Columbia Political Review: What do you think the gravest problem facing New York City is? What do you think New Yorkers’ biggest concern is? Congressman Anthony Weiner (D): The gravest problem facing New York is that our economic engine has stalled, and some of it is because those of us in government haven’t recognized that the true DNA of New York is not only finance and insurance and real estate, but also the energy, innovation, and creativity of the outer boroughs, and the new immigrant communities, and the artist and cultural communities of our city. We spend a lot of time fixating on office towers in Manhattan and very often we lose sight of the fact that there’s an exciting city out there and we haven’t done a good enough job making it livable for New Yorkers.
CPR: How do you think security issues play into that?
Weiner: I think that for the most part New Yorkers feel pretty secure in their persons and they feel that their city is pretty safe. And to the degree that they feel that New York is a target of terrorism, I don’t think that most New Yorkers lose much sleep over that.
CPR: Is there a difference in the education quality that students in the outer boroughs receive versus Manhattan?
Weiner: I think that education in New York is the tale of three cities. We have some truly great schools in New York and I’m fortunate enough to represent some of them that attract the best teachers. They have the most active parents’ associations. They are the ones that generate the Westinghouse Scholarships and things like that.
And then there’s a second group of schools, which is fairly substantial—maybe as many as a third of the schools in the city—that if you give them a little bit, if you give them a boost, if you give the attention that they need, if you give them the infrastructure and the creative administration that they need, can join that upper tier.
But then there is a large number of schools—maybe a third—that are in the bottom tier, that are just in so much need that they need a great deal of attention. Not coincidentally, that third of schools are disproportionately located in poorer neighborhoods, and in neighborhoods that are more likely to have heavily African American and Hispanic populations. And we can’t ignore that. There is a racial element to the way we distribute education resources. One of the great challenges of New York is to bring the success of our schools to everyone equally.
CPR: After Governor Pataki’s education reform commission released their report concluding that the state should spend an additional $2.5 to $5.6 billion over the next five years on education, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the city deserved $5.3 billion of that money. Considering that the upper limit the commission estimated for funds for the entire state is $5.6 billion, do you think the Mayor’s request is a bit high?
Weiner: You can make a pretty good argument, frankly, that that the Zarb commission report’s numbers are actually low. And I think at the very least we should be at the high end of what was a fairly modest suggestion. Now, that’s the merits of the issue; the politics, obviously, are more complex. You’ve got to figure out where it comes from and what you can get passed in the legislature and the like. But one thing we have to realize is that now if the legislature doesn’t do it, the courts are going to do it. The higher number is the one that obviously I think we should be pursuing.
CPR: What would you spend that money on?
Weiner: There are a lot of needs. Look, we obviously need to find ways to improve the physical infrastructure of our school system. That’s one of the ways that there’s been the most shortchanging of New York City. We have to invest in incentivizing, getting teachers to go to these less well-performing schools. We are not, despite the mayor’s protests, going to eliminate the seniority system. But I think what we can do is create a system to create incentives for the better teachers to go to some of the more challenged schools. And also we need to figure out ways to get past this debate over social promotion, to engage in a legitimate debate about whether or not just having smaller class sizes benefits everyone along the system, whether you’re a troubled student or not, and to find ways to reduce class sizes.
CPR: How do you feel about this proposal to construct a stadium for the Jets on the West Side of Manhattan?
Weiner: I’m troubled by it. I’m vetting it, the same way everyone else is. But to me it seems like what we should really be pursing is an expansion of the Javits Center, which is not controversial, and an extension of the 7 line to figure out ways to get people to and from there, which is also not terribly controversial, rather than bogging down two worthy projects with one that is more dubious.
CPR: I know you just called for a government audit of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation. Did the government make a mistake in turning to a foundation to handle the re-opening of the statue of liberty?
Weiner: Yeah. I think that the National Parks Service abdicated its responsibility when it treated this organization as not just a support group but as a substitute for the legitimate role of the federal government.
CPR: Why would you consider trading in your Congressional seat to act as New York City’s executive? Do you really think the Mayor can be more effective than a federal legislator?
Weiner: I think that being a member of Congress is a great job and it’s a high honor to hold this position, and I would never leave my constituents behind. I mean, I would seek to expand the number that I have. You’ve got a hundred times more responsibility as the Mayor and you’ve got a thousand times more influence over the day-to-day lives of your neighbors when you’re the Mayor. I’ve gotten pretty good in Washington at putting together a coalition of 50 percent plus one of my colleagues to get things done. But as Mel Brooks might say, ‘it’s good to be the King.’ It’s good to be able to do things with a phone call or the stroke of a pen.