Volume 75, Number 33 | January 4 - 10, 2006

Quinn is new Council speaker; Mendez takes torch from Lopez

Villager photo by Jefferson Siegel
Chris Quinn talked to reporters at a press conference on Tuesday at Our Lady of Pompei Church in Greenwich Village at which she discussed her winning the Council speaker race.

By Lincoln Anderson

Christine Quinn made history over the weekend as the 39-year-old Greenwich Village-Chelsea councilmember won the City Council speaker’s race, becoming the first woman and first openly gay person to hold the post, the second-most powerful government job in New York City.

Quinn secured the needed 26 votes on Sunday evening after the Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx Democratic organizations swung their support behind her as her six rivals dropped out of the running.

The news was already percolating on Monday night when Quinn attended Rosie Mendez’s inauguration to the City Council at the Prince George Hotel ballroom on E. 27th St. Quinn was followed by so many news photographers with cameras flashing and commotion that she chose to duck back outside of the room for awhile so as not to take away from Mendez’s night.

The next day, the day before she was to be officially elected speaker, Quinn held a press conference in her district at a place she has visited many times before, the Caring Community Senior Center at Our Lady of Pompei Church at Bleecker and Carmine Sts. As she entered the hall with her father, Lawrence, 79, a former union shop steward, the seniors burst into applause, and Arthur Makar, Caring Community executive director, with a “Bravo!” presented her with a bouquet of flowers.

“Thank you for letting me interrupt your lunch once again,” Quinn said. “But I wanted to stop by to thank you for your support. Before I get elected, I wanted to stop by and thank some of my favorite people in the district. Some of our greatest victories — like preserving our senior centers — were fought because we won fighting hand in hand.”

Quinn went from table to table shaking seniors’ hands as a sea of news reporters and camerapersons trailed her.

Several years ago, the Bloomberg administration proposed shuttering a number of Village senior day programs, but the outraged seniors and Quinn descended on City Hall to protest the closures.

Quinn pledged as Council speaker to keep battling on behalf of “the Village and its seniors.”

The speaker leads negotiations with the mayor on the budget and all major legislation, appoints Council committee chairpersons and holds the purse strings on some funding allocations to the individual councilmembers.

She promised that under her leadership, the City Council will continue to be “aggressive and active.” She said she’s agreed with the mayor in the past, such as supporting the smoking ban, and also disagreed with him, such as on the West Side stadium, and that she’ll approach working with the mayor with “a solid and professional mutual respect on an issue-by-issue basis.” She noted that, after his big reelection win, the mayor has the support of most New Yorkers.

On two issues affecting the gay community, the equal benefits law for domestic partners of employees of companies contracting with the city and the anti-school bullying law — both of which the mayor has vetoed — Quinn said she’ll continue to fight for the passage of these bills, of which she was a prime sponsor.

“We’re going to push forward,” Quinn said of these battles.

Asked if she’d tone down her outspokenness now that she’s speaker, Quinn retorted, “It can’t be done.”

Quinn said she opposes term limits.

Asked by The Villager what her being speaker means for the district, she said, “Great things!” but didn’t elaborate.

Speaking later on Tuesday, Councilmember Alan Gerson said he was out in front in support of Quinn, whose district borders his Lower Manhattan district.

“I was the first to give her my commitment and I think she’ll be a great speaker,”Gerson said.

The night before, it was Rosie Mendez’s chance to shine, as she and her supporters celebrated her election to represent the Second Council District, which stretches from the Lower East Side to Murray Hill. She fills the seat of Margarita Lopez, who was term-limited after eight years in office. Like Lopez and Quinn, Mendez, 42, is openly lesbian. She and Quinn are now the Council’s only openly gay members.

In his remarks, Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the many politicians in attendance, mentioned how Mendez grew up in public housing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, went on to achieve a law degree and has been “a fighter” on local issues. He called her “just the kind of person we want to see in public office. We need Rosie Mendez in the City Council,” he said.

Frances Goldin, a veteran Lower East Side housing activist, said Mendez will proudly carry the progressive torch that former Councilmember Miriam Frieldander and Lopez bore, sandwiched around a “blot” when Antonio Pagan was councilmember. Goldin called Mendez “another dynamo.”

“There is no place like the United States or the world that is as varied, as diverse as the Lower East Side,” Goldin said. “It is a place with more radicals and more fighters than anywhere. A lot of yuppies have come in and we have stemmed the tide to a certain degree.”

Lopez, in her turn at the podium, first held up one of her shoes to prove that while some may say Mendez has big shoes to fill, her size is only a 6.

“Rosie doesn’t have to fill a big shoe,” she said.

Describing the kind of councilmember the area demands, Lopez said, “It needs to be a voice that speaks about progressive politics, that does not back down. Whether it’s about the war in Iraq, bombing in Vieques or the Patriot Act — that curse against humanity — or the rights of the disabled people to live with us like any other people. Be a fighter like you have never seen before and you will never back down.”

“She can do this job,” Lopez said of Mendez. “She is strong. She has moral character. You elected her. Trust her.”

Friedlander swore Mendez into office in English, after which Lopez swore her in in Spanish.

Mendez’s two young cousins from Puerto Rico, Rafael and Carlos Torres-Tavarez played a guitar duet of “En Mi Viejo San Juan,” as many in the crowd joined in and sang along in Spanish to the familiar tune.

When it was Mendez’s turn to talk — after a big hug from Lopez — she first showed a slideshow tribute as the stirring song “Seasons of Love” from “Rent” played on the sound system. First came photos of friends and activists whom she worked with who have passed away: Armando Perez, Franz Lehman, Richie Perez, Walter Thabit, Frieda Zames and Carmen Rubio. Then came snapshots of Mendez, Lopez, Armando Perez and others in action marching on City Hall to save the former CHARAS/El Bohio or rallying to save public housing or the gardens or to help get local greengrocers a living wage or fighting against the E. 14th St. Con Edison plant’s expansion.

She credited her father, who worked 14-hour days in a bodega to put her and her brother through school, with giving her her work ethic, and her mother, a devout Catholic, who took her to soup kitchens, for teaching her compassion.

“I feel very blessed because of the struggles we have engaged in,” Mendez told her friends and supporters, “the laughter and the tears. You’ve given me understanding — not just of progressive politics, but of friendship and love.”

Saying that her friend Lopez had to leave office “because of term limits, a crazy new law,” Mendez called her “my hero.” Yet, she said, the term-limits situation has given her the chance to grow. And she added, her shoe size is a 6 1/2.

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