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Anthony Weiner Rises as His Media Mob Declines

As several journalists waited on Tuesday a little after noon on the north side of Manhattan’s Union Square at the thrice-weekly farmers market, it could be difficult to tell who was there for former congressman and current mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner—young earnest assistants and young earnest media members, all dressed business casual—and who was just there to grab lunch outdoors at the tables on a nice, hot day. The vast majority of people arriving were in the latter group. All in all, there were barely more than a dozen reporters and cameramen. Only two microphones sat at the lectern; only an NY1 television camera (plus the odd camcorder-like device) took video.

It was not always so. Look at events from when Weiner first formally began to run for mayor, just a couple weeks ago, and you would have seen a large horde of press. But according to several of the regular beat reporters I spoke with, the circus has become smaller and smaller. “Were you there for the event yesterday?” one aimlessly asked another as we waited in the sun for the candidate, who was about 20 minutes late for the event despite the fact that it was right around the corner from his Gramercy neighborhood. “No,” she laconically replied.

Finally, Weiner did arrive, wearing a white dress shirt, a tie, jeans, and a cell phone holster (obligatory detail, right?). The point of the press conference was to draw attention to federal food stamps, which the House and Senate are likely to cut drastically, prompting several prominent pols, including Newark Mayor Cory Booker, to live on the equivalent of food stamps for a week. Weiner, who comes out of the Sen. Chuck Schumer school of media relations, is not one to pass up such a juicy gimmick, and so he, too, would draw attention to the food-stamp cause by spending no more than $1.48 per meal for the coming week. Breakfast, he noted, had been a tea bag dipped in several different cups of hot water. His campaign, after all, is about not only “the middle class” but also “those struggling to make it there.” He then proceeded to mildly troll the press, asking us if there were any volunteers who would care to undergo the food stamp challenge with him. There were no takers.

Afterward, Weiner moved slowly through the market toward Park Avenue, getting stopped every few feet by passersby who recognized surely the most recognizable of the ten or so mayoral hopefuls. He looks exactly as he does in pictures: His hair is a field of thin curls, and his large features and skinny neck give the impression of a caricature in a magazine. Still—and call me naïve—I was surprised to see such a high percentage of people clearly recognize him. And there was no snickering I could detect among the gawkers: Even if they knew from the embarrassing “dick pic” scandal two years ago, it did not appear to be on their minds. Rather, he is simply a celebrity; or, alternatively, he is the same politician who, as a U.S. representative, was expert above all else at being seen on the evening news advocating (sometimes dubiously, as a New York Times article published Wednesday reported) for various policies benefiting his constituents in Brooklyn and Queens.

As we left Union Square, it was Weiner, a few aides, and about a dozen members of the press walking five blocks uptown to a Morton Williams supermarket, where we proceeded to watch Weiner shop for his meals, his press secretary keeping a count on her iPhone’s calculator of how much he would be spending. (At Capital New York, Dana Rubinstein has a good recounting of some of the more humorous exchanges. My favorite was a disquisition on the relative merits of dried peas, pink beans, and lentils—how much each cost, and how easy each was to cook—whose attention to detail verged on the Talmudic.)

But what struck me most about my hour with Weiner were the ordinary decent folk we ran into, and how supportive they were. One woman, talking on her cell phone, noticed him, freaked out mildly, and gave him her cell phone. He proceeded to find out that the speaker on the other end was a New York resident and to say, “I’d like your vote in the Democratic primary.” After a pause, he added, “If you tell me you’ll at least consider it, I’ll take a picture with your friend.” As we left the supermarket, a doorman saw Weiner, stared him down, and began to shout, “Don’t give up! Don’t give up!”

The supermarket stunt was retail politics (get it?) at its wackiest, but his dealings with everyday voters was retail politics at its finest. He was tough, fair, open, true to his persona, and tireless; he had the ability to make these people feel he had time for them, but only for them, which is what everybody wants to think is true of everybody. And they seemed to love him.

His press may be dwindling, and yesterday it devoted its time to a food shopping expedition. But does it matter? Weiner’s polling has gone up since joining the race. Though City Council Speaker Christine Quinn remains the favorite, she has not darted to the type of lead some thought she might. A good bet right now would be to suppose that none of the seven Democratic candidates will get a majority in the September primary, landing the top two finishers in a run-off; and there is, in turn, a good chance that one of those two will be the former congressman. The media may no longer be obsessed with Weiner. But, for the first time in his political career, Weiner may not need the media.