Weiner, whose ninth district includes parts of Queens and Brooklyn, represents what is arguably the most Jewish congressional district in the U.S. Raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, in a middle-class Jewish family, he now lives in Forest Hills, Queens, and is—as he likes to remind people—a true New Yorker. His parents are divorced: His father, Morton, is a lawyer, and his mother, Frances, a retired public school teacher. He had two brothers, Jason and Seth (who was killed in a 2000 hit-and-run accident). Weiner and his mother are close, and she has accompanied him on campaigns—though he refused to have his mother answer questions directly. “She’s completely out of control,” he tells me. “You have no idea what she’s going to say.”
Weiner attended New York public schools, from Brooklyn Technical High School to SUNY Plattsburgh, where he graduated in 1985 with a degree in political science. He went to work for then-Congressman Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and became something of a protégé; he reportedly said to his boss, “I’m going to take your job some day.” He learned quite a bit from his mentor—also Jewish, and now the senior senator from New York—and, most notably, has absorbed much of the media acumen for which Schumer is known. “As a staff member to Schumer, he learned how to take advantage of the electronic media and how to get on television,” says Mitchell Moss, a professor of urban policy and planning at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Former Republican Senator Bob Dole once said the most dangerous place in Washington was the space between Schumer and a camera, and critics could say the same of Weiner.
In 1991, at the age of 27, Weiner became the youngest person elected to the New York City Council. He was considered an underdog, but he won—and once on the City Council, focused on issues ranging from graffiti and public housing to stairwell fires and increasing police presence. In one project he dubbed “Weiner’s Cleaners,” he put at-risk teens to work cleaning graffiti on New York City streets. Soon, he was hooked. “I had no great aspirations for a political career,” he says of his youth. “But I ran for City Council, and I haven’t looked back since.”
When Schumer decided to run against Republican Senator Al D’Amato in 1998, Weiner seized the opportunity to run for the open seat. With his former boss’s support and a dogged campaign that took him to doorsteps across the district, Weiner emerged victorious. He was appointed to the Judiciary Committee and was nominated “whip” of his freshman class. In the years since, he’s been re-elected easily in his heavily Democratic district, and following the September 11 attacks was appointed to the Homeland Security Task Force.
Currently, Weiner also serves on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which deals with issues ranging from overseeing telecommunications and public health to air quality and interstate trade. Now in the minority, he doesn’t head any important committees—or any subcommittees, for that matter—and isn’t considered a heavyweight within his party.
“He’s gained a national profile that exceeds his power and seniority,” says Moss, the NYU professor. “He doesn’t have enormous power in the House, but he compensates for that by getting on cable news programs. His style is well-suited to cable television—he’s aggressive, sharp and thrives in hand-to-hand combat. That’s not how legislation is passed, but it’s how he’s able to get national exposure.”
Not surprisingly, Weiner is said to work his staff incredibly hard. A 2008 New York Times article found that he’s had more turnover than any other member of the New York House delegation. And former employees, lobbyists and congressional colleagues told the Times that he is particularly intense and demanding.