Congressman Anthony Weiner has called off his plans to run for Mayor of New York City. DelMundo for News
I WAS the kind of New York kid who played stickball in the street, made pocket change working at the local bagel store and handed out leaflets on Election Day. I loved New York. I couldn’t imagine why people would live anywhere else.
Other dreams came and went, but as I became more drawn to politics, my love for the city grew. And the idea that I might be one of the people who could help it maintain its diverse yet proudly local, strong-willed but fiercely tolerant personality seemed like a gift.
It’s for this reason that I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking about whether I should run for mayor. While that’s been the question on my mind, a lot of people I have talked to have asked a different question: “How can you win?”
It’s easy to understand where they are coming from. All you need to do is see the avalanche of television ads for Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose huge war chest and incumbency can be daunting. It’s also easy to understand the desire to focus on the horse race aspect of a campaign.
But for me, these have been side issues. What has animated me most during these past months is how much Washington has changed, and the potential for greater movement still. With a progressive sweep in all branches of the federal government, major economic reform, a new energy bill and an overhaul of health care ahead, this is a moment when ideas matter. I’ve had to evaluate what I could accomplish in Washington if I was in a heated campaign in New York City at the same time.
And the work in Washington isn’t easy right now. Although President Obama ran on a platform of reaching out to all sides, most Republicans haven’t reached back — not a single Republican representative, for example, voted for the economic stimulus package. It will take a lot of fighting to pass legislation that can help middle- and working-class people.
The discussion of how to have a new kind of politics has taken on a special significance for me as I’ve contemplated running for mayor of New York City. About two months ago I announced that I would postpone deciding whether to run. I believed the issues we were confronting in Congress were important and decisions about campaigns could wait.
But it’s also true that there is no escaping the reality that political campaigns have become longer and more negative, and often seem focused on style and non-issues instead of substance. The mayor is expected to spend $80 million of his own money in the race, more than 10 times what candidates who have not opted out of the city’s public campaign finance program, as Mr. Bloomberg has, can spend in a primary.
With spending like that, regular debates about real issues will probably take a back seat to advertising. As a native of Brooklyn, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t savor a good scrap. But I’m disappointed because I’m increasingly convinced a substantive debate simply isn’t likely right now.
The sad truth for a political candidate without deep pockets is that while money isn’t the only thing, it does matter. Campaign finance laws are vital, not just to keep special interests from dominating campaigns, but also because in this case they could help prevent vast disparities in spending.
The other truth is that the Supreme Court decision in 1976 in Buckley v. Valeo, which allows candidates to spend however much they want on their own races, makes it possible for billionaires to swamp middle-class candidates. In this case, a sports analogy is apt: If one football team has 110 players on the field, the team with 11 has a hard time getting through the blocking and tackling on the crowded turf.
The personal choice for me is whether to run for mayor this year. I’ve taken stock of my life, my work in Washington and decided that now is not the right time to run. I believe I have a contribution to make in Congress fighting for New Yorkers. (I’d also like to build a family.)
I have respect for the leading Democratic candidate in the mayor’s race, City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a respect that only reinforces my conclusion that running in the primary against him in September would only drain the ability of the winner to compete in the general election.
I want the city to be a success. I don’t agree with Mayor Bloomberg on everything — for example, I disagree strongly with his effort to overturn the term limits law without a vote by New Yorkers. But I think the mayor has tried to be innovative in some areas, and he has avoided the divisive racial politics that can cripple our city. So I will continue to work with Mayor Bloomberg whenever I can, and disagree forcefully when I believe his policies leave the middle class and working class behind.
For my supporters — and for most New Yorkers — politics isn’t about tactics, it’s about making their lives better. I’m convinced this is an important time for our city and our country, with millions of people in economic peril but with real opportunities for progress in Congress. I plan to be part of that discussion.