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BY PAUL SCHINDLER |Standing across the street from the Catholic church in Inwood where her parents married and her immigrant grandfather’s funeral was held, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn formally announced her candidacy for mayor on the morning of Sun., March 10.
Explaining that her four grandparents came to New York from Ireland a century ago because it was a place where “you could be free and you could get out of poverty,” Quinn said, “I’m running for mayor because I want it to remain that place and become even more of that.”
If elected, the Council speaker would be the city’s first woman and first openly gay mayor.
In the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, she will face off against Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller Bill Thompson — the 2009 Democratic candidate — and former City Councilmember Sal Albanese.
Vying for the Republican nomination are Joe Lhota, a former deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani who resigned as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairperson at the end of last year; John Catsimatidis, the owner of the Gristedes supermarket chains; and Tom Allon, the publisher of a chain of Manhattan weekly newspapers.
Quinn’s announcement speech made clear her campaign would emphasize her influence on city government during her seven years as Council speaker. She pointed to success in delivering on-time budgets, in preventing the closure of any firehouses, and in the creation of mandatory kindergartens citywide.
Mindful of criticism that she has moved to the right politically in her years as speaker, Quinn also mentioned her role in enacting a living wage requirement for businesses receiving city subsidies, in curbing deportation of undocumented immigrants convicted of minor offenses, in protecting a woman’s right to choose, and in preventing teacher layoffs.
At the same time, the 46-year-old speaker, who was flanked by her wife, Kim Catullo, her sister, and her father and father-in-law, emphasized her roots in an Irish Catholic immigrant family. Her maternal grandmother, she said, was one of the few third-class passengers to survive the 1912 Titanic disaster, because “she made a run for it” rather than kneeling to pray. When Quinn told a priest her grandmother “knew there was a time to pray and a time to run,” he corrected her, saying, “Your grandmother knew you could pray while running.”
The new mayoral candidate promised to do just that.
First elected to the Council in 1999 –– in a special election to fill Tom Duane’s seat, representing the West Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, after he was elected to the state Senate –– Quinn has held tight reins over the Council’s agenda as speaker while forging a working partnership with Mayor Mike Bloomberg.
Her close relationship with the mayor was a break with the progressive political tradition she grew up in –– as head of both the Housing Justice Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, as a protégé of Duane, who was an outspoken critic of Giuliani while on the Council, and as a top deputy to former Council Speaker Gifford Miller, who often adopted a confrontational approach toward Bloomberg.
Quinn has consistently maintained that working with Bloomberg, as opposed to being at odds with him, was a recipe for moving the city forward.
“I think in almost every issue we’ve had success on since being speaker, almost, we’ve played insider and outsider roles — this office — depending on the issue,” she told Gay City News, The Villager’s sister publication, last summer.
At her campaign kickoff, she contrasted herself with her Democratic rivals, saying, “I’m not about talking and finger-pointing, I’m about action, results and delivery.” Quinn made much the same point in a campaign video posted on her Web site the morning of her announcement.
The speaker’s cooperative posture toward the mayor has drawn fire from some in progressive political circles that formed her original base. After advancing legislation that overturned the term limits law –– allowing both Bloomberg and herself another four years in power –– Quinn faced an unusually tough Democratic primary in 2009, garnering just over half the vote in a three-way race.
She has also faced criticism from some activists after she refused to support extension of public housing opportunities to all people living with H.I.V., as opposed to only those with an AIDS diagnosis; from civil liberties advocates for supporting a requirement than any outdoor demonstration of at least 50 people obtain a police permit; and from Lower West Side residents angry that more was not done to save St. Vincent’s Hospital.
In the past several years, Quinn has found a powerful new political ally in Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has repeatedly credited her counsel in helping him push marriage equality through the state Senate in 2011. The speaker won early endorsements from the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign and the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a Washington-based group that works to elect out L.G.B.T. candidates.
Some activists upset over the New York Police Department’s targeting of gay men for false arrests in Manhattan video stores several years ago have praised the speaker for her intervention on that issue. Robert Pinter, one of the men arrested and the original organizer of opposition to the practice, told Gay City News at that time, “Christine Quinn’s leadership provided a forum for this rare admission [of errors] by the N.Y.P.D. and the genesis for the positive changes that followed.”
Last year, Quinn joined an umbrella group of civil rights organizations in a massive Father’s Day protest against the widespread use of stop-and-frisk tactics in communities of color, even as she showed support for steps Police Commissioner Ray Kelly was making, in his words, “to increase public confidence” in the department in light of the practice.
Around the same time, Kelly and Quinn announced new police procedures to deal more respectfully with the city’s transgender community. City Council measures aimed at broader questions of police-community relations have not yet been acted on, but advocates for policing reform recently said they remain optimistic that legislation will advance.
Over the past several weeks, Quinn has come under increased pressure to allow Council action on a paid sick-leave bill that would cover most of the city’s private-sector employees. The speaker has argued that ongoing economic sluggishness makes this the wrong time for imposing new burdens on small businesses, a position she stuck to at her campaign kickoff, even though she said she supports “the goal” of the legislation.
Congressmembers Carolyn Maloney and Nydia Velazquez were among those at a recent City Hall rally pressing for Council action, framing paid sick leave as an issue that disproportionately impacts women. Feminist Gloria Steinem has said she will withdraw her endorsement of Quinn if the speaker remains an obstacle to the measure, and out bisexual actor Cynthia Nixon endorsed de Blasio, saying her concern over the issue trumps “identity politics.”
Despite her critics, Quinn maintains a formidable position in the Democratic race, according to polls. A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late February said she was leading de Blasio, her closest rival, by 37 percent to 14 percent. A candidate needs to reach a 40 percent threshold to avoid a runoff, so at this moment, the speaker is within striking distance. Still, many political observers agree that it is very early in the race and Quinn might now be benefiting from superior name recognition, an edge that could fade over time.
The speaker also leads in fundraising, besting de Blasio by a margin of $6.1 million to $3.5 million as of the mid-January filing date, though the public advocate out-hustled her by $300,000 in the six-month period ending then. The next filing deadline is March 15.
Despite her close ties to Bloomberg, a series of New York Times articles over the past several months have reported that the mayor has cast about for other candidates he would like to see enter the race –– including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Though stories like that provide some embarrassment for Quinn, they may also help her with the Democratic primary electorate.
“It helps her, obviously, to get some distance from the mayor,” George Arzt –– who served as press secretary to the late Mayor Ed Koch and now runs a communications and government relations firm –– said. “If she can say, ‘Have you been reading the newspapers?’ while clearly getting his support, she can bake the cake and eat it, too.”
One other key piece of the political puzzle is what the city’s labor leaders end up doing in the Democratic primary. For now, most seem content –– even committed –– to holding tight. Quinn scored one early victory, however, when the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, led by Stuart Appelbaum, who is gay and a leading critic of Bloomberg, embraced her candidacy at the end of January. It was Appelbaum with whom Quinn negotiated the living wage legislation, and he is clearly primed to make the progressive case on her behalf.
Quinn and her Democratic rivals will appear at a March 20 candidates forum sponsored by the city’s L.G.B.T. Democratic clubs. The forum, at Baruch College’s Mason Hall at 17 Lexington Avenue, starting at 7 p.m., will be moderated by Gay City News.