The American flag in his lapel made Anthony Weiner look all the more like a guy still in the game when he strode into the gym turned polling place at PS 101 in Forest Hills, in the Queens borough of New York City, early this afternoon.
“Nice to see you!” he exclaimed on entering with a smile to match the sunny day.
Weiner shook a poll worker’s hand. “How are you doing?” Weiner said.
“Fine, and you?” the man asked.
Weiner responded as a man who has a wife who stood by him through his shame and who has his first child on the way. “Lot of blessings,” Weiner said.
He faltered for a moment when he saw that the tables had been reconfigured since the 2010 election, when he had been elected to his sixth term as the representative of the Ninth Congressional District of New York.
“It’s all reorganized!” he exclaimed.
Somebody directed him to a table marked with the number of his home electoral district, the 36th. He was wearing a white shirt, black jeans, black loafers, and a sports coat with a subtle plaid print that drew a compliment from a poll worker named Marion Spatz at an adjoining table.
“My wife wants me to get rid of this,” Weiner said. “It’s the way all the kids are dressing today.”
He noted that the tables were bereft of what was long an Election Day tradition. “They didn’t bring you cookies?” he asked. “Politicians today, they just mail it in.” He recalled aloud the politicians of earlier times, who pile polling-place tables with treats. He noted that the practice had ended when authorities outlawed the little “Compliments of …” notes. “What’s the point?” he said.
Spatz took the opportunity to ask a question that had long pestered her: how could his mother have given a nice Jewish boy an Italian name like Anthony?
“Frances Finkelstein is a lot of things,” Weiner said. “Italian she’s not.” He explained that he had a great aunt named Anna who was from England, the land of the likes of Anthony Hopkins. He added that the name had proven to be an advantage when he campaigned among the Italians of Howard Beach. “Suddenly, Tony is not such a bad thing,” Weiner said. “I thought, I finally made it. I’m an actual cross-cultural candidate!”
Spatz marveled at this new world where people went around with names like Brian Schwartz or Kevin Stein, “Or Barack and Obama,” Weiner said. “Who knew?”
He was making a knowing joke. This election was being touted as a referendum on the president’s performance in office. But even back in 2008 at the height of Obama fever, only 55 percent of the district had voted for him. The prevailing political wisdom was that, in one observer’s words, “There’s a lot of them wouldn’t vote for the schwarzes,” to use an offensive Yiddishism for African-Americans.
Weiner now turned to the table for the 36th District. He stood waiting for a long moment before realizing it was staffed by the one poll worker who did not recognize him. “Oh, I’m sorry, is this your first time?” he asked. “Anthony Weiner. W-e-i-n-e-r.”
The woman began shuffling through the register for the 36th Electoral District in Queens. “With a W,” Weiner said.
She found his name and handled him a ballot for an election that would not have been were it not for our first sex scandal where there was no actual sex. He stepped over to the privacy booth and then to the scanner machines.
“Just one office today, right?” he asked, as if more than one incumbent representing Forest Hills had resigned and needed replacing in a special election. He fed the ballot into one of the machines, which recorded an unexpectedly heavy turnout in the neighborhood he was in the process of leaving for a Manhattan apartment; 603 voters at 1 p.m., when a primary would have been expected to draw around 200.
The Republican candidate was the same one Weiner had faced in 2010 and beaten by 20 points, Robert Turner. The most Weiner could do for the Democrats now was to step over to the privacy booth and make a mark next to their candidate, whose only clear position has been that he is afraid of losing.
“I voted for David Weprin,” Weiner said after he scanned in his ballot, sounding not unlike a campaign ad as he went on to say, “For people in the middle class, those struggling to make it, there’s only one candidate in the race who has those priorities in mind.”
He then sounded not unlike the combative Anthony Weiner who had always made his positions clear and had never been afraid to be partisan on matters of political principle. “It’s bad when any district goes Republican,” he said. “All 435 in Congress should be Democratic.”
Here was the feistiness that likely could have made him the victor had his name been on the ballot. The election really then would have been a referendum—only on how willing voters are to forgive private failings and lies in the face of shame, how Puritan we are.
Weiner now went from table to table, shaking hands and speaking as if he were still in office.
“How are you? Nice to see you. Thank you for your service today,” he said again and again. “I know it’s a long day.”
He beamed on greeting a manifestly local dignitary, Joe Hennessy, the 73-year-old chairman of Community Planning Board 6. “Mr. Chairman!”
As Weiner departed the gym, he encountered a woman whose left arm was in a cast.
Weiner now went from table to table, shaking hands and speaking as if he were still in office. “How are you? Nice to see you. Thank you for your service today,” he said again and again.
“What did you do to your wing?” he asked. The woman explained that she had fallen down some steps.
“Just a little advice, come up with a more dramatic story,” Weiner said. She reported that she had been babysitting somebody’s dog when it caused her to fall. Weiner suggested adding that she and the dog had been chasing a bad guy down the street. “Heroically,” Weiner suggested, saying that he was offering, “advice from a politician …”
He caught himself.
“… a former politician.”
He seemed to have been summoning irony as a force to help him keep perspective on Anthony Weiner. He went out into the sunshine, where the air rang with the shouts of the kids of PS 101 in the playground. He will soon have the blessing of his own child, and maybe that recent study about fatherhood lowering testosterone will prove to be true in his case.
But however devoted a dad he becomes, it seemed to the people back in the gym that he had never ceased being the politician he has always been. “As if he was running again already,” Joe Hennessy said.