In New York mayor’s race, why does ‘Everybody Hate Chris’?

July 31, 2013

In this May 9, 2012 file photo, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn talks to reporters during a news conference at City Hall in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

After a brief, chaotic detour into the Anthony Weiner sexting circus,  the New York City mayor’s race was supposed to return to some semblance of normalcy this week thanks to the campaign implosion of “Carlos Danger.”

This was supposed to be good news for Christine Quinn, initially the contest’s frontrunner, who would make history by becoming the city’s first female and openly gay mayor. Not only has she regained her lead in the polls, but she also launched a national media tour that included stops on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “New Day” and MSNBC’s “Hardball.” But as has been the pattern in the last several weeks, Weiner managed to steal Quinn’s thunder. On Tuesday night he released a defiant video that can best be translated as saying to those trying to nudge him out of the race, “Hell no, I won’t go.” This was followed by his spokesperson calling a former intern the c-word and a “slutbag” while talking to a reporter.

Unfortunately for Christine Quinn, one scandal-scarred man does not appear to be her biggest obstacle to City Hall. Her biggest obstacle might be women.

According to a recent poll just 26% of Democratic women are currently supporting Quinn, meaning 3 out of 4 are not, with the Democratic primary just six weeks away. While that represents more support than any of the four male candidates currently enjoy, it is not enough to get Christine Quinn to City Hall.

In New York, if no primary candidate wins 40% of the vote the top two vote earners face each other in a runoff. A poll released last week found that Quinn would lose a runoff to previous Democratic mayoral nominee Bill Thompson by 9 points. The same poll showed Thompson beating Weiner by 11 points. While it may be tempting to interpret these numbers as proof that a notable swath of Democratic voters are so passionate about Bill Thompson that they want him to be the nominee no matter what, that theory seems debunked by the fact that he has not been a frontrunner in polls that have included all of the primary candidates. Instead he miraculously vaults to the front of the pack when voters are forced to contemplate a Weiner or Quinn mayoralty. This seems to suggest that in terms of baggage Quinn and Weiner may not be carrying the same luggage set, but the weight of their burdens is not far apart.

So what is it about Christine Quinn that some Democrats find so unappealing, including some Democratic women?

Allie Feldman feels so strongly that a Quinn mayoralty would be damaging to New York that she helped found Anybody But Quinn, an organization committed to insuring Quinn’s mayoral bid fails. While previous election cycles have produced some version of the “anybody but” chatter (there were Democrats who said they supported “Anybody but Clinton” in 2008), Anybody But Quinn has proven itself to be more than just talk. The group claims more than 100,000 supporters and has raised more than $1 million. Some of those funds have been used to launch the first attack ads of the season, aimed at Quinn.

Asked if she feels conflicted for possibly depriving New Yorkers, and specifically women, of the opportunity to break a major glass ceiling, Feldman replied, “I would have loved to vote for Christine Quinn but because she doesn’t reflect the things I am looking for in a candidate I cannot vote for her.” Feldman, the Executive Director of the animal welfare group NYCLASS, which has clashed with Quinn over the issue of carriage horses in New York, said that many of her members are women. She said many feel, “It’s great that Christine Quinn’s running as a woman but she doesn’t reflect their values and she is not the woman they want to see in office. The sentiment we get from our members is Christine Quinn is not breaking barriers for all women. She is breaking barriers for herself.”

When asked to list the specific issues that she believes disqualifies Quinn from the office, Feldman cited several, but said first and foremost Quinn “ignored the will of New York City voters and gave mayor Bloomberg and herself a third term.”

In 1993 New York voters passed a referendum to limit city elected officials to two consecutive terms in office. In 2008 New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed interest in a third term. In her capacity as Speaker of the New York City Council, Quinn not only supported a bill to allow Bloomberg an additional term, but helped round up the support of other council members, insuring the bill’s passage. She has been enduring the political fallout ever since.

One prominent female Democratic activist in New York said it’s tough for her to overlook Quinn’s role in extending term limits, but her feelings on Quinn’s candidacy are mixed. “The vitriol I’ve seen against Christine, specifically from certain interest groups and voters is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” The activist requested anonymity because she is affiliated with a group that is not endorsing any candidate in the mayor’s race. She said that she believes Quinn has been a victim of bias, most notably in a New York Times profile in which Quinn was depicted as gruff and temperamental. “I do think she was held to a different standard than a male boss or leader would have been,” the activist said of the profile. Women were divided, with some calling the piece sexist, and privately some even speculated that the article played into negative stereotypes held about lesbians. The Daily Beast ran a piece chiding critics titled, “Calling Christine Quinn a Bully Isn’t Sexist – It’s Progress.”

Feldman, of Anybody But Quinn, said she doesn’t consider the New York Times piece sexist and added “Just because you’re a woman doesn’t make you immune to criticism in politics.”  Feldman went on to note that as a woman she was offended by Quinn’s slow movement on advancing a bill to provide paid sick leave, which was of particular importance to working class women and their families. Quinn was roundly criticized for appearing to stall the bill until national scrutiny moved her to make a deal. The Democratic activist, however, cited paid sick leave as a perfect example of why it’s tough for Quinn to be perceived as both likable as a candidate and an effective leader in her current role. “The very nature of being Speaker means occasionally making unpopular decisions. I prefer that to no decisions at all.”

Not all women are conflicted over Quinn. The National Organization of Women enthusiastically endorsed Quinn last week, blasting Weiner’s behavior as “sexist” and not respectful of women.

Quinn, for her, part recognizes at least one way in which being a female candidate means she will be viewed differently, and she seems to relish it. During her CNN interview on Tuesday she said, “You know, I don’t wake up every day and say, ‘Oh, I’m running to be the first woman mayor,’ but then you’re out there, I’m at a subway, and I have a mom bring a little girl up to me. And she bends down and says, ‘Sweetie, this is the woman I told you might be mayor,’ and you see something click in that little girl’s mind, and that’s exciting and it’s energizing, because what this city should be is a place where everybody, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, their race, their religion, can have their wildest dreams come true.”

Keli Goff is a Special Correspondent for The Root. Follow her @keligoff. 

Keli Goff is a columnist for The Daily Beast and The Root. Follow her on Twitter @keligoff.
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