Christine Quinn, New York City Council speaker, mayoral frontrunner, gay-rights activist and bride-to-be, pointed to Manhattan’s Chelsea Hotel in a gesture telling tenants she was on their side.
“Asbestos literally lurks in the air shafts,” she said, after gathering residents and television crews for a Sunday morning tour to inspect moldy walls and rusty refrigerators inside the former home to poets and musicians from Dylan Thomas to Bob Dylan.
The next day, landlord Joseph Chetrit told tenants they could drop their lawsuit; he would make the repairs. For Quinn, 45, it was a victory using a negotiating style that can be combative and conciliatory. She’s used that formula to climb to the top of the field jockeying to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, 70, who’s barred from seeking a fourth term in 2013.
“She’s a throwback to the Irish-American political bosses in the history books,” said Maurice Carroll, director of the Quinnipiac Polling Institute in Hamden, Connecticut. Its May 10 survey found that she led a five-candidate Democratic field with 26 percent approval, twice as much as her nearest rival. “She’s always thinking, ‘What do we need to win?’”
Under Quinn’s leadership, the council yesterday overrode the mayor’s veto of a law setting minimum pay for service workers in city-leased buildings. The mayor said the market should determine what they earn. Quinn countered that Bloomberg in 2002 signed a similar law covering health-care workers with no subsequent job losses or harm.
‘Very Good Job’
Bloomberg, who vowed to veto a bill Quinn pushed through the council yesterday forcing banks to report neighborhood lending practices, will be among the guests at her May 19 wedding to lawyer Kim Catullo, 45, along with Governor Andrew Cuomo and U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
“Chris Quinn has done a very good job as the speaker,” Bloomberg said today during a City Hall news conference, when asked whether their recent disagreements have changed his view of her as a potential mayor. “It’s not for me to take sides, certainly not now, in a race -- I don’t even know who’s going to be running -- but Chris Quinn is very competent and would be a very good mayor.”
The wedding will take place 10 days after President Barack Obama’s support for same-gender marriage focused national attention on the issue. Bloomberg, her City Hall negotiating and sometime-sparring partner, joined her last year in helping persuade state lawmakers to legalize such unions. She would be New York’s first openly homosexual mayor.
Bloomberg, who is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP, and Quinn are also bargaining in what she describes as an “annual dance” over the city’s $68.7 billion budget, which requires council approval before June 30.
The speaker, who grew up in suburban Glen Cove, Long Island, the daughter of an electrical engineer and a social worker, has said the budget won’t pass unless tens of millions of dollars in Bloomberg-proposed cuts to child care, after-school programs and 20 fire companies get restored.
The job of council speaker has proved to be a political dead end for Quinn’s predecessors. Peter Vallone Sr., who likened the task of leading the 51-member legislature to “herding cats,” lost a bid for mayor in 2001. Gifford Miller, speaker for three years starting in 2002, lost his run for the Democratic mayoral nomination in 2005.
Vallone, a Democrat, fought former Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, boasting that he helped kill his plan to pay for a new Yankee Stadium in Manhattan. Miller also opposed Bloomberg’s proposals, from zoning changes to school policy to solid-waste management. Quinn, in contrast, has negotiated and partnered with the mayor -- an independent who has run three times on the Republican ballot line -- on budgeting, waste management and land use.
She has mixed opposition with support, backing Bloomberg when he sought a third term in 2009. She stopped speaking and walked away from an April 30 City Hall rally celebrating passage of the so-called prevailing-wage bill, chastising a supporter for uncivil language when he referred to the mayor as “Pharaoh Bloomberg.”
“Gifford had a very adversarial relationship with the mayor, and I think you could argue that he had that for all the right reasons,” Quinn said in an interview last week. “One of my takeaways was I thought that I could be more productive if I had a less contentious, more results-focused relationship.”
Quinn, whose trademarks include her red hair and loud laugh, won election in 1999, representing a district on Manhattan’s west side that runs from 57th Street through Times Square, Hell’s Kitchen and Chelsea south through Greenwich Village to Canal Street. She was previously chief of staff to her predecessor, Thomas Duane, who’s now a state senator.
Her district included Hudson Yards, a swath of underused land stretching from 42nd to 29th Streets between Eighth Avenue and the Hudson River, which the Bloomberg administration turned into the largest rezoning in city history.
She organized meetings of residents and officials, and negotiated changes in the master plan in 2005 and in 2009, adding hundreds of affordable-housing units, open space, a school and a theater.
“This was the middle point between her going from community activist to mayoral candidate,” said Anna Levin, who was then a member of the local community board and who now serves on the Planning Commission. “She played a critical behind-the-scenes role in bringing the community groups together.”
Quinn’s critics include a group of bloggers who question her progressive credentials. Their opposition stems from her support for the mayor’s push to change the city charter, which permitted him -- and her -- to run for third terms in 2009.
Donny Moss, who blogs for votechristinequinnout.com, says Quinn backed the term-limits extension for Bloomberg because her own mayoral prospects were tarnished. The New York Post in 2008 reported that she participated in a practice, which predated her leadership, whereby money was allocated to fictitious organizations so it could be doled out to community groups later in the budget year.
Quinn ended the practice and instituted rules that required council members’ names to be linked with any appropriations of discretionary funding. A federal investigation closed in 2011, without any action taken, Quinn has said.
“She has betrayed the public trust by overturning term limits, by stripping the City Council of the democratic process, using discretionary funds and committee assignments to control the way council members vote,” Moss said in an interview.
Quinn shrugged off the criticism.
“I don’t work for them,” she said. “My job is not to make some random no-name blogger happy. My job is to get things done, and that means working with and for everyone who can help move agendas forward.”
Peter Vallone Jr., a Queens Democrat and son of the former council speaker, said Quinn cut his discretionary funds 42 percent to $838,321 last year after he held a press briefing on the day of her State of the City speech to oppose her and Bloomberg’s plan to rename the Queensboro Bridge after former Mayor Edward Koch.
For Lewis Fidler, a Brooklyn Democrat and chairman of the council Youth Committee, who’s depending on Quinn’s clout to obtain more money for after-school and early-child-care programs, those are the gestures and prerogatives of a leader.
“You know when you’re on the wrong side of her,” he said. “If you do give her the courtesy of letting her know if you’re going to disagree, she’s going to respect that. But you do need to be thoughtful.”