New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn had been to the Democratic National Convention three times before, but this year’s event was different. These days, Ms. Quinn is widely seen as the front-runner in next year’s race to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
In May, just 10 days after President Barack Obama announced his support for same-sex marriage, instantly making it one of the hottest topics of this election cycle, Ms. Quinn married her longtime partner Kim Catullo in a wedding that received almost Kardashian-esque coverage from New York’s political press corps and made her one of the highest-profile married, openly gay politicians in the country.
With her newfound notoriety, it would seem, the stars are aligning for Ms. Quinn to follow Mr. Bloomberg’s footsteps as the most prominent mayor in the country. However, she will first have to cut her path to City Hall through a crowded field of opponents and a Council that may include members eager to exact revenge on the outgoing speaker, while also battling the persistent impression she is a political stand-in, a Medvedev to Mr. Bloomberg’s Putin.
That said, she hasn’t formally announced her plans. When we asked whether she has her eye on City Hall, Ms. Quinn shook her head and repeated this reporter’s name at least eight times like a disappointed parent.
“You know, I am very lucky to have an amazing job as speaker of the City Council, in a way kind of beyond my wildest dreams. I’m here at the Democratic Convention as a delegate, so we’ll deal with 2013 later on,” she said, seated at a patio table at CNN’s pop-up DNC grill.
Still, Ms. Quinn’s growing star power bodes well for her probable mayoral run. She led in early fund-raising, and the most recent Quinnipiac University polling shows she has nearly three times as much support as any of her likely rivals.
Ms. Quinn’s rise in New York politics has been fueled by what those who have worked with her describe as remarkable intellect and a reputation for burying herself in information. Along with what she calls her “geeky” disposition, Ms. Quinn’s political stamina seems to come from a genuine desire to make a positive contribution.
For Ms. Quinn, politics is often personal. As a gay woman, she has devoted much of her time and energy to same-sex marriage and other LGBT issues. At the convention, she made plans to visit Delaware to aid the push for marriage equality in that state and to fund-raise on behalf of the effort to legalize gay marriage in Maryland.
Ms. Quinn said she was “very” involved in the push for gay marriage in New York and had “lots of conversations” about the “strategy around getting it done” with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. When President Obama announced his support for the issue, Ms. Quinn discussed the news on Piers Morgan Tonight.
As an adult, Ms. Quinn said she “struggled” with telling her father about her sexuality. (Her mother died when she was a teenager.) In her mid-twenties, she made a trip to his apartment to break the news.
“My father’s first reaction, no, I wouldn’t call it supportive,” she recalled. “He said, ‘You should never say that again,’ when I told him that I was a lesbian. And I said, ‘You know, look, I did what I had to do. I told you. You can do whatever you want with the information.’ It was chilly for a few months, then things came around.”
Ms. Quinn’s father went on to walk her down the aisle at her wedding to Ms. Catullo. She said the experience convinced her others could change their opinions on gay marriage.
“Was it what he thought one of his child’s lives would be? No. But did he evolve? Did he get over it? Yes. Is that to me evidence that everyone can? Yes.”
Same-sex marriage isn’t the only national issue with which Ms. Quinn has personal experience. “You know, I lost my mother when I was 16 and she was 56, to breast cancer,” she said. “So, breast cancer and women’s health is an incredibly important issue to me.”
In her time at the convention, she met with representatives of Planned Parenthood and the pro-choice organization NARAL about using legislation she backed in the City Council regulating pro-life “crisis pregnancy centers” as a model for elsewhere around the country. She also made arrangements to travel to Chicago for “anti-gun violence work.”
In one of two national cable news appearances during the DNC, Ms. Quinn went on MSNBC to discuss women’s issues. On Hardball, Chris Matthews emphasized his guest’s status as a cable newcomer. “The great Christine Quinn, New York City Council speaker, who I believe is running for mayor of the great City of New York,” Mr. Matthews said. “So the new kid on the block … you get to speak first here, Christine.”
As the camera panned to Ms. Quinn, she smiled and raised her eyebrows as Mr. Matthews referenced her mayoral prospects. She went on to offer impassioned support for the Democratic Party platform.
As warm as the national spotlight has been, however, Ms. Quinn may need to tidy up things on the home front before measuring the drapes at Gracie Mansion.
Since she was elected Speaker in 2006, Ms. Quinn has quite literally set the agenda for the New York City Council. She presides over meetings; proposed legislation is submitted through her office, and she oversees the Council’s discretionary funds. It’s a powerful role and a challenging one.
Councilman James Oddo, who as leader of the small Republican minority is part of the Council leadership with Ms. Quinn, said the members of the legislative body are difficult to manage, particularly as a mayoral election approaches.
“If council member X does something ridiculous, and we’ve seen ample examples of that, it gets put on your doorstep, particularly when you’re running or perceived to be running for higher office,” Mr. Oddo explained. “You’ve got 50 other people who are ambitious and have their own agendas and their own plans for the future. And you have to try to corral that.”
Mr. Oddo describes himself as an “unabashed fan” of Ms. Quinn. Though they “don’t agree on everything,” he said he admires her work ethic, preparation, intellect and humor, and the “love” she has for politics and policy.
Mr. Oddo characterized Ms. Quinn’s approach to government as involving long hours and a mastery of minutiae. “I respect her sort of obsessive-compulsive approach to city government,” said the councilman. “There’ll be times when I’d look, I’d skew a glance at her and give her the ‘What the F’ look. Like, how did you remember that?”
Still, according to some accounts, the tight control she has exerted over the body may have caused a buildup of pressure that’s set to explode just as she’s poised to make a run for mayor.
Multiple council members declined to speak for this story, but we talked with a council member and a council staffer who agreed to discuss Ms. Quinn as long as we didn’t identify them.
The staffer said Ms. Quinn has ruled by fear, withholding “member items” (the discretionary funding given to the pet projects of council members) from those who have crossed her. They also accused her of stalling bills and legislation she doesn’t approve of, specifically the Paid Sick Days Act, which was proposed in 2009 but has since languished without a vote in the Council despite being sponsored by 37 members.
“Because she holds the purse strings,” the staffer said, “the people that speak out, the people that challenge the majority thinking, those people typically wind up with less.”
The council member we spoke with agreed that Ms. Quinn has made members “fear” her and speculated this was why we were having trouble finding more of them willing to talk on record.
“Can you like someone and fear them at the same time?” the council member asked. We wondered whether Ms. Quinn, who first joined the Council in 1999, had managed to do both.
“No,” the council member said. “I don’t know if any of them like her.”
Indeed, the staffer we spoke with warned that some of Ms. Quinn’s dissenters who are tired of being “bullied” may see her mayoral bid as making her vulnerable.
“Certain members have talked amongst themselves about how they don’t use their power and how that may need to change in the lead-up to the mayoral,” the staffer said ominously.
Nonetheless, the source conceded Ms. Quinn might be able to ward off “retribution” by promising “something in return, should she be elected.”
The council member we spoke with was more doubtful, however. “As she runs next year, I’d imagine she’s going to try to grow her support,” they said. “I don’t know if it’s by making nice with those colleagues. I don’t know if that’s what she’s capable of doing.”
A spokesman for Ms. Quinn dismissed concerns of dissent in the Council.
“The Council has always been a place for lively debates over interesting ideas among members who represent diverse communities,” the spokesman said. “We fully expect to see vigorous debates next year as we do every year.”
Although Ms. Quinn also has a reputation for being too cooperative with Mayor Bloomberg, Al Hagan, president of the Uniformed Fire Officers Association, described watching Ms. Quinn strongly oppose the mayor’s efforts to close firehouses.
“No firehouses were closed while she was on watch as the speaker, despite the fact that every year City Hall was calling for really massive closings,” he said. “I chuckle all the time when I read things that say she’s the mayor’s surrogate. I don’t see it that way at all.”
Mr. Oddo thinks Ms. Quinn prefers to have her fights with Mr. Bloomberg in private. “Every now and then you have to very publicly kick them in the groin,” he said. “She has chosen not to do that. I’m aware of some of those private moments where she has gone headlong into the administration that never necessarily made the newspapers.”
On those occasions, Mr. Oddo said there’s no questioning Ms. Quinn’s intensity. “When she is unhappy, she thunders, and I love it.”
For her part, Ms. Quinn implied she was the one pulling the strings in her relationship with City Hall.
“I think he has a close relationship with me,” Ms. Quinn said of Mr. Bloomberg when asked about the perception she’s too cozy with the mayor. “I made a decision that Michael Bloomberg and I would work together. I made a decision we would get as much done as we could for the people of the City of New York, and I made a decision that when we couldn’t come to agreement, we would disagree agreeably.”
She pointed out she has opposed Mayor Bloomberg on several “issues around social services,” including his food stamp fingerprinting plan and his homeless shelter policy.
“We’re actually suing the mayor over the homeless housing thing,” she said, “and somebody said to me, ‘What does this mean about your and the mayor’s relationship?’ I said, ‘Nothing! We’re not dating, get over it!’”
Either way, as she luxuriates in her newfound attention, balancing the various interests that have defined her career thus far will be crucial. Perhaps once again Ms. Quinn’s personal life will prove instructive. Since being set up with Ms. Catullo on a blind date the week after September 11th, Ms. Quinn has had to learn to find a balance between her workaholic tendencies and her life with a woman who was initially wary about dating a politician. For example, Ms. Quinn said, she stopped checking her BlackBerry at night because Ms. Catullo “would scream” about it.
Ms. Quinn wouldn’t tell us where the pair went on their honeymoon this summer, but she assured us that she was able to put work aside during the trip, for the most part.
“I BlackBerryed very little,” she said, “and I think my staff would even confirm that I was remarkably off the grid, which is not, like, my strength.”