(CNN) — In recent days, with the tiniest poke of a toe in the political waters — a few comments to news organizations about the recent Supreme Court ruling on President Barack Obama’s health care law — has set off a frenzy of speculation that he may be planning to run for mayor of New York in 2013.
At first glance, a second political act for Weiner might seem impossible. It was a little more than a year ago that the liberal Democrat crashed and burned on national television, tearfully resigning after right-wing bloggers exposed his bizarre habit of sending raunchy photos and messages to strangers.
But he’s being taken seriously in New York political circles — an acknowledgment of his considerable energy and talent for championing middle-class values, and a testament to the city’s habit of tolerating and rehabilitating fallen pols.
It was June 2011 when comedians of late-night TV were feasting on Weiner’s misery. Conservatives crowed over the scalp they’d claimed — and were ecstatic when a Republican won the special election to replace Weiner. A few months later, with no longtime incumbent to protect the seat, Weiner’s district was eliminated altogether when population changes required New York state to reduce the size of its congressional delegation.
That appeared to be the final chapter in Weiner’s political career. He claims to have no plans beyond caring for his newborn son and insists that recent news stories are simply wrong.
But that’s not the end of the story to those of us who have been watching Weiner since the days when, at age 27, he became the youngest member of the New York City Council.
Although known across the nation as a left-wing firebrand, Weiner has had a profile in New York as a pragmatic, centrist Democrat willing to break from the city’s liberal orthodoxy. In 2005, when Weiner made a first run for mayor, he publicly castigated the eventual Democratic nominee for proposing the re-imposition of a local tax on every stock trade to raise money from Wall Street (a favorite but unworkable liberal plan).
Weiner often railed against the rising cost of living for his financially squeezed constituents (45% of whom voted for John McCain in 2008) and co-founded a bipartisan Middle Class Caucus in Congress.
As the third and final term of Mayor Michael Bloomberg winds down, the field of Democrats running to succeed him lacks a candidate with Weiner’s loud, laserlike focus on middle-class issues. That absence has political insiders wondering if there might be room at the table for Weiner.
Even more tantalizing is Weiner’s $4.5 million political war chest that would, if activated, qualify him for $1.5 million in public matching funds and land him near the city’s $6.7 million campaign spending cap. That makes him one of the best-funded mayoral candidates in New York, and more than just the punch line of a joke.
As for the ick factor — the creepy cause of Weiner’s resignation — he might end up benefiting from the wide latitude New Yorkers tend to allow public figures when it comes to their personal lives.
Back in the 1920s, one of New York’s most flamboyant and corrupt mayors, Jimmy Walker was married but carried on affairs with women who frequented the speak-easies that flourished in the city during his tenure. Walker eventually left his wife to run off with a “chorus girl” he later married, but the carousing didn’t stop him from getting re-elected in 1929 (when he defeated none other than Fiorello LaGuardia).
Fast-forward to modern times when Mayor Rudy Giuliani used a press conference to announce plans to separate from his second wife — who apparently learned of his intentions from news reports — and tried to have her kicked out of Gracie Mansion, the official mayoral residence, so that his new girlfriend could move in. Giuliani eventually straightened out his personal life: He got a divorce and girlfriend Judith Nathan became wife No. 3. New Yorkers more or less shrugged.
Even ex-Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who resigned after admitting to hiring prostitutes, has returned to public life, hosting a nightly show on Current TV and recently offering weekly commentary alongside other ex-officials on the New York political TV show “Inside City Hall.” As host of the show, I have received exactly one complaint to date.
Many New Yorkers — admittedly, not all — treat politicians the way they would a plumber or auto repairman: If you’ve hired the guy to unclog your sink or fix the brakes, he should be judged on that performance, and what goes on in his personal life should remain between him and his wife. In fact, according to a NY1/Marist College poll, a majority of Weiner’s congressional constituents thought he should not have resigned after the sexting scandal.
The biggest hurdle Weiner has to clear is the dishonest way he handled the early stages of the scandal. As the salacious photos emerged and the blogosphere exploded, Weiner unwisely had his office ring up various press outlets and went from one show to another, offering blatant lies and denials about how photos of his privates ended up on Facebook and Twitter.
That left a bad taste in the mouths of reporters, producers and editors. As the New York Daily News editorial board notes: “Weiner’s sexual escapades were, in fact, the least of his sins. He proved to be a stone-cold liar as he tried to save his skin.”
If it’s true that, as Weiner insists, he had no physical contact with the women to whom he sent raunchy messages, he will likely get as least as much latitude as Giuliani and Spitzer. And if Weiner has the support of his family — and is prepared to make a full apology for the lying — he can eventually expect to find his way back into some form of public service.
Your move, Mr. Weiner.