During a summer season of politics charged with issues of race, it has been black voters in New York who have helped propel the political redemption of former Congressman Anthony Weiner.
The once Twitter-happy candidate, who resigned his House seat in 2011 after sexting disclosures, has surged to the top of the polls in the race for mayor, and he leads the current crowd with 25 percent of Democratic primary voters, according to this week’s Quinnipiac University poll. Former front-runner, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is second with 23 percent, and last election's runner-up, former Comptroller William Thompson, is a distant third with 11 percent.
Congressman Weiner's lead is greatest among black voters – 31 percent say they prefer him, more than Speaker Quinn and Comptroller Thompson combined. And since Weiner is slightly trailing Quinn among white and Hispanic voters, according to the poll, it appears his strong support among blacks – who also have the lowest number of undecideds – is giving him his current lead.
This comes as a surprise to many, especially since Thompson, who is black, came close to unseating Mayor Michael Bloomberg in the last election, carrying more than 3 of 4 black voters in 2009.
So why do so many now seem to be gravitating toward a man who had to resign his congressional seat after sending lewd pictures of himself to a host of young women and then lying about it?
Of course, the campaigns are quick to point out that it is early in the electoral season. And getting relevant samples of racial and ethnic minorities is notoriously difficult in these kinds of polls. But significant factors are contributing to the strong black support for Weiner, especially the simple fact that he is addressing the issues important to them in ways the other candidates are not.
"Willie Thompson has been almost subterranean in terms of outreach into the African-American community, in terms of speaking out on the issues of concern to them," says Randolph McLaughlin, a professor at Pace Law School in New York and an attorney specializing in voting rights. "And one of the main issues, certainly, of concern to African-American voters is the question of stop-and-frisk" – a policy that allows cops to frisk people for weapons if they feel the person presents a threat is about to commit a serious crime.
Thompson "has been silent, if not apologetic, for the policies of the Bloomberg administration on that score," says Professor McLaughlin.
Quinn, too, has not spoken out aggressively for the issues important to black voters. She has built a reputation as an outspoken advocate of gay marriage – a cause black voters are less likely to support, according to many polls. And both she and Thompson have more moderate, centrist styles, short on the outrage that many black voters are looking for in elected officials – an outrage that Weiner, a master of the fiery quip, is able to express more freely. At a black church in Staten Island this past Sunday, for example, Weiner compared stop-and-frisk to 1938 Nazi Germany.
"Because of his problems, Weiner has zero institutional support, so he can kind of say whatever he wants," says Evan Thies, founder of Brooklyn Strategies and a longtime political consultant in New York City. "Meanwhile Christine Quinn, for all her virtues, has become a very institutional candidate, because of the broad institutional support she has, and that limits her ability to take a harsher tone, and she has to be more nuanced, and that is limiting her in her ability to match his level of anger about these issues important to African-Americans."
Thompson, too, has emphasized his qualifications and experience, and has avoided taking controversial stands.
"He's not making headlines. He's a mild-mannered, soft spoken David Dinkins type," says McLaughlin. "He's no firebrand. And again, if you look at media coverage, you will see that William Thompson isn't getting that much press, and frankly, unless his picture is in the paper, folks wouldn’t even necessarily know if he was black, if that's an issue for them."
But Weiner's quest for political redemption may be helped, too, by what some have called a strong culture of faith and forgiveness among black voters, especially. From former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry to President Bill Clinton, black voters have many times given overwhelming support to candidates mired in personal scandal.
"In politics in New York, you can see how closely likely Democratic voters in black communities are tied to their faith communities – and how the two correlate very highly," says Mr. Thies. "Veterans of campaigns like myself who have been in these churches during campaign season – you can really see that culture of forgiveness, that culture of understanding, in a way that you often don't see in much more cynical parts of the city."
Of course, as in any political contest, name recognition is essential – call it the celebrity factor – and the sex scandals of Weiner and former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer have dominated the headlines. In fact, both candidates easily have the highest name recognition in their races, and this typically correlates with higher polling numbers.
"It’s like he's the Kim Kardashian of politics right now,” says McLaughlin. "Now Mr. Weiner, well, he's been a little more outspoken, and until Eliot Spitzer stepped into the race, Weiner was, like, everywhere. You couldn't spit on the sidewalk without Weiner doing something – he was omnipresent. And with that kind of media frenzy, everybody knows his name. But whether that will translate into votes in September in the black community, that’s another question."