NEW YORK—Armed with a laser pointer and several PowerPoint slides, former Rep. Anthony Weiner sought to distinguish himself on Thursday as the only Democratic mayoral hopeful willing to embrace what he called the "big" and "bold" ideas with a speech calling for a dramatic transformation of the way New Yorkers receive their health care.
But all it took was an apparent throw-away comment on a street corner several weeks ago to overshadow Weiner's latest attempt to turn the page from being the candidate who was forced out of Congress in a sexting scandal.
Instead of talking about health care, Weiner was forced to respond to questions about a published report that suggested he failed to strongly condemn a voter who used a homophobic slur to describe his mayoral rival Christine Quinn.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that Weiner, at a recent campaign stop, spoke to an elderly voter who described Quinn, who is gay, as a “dyke.”
Weiner, according to the paper, did not initially offer a reaction, asking the woman to sign a petition that would help him qualify for the city’s mayoral ballot. But the Post reported Weiner quickly shifted gears when he noticed the “incredulous reaction of a reporter.”
“You really shouldn’t talk that way about people,” Weiner told the woman, according to the Post.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the woman replied.
“It’s OK,” Weiner reportedly said. “It’s not your fault.”
The story forced Weiner into damage-control mode, telling reporters that the conversation with the woman occurred when he was standing in a "scrum of people." He insisted again and again he had condemned her comment and didn't recall any further discussion with the woman.
“When I heard the woman make that remark, I immediately admonished her not to say anything further,” Weiner told reporters, who surrounded him with tape recorders and cameras. “I don’t have any memory of saying anything beyond that to the woman.”
He added, “Let me make very clear that any utterance of any type of slur against any community I won’t tolerate.”
Weiner repeatedly said he has a “long record” of supporting gay rights, even though he represented a “fairly conservative district” in Congress and risked alienating his constituents.
“I feel very strongly about these issues and I did admonish the woman, and if there was something else that was said that was in any way interpreted as anything else, that was wrong. I admonished the woman, and I believe she shouldn’t have said what she said,” Weiner declared. “There should be no slurs like this of any kind” in the campaign, he added.
While the Quinn campaign had no response, two gay state lawmakers released a statement criticizing Weiner’s initial response to the voter.
“We are appalled by the account in the Washington Post of Anthony Weiner’s unacceptable response to a prospective voter’s homophobic, misogynistic slur in reference to Christine Quinn,” Assemblywoman Deborah Glick and Sen. Brad Hoylman, both of whom have endorsed Quinn, said in a statement. “Weiner’s response to this blatant display of homophobia is completely inappropriate and extremely alarming.”
The episode overshadowed the health care speech Weiner delivered before a Manhattan policy group on Thursday in which he repeated his call for the creation of a “single payer” health care system modeled after Medicare and managed and publicly financed by the city. He said his proposal, similar to a plan he pushed while in Congress, would save money by “streamlining” the administration of the city’s health care and ultimately reducing overall coverage costs for all New Yorkers.
“New York is the ideal laboratory for a single-payer health care system,” Weiner said, pointing to the diversity of the population.
But Weiner offered only vague points about the mechanics of how he would begin to implement such a plan—especially in a political environment where President Barack Obama’s health care plan, which does not go nearly as far, is considered controversial.
He told Yahoo News he did not believe he would have to sign a law implementing the health care changes, but he walked away before offering other details, like whether he would require approval from the City Council or merely seek an executive order.
One element of Weiner’s plan that could generate some opposition from powerful labor unions representing city employees is a plan to ask municipal workers to pay more for their insurance. Under his proposal, current and retired city workers would pay 10 percent of their health care premiums, while smokers would pay 25 percent.
“Everybody has to have some skin in the game" for it to work, Weiner said.