Anthony Weiner surely has many warped inclinations, but in my view his most peculiar fetish does not involve sex at all. Instead, it’s his consuming obsession—which he repeats with robotic repetition—to help “the middle class and those struggling to make it.”
This past Monday, one day before the latest scandal broke, Weiner was asked at a senior center in Riverdale which candidate for mayor other than himself he would choose. “I would look for someone who focuses like a laser beam on the middle class and those struggling to make it,” he responded.
At the Tuesday press conference in response to the dirty work of his alter ego Carlos Danger, Weiner stated that his wife, Huma Abedin, had been willing to give him a second chance. This led him to a seamless transition: “For the past several months, I’ve been asking New Yorkers to also give me another chance to show them that I have a vision for the middle class and those struggling to make it.”
On Wednesday, amidst the calls for him to bow out of the race in the wake of the salacious revelations, Weiner sent an email to his crestfallen supporters which quickly invoked the mantra. Then on Thursday night, when peppered with questions about the scandal by a throng of reporters, he repeated it four times in less than three minutes!
Sure, every political campaign aims to define a clear message, and in order to be successful the candidate needs to sound like a true believer in it. But who, exactly, are the voters that belong to this category in the city these days? That depends, of course, on how one defines middle class.
Weiner himself doesn’t bother with explaining the specific criteria that make up the category. In his campaign pamphlet, Keys to the City: 64 Ideas to Keep New York the Capital of the Middle Class, Weiner invokes the term “middle class” over a dozen times on the first page of the Introduction, but never clarifies who qualifies. As the pamphlet’s subtitle indicates, he repeatedly calls the city the “capital of the middle class,” yet he never identifies when this mythical era existed. In his recent New York profile, Mark Jacobson says that for Weiner, the middle class is “as much a symbol as a reality,” or as Weiner described it, “an aspirational thing.”
Others have given the subject more sustained investigation. In 2009, the Center for an Urban Future released a report called “Reviving the City of Aspiration: A Study of the Challenges Facing New York’s Middle Class.” Although the title would seem consistent with Weiner’s definition, Jonathan Bowles and the study’s other authors connect individual psychology to economic reality. To be middle class, they argue, mainly requires “a modicum of economic stability,” by which they meant “having enough money coming in—or in reserve—that you can pay your bills every month, have health insurance, own a home computer or laptop with Internet access, afford to live in a safe neighborhood, send your kids to a quality public school and take a vacation at least once a year.”
As a case study, let’s consider Park Slope, where Weiner grew up, and the place that Jacobson says he has in mind when discussing the middle class. It’s considered a safe neighborhood and many parents move there because of the good public schools. Bowles and company included home ownership (or at least the possibility thereof) as part of their definition. The median home price in Park Slope is over $1.3 million, and the median rent is $2,800. What this means is that a couple needs to bring in six figures just to rent—and in order to buy a place in the Slope, they will likely need a lot of help from their parents.
Most folks would view Park Slope as at least an “upper middle class” neighborhood these days. But there aren’t a whole lot of places for the middle strata in the city that are considered safe with good schools. And so you can aspire all you want, but unless you’re bringing in large money, you won’t be moving to Park Slope any time soon.
Then again, maybe it’s not really those trying to move up that Weiner has in mind when he repeatedly invokes the term middle class. Perhaps it’s those people who make high six-figures and live near Gramercy Park, like Huma and himself, or many folks now living in the Slope. They are rich but don’t want to admit it. Instead, they want nothing more than to bond with those below them on the ladder. It’s all a bit perverse, for sure.