely wife beside him, defending his honor. “She has given me a second chance,” he said. “I want to bring my vision to the people of the city of New York. I hope they are willing to still continue to give me a second chance.”

Of course, Weiner is not the only one doing the redemption shuffle in New York City this summer. Eliot Spitzer, the disgraced governor who resigned in 2008 after admitting to an expensive prostitution habit, has also been trying to turn his public shame into ­a qualification for office. A day after announcing his campaign for comptroller, he teared up on MSNBC. “You go through that pain, you change,” he said. His latest television ad plays to the same theme. “I failed. Big time,” he says. “When you dig yourself a hole, you can either lie in it the rest of your life or do something positive. That’s why I’m running.”

(PHOTOS: The Anthony Weiner Scandal)

Spitzer acknowledges that there could be a silver lining to his failures. “There are some collateral consequences that aren’t purely negative,” he tells TIME. “I’d never say, ‘Gee, this is an affirmatively good thing,’ but if it tempers and changes public attitude because it softens someone who is now more empathetic and now more conscious of emotional dynamics with others, the public senses that.”

The question now facing New York voters is whether shame works as a selling point. The scandals have already helped both men dominate their rivals in notoriety and media coverage—the two most vital currencies in New York’s costly ad market. They have also each won some empathy points with Democratic primary voters, for whom personality tends to matter more than policy differences. Just before the latest revelations, Weiner seemed to be escaping his scandalous past at campaign events. “Oh, I don’t care. Which one of us is perfect?” said Frieda Natt after Weiner spoke at the Riverdale Senior Services center.

And in a city that loves a tough guy, the pure brazenness of these men’s transgressions could be a selling point. “You don’t send crotch shots of yourself to people you don’t know, you don’t hire prostitutes on a business trip without being aggressive,” says Kenneth Sherrill, a political-science professor at Hunter College. “It is as if they were running ads that say, ‘Vote for me. I’ve got balls.’”

(VIDEO: Wife at His Side, Weiner Admits to More Online Sex Chats)

Since entering what had been humdrum races, both men have used their dominance of the public discussion to promote their plans. Spitzer says he would expand the role of the traditionally boring comptroller into a corporate watchdog that uses the city’s pensions to put pressure on big business. Weiner has proposed using New York City as a “laboratory” for single-payer health insurance by ­creating a system like Medicare to cover the city’s workers, retirees and undocumented immigrants. “It is nobody’s fault that sex sells,” says Stu Loeser, former spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “More people know about Anthony Weiner’s platforms in part because the notoriety gives him a megaphone that allows him to make a sale.”

According to a New York Times/Siena College poll, 61% of registered voters in New York said understanding “the needs and problems” of people like them was the most important quality in a candidate. The Weiner family played on those sensibilities when his wife Huma Abedin, a longtime Hillary Clinton aide, spoke at the press conference. “It was not an easy choice in any way, but I made the decision that it was worth staying in this marriage,” she said. “That was a decision I made for me, for our son and for our family.”

The damage done by the latest revelations is not yet known. Weiner has now admitted to two rounds of lying to voters about his personal life, spaced roughly a year apart. His current plan is to power through the controversy, dragging his city and its joyous tabloid press along with him. As for whether voters have seen enough change in Spitzer, the candidate admits, it’s an open question. “I’ll find out Sept. 10,” he said.

MORE: Weiner and Spitzer Both Rise to Top in New York City Poll