N.Y. mayoral candidate Christine Quinn struggles in the shadow of scandal


Christine Quinn is running hard in the New York mayoral race but still struggling to gain traction. (Yana Paskova/For The Washington Post)
August 6, 2013

On the week Carlos Danger made his grand entrance into the New York mayoral race, Christine Quinn’s hairstylist told the famously flame-haired candidate not to “worry about nuthin’.” Her understated father, recovering from a shattered femur in a rehab center, told her, “Well, child, this is a new development.” Her wife, Kim Catullo, a rigorously private corporate lawyer, didn’t exactly know what to say.

“Kim, like all New Yorkers, scratched her head and then said, ‘Well, what does this mean to us?’ ” Quinn recalled in a downtown diner last week. “What does this mean to the race?”

For Quinn, that is a complicated question. In a contest where the Anthony Weiner-Huma Abedin drama has prompted myriad comparisons to l’affaire Bill-Hillary, the City Council speaker has echoed Hillary Rodham Clinton in a different way, by playing down the potential historic status of her candidacy. If elected, Quinn will become the first woman to be mayor of New York. She will also be the city’s first openly gay mayor. But instead of emphasizing the historic firsts, she is marketing herself, a la Clinton 2008, as a results-oriented professional. That strategy is inherently connected to her tacit endorsement by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose controversial third term she helped secure.

Bloomberg’s support would probably immunize Quinn from Republican attacks in a general election, but it is hurting her in a Democratic primary in which the mayor has become more albatross than ally.

Quinn’s critics incessantly cast her as a Bloomberg manquee. Reports of her mean streak (withholding council funds as revenge for slights) and temper (soundproof office walls) have stuck, at least as much as the charm of her round Long Island vowels and rollicking laugh. Even supporters in the gay power center of Chelsea whisper about their disappointment with Quinn for her refusal in 2010 to support a popular bill — opposed by Bloomberg — that would have required small businesses to provide their employees with paid sick leave. (She reversed her position in 2013 under political pressure from her mayoral rivals.)


Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn, center, greets people in July at the Carter Burden Luncheon Club in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

And then there’s Weiner. Quinn’s candidacy was eclipsed by the sexting circus that Weiner brought to town. (“I wasn’t one of the participants,” she shrugs.) In fact, despite her busy schedule, she seemed to become a helpless observer to the former congressman’s superior political talents. There was an upside to Weiner’s bid, though, as he peeled off support from her rivals in the outer boroughs, where she is vulnerable. Weiner’s explicit messages have wrecked his candidacy — for now anyway — and Quinn remains the front-runner. But now her rivals are gaining steam and attracting marquee endorsements. (George Soros backed Bill de Blasio, the race’s most liberal and willing Bloomberg-basher, on Tuesday.)

Weeks before the September primary, it may be too late for Quinn, 47, to ditch her safe get-stuff-done message and embrace a more inspiring historic-first-woman approach. But as she gets her second close-up, the cracks in her campaign are starting to show.

“I never thought I was a super front-runner,” Quinn says, adding that she never believed any candidate would win enough votes in the primary to avoid a runoff. “Nobody runs a perfect race, but I’m proud of the race we’ve run.”

Campaigning nonstop

Quinn is now campaigning like a woman possessed, drumming up dozens of housing, education and bilingual events to appeal to the disaffected lower and middle classes. She evinces the right measure of empathetic forehead wrinkle and is charming in self-deprecation. (“I was blond for a while. There was an unfortunate purple phase.”) Last week she, her father-in-law and surrogates campaigned at 25 senior centers in one day. As part of her longtime effort to expand express ferry service and keep commutes to no more than an hour, she accompanied a single mother from Staten Island on her 90-minute schlep to Manhattan.

On Thursday morning in Manhattan, Quinn, wearing a blue blazer and dangling aqua earrings, arrived for an event at the Brooklyn Bridge Beach, a sliver of sand lapped by the East River and littered with empty Gatorade and airplane liquor bottles, driftwood and furniture, an ominous suitcase, the rotted side of a boat. The development of the once-dilapidated and dangerous waterfronts on the island’s West Side and throughout gentrified Brooklyn are testaments to the city’s renaissance during the Bloomberg era. Quinn has played a role in that, but those achievements, and the skyrocketing cost of living in already uber-expensive Manhattan, do not help Quinn with frustrated and struggling Democratic primary voters.

At the podium, Quinn speaks about the “lawng history” of the city’s waterfronts and how the development of the beach will be part of the City Council’s legacy. And while she envisions the beach as another of the city’s gleaming tourist attractions, she also points out that, in these tough times, it also makes a great “staycation” alternative.

During a brief question-and-answer period, a reporter notes that the project depends on the support of the next mayor.

“We’re good! We’re good,” Quinn jokes. SPF “50 sunscreen for all.”

A compelling story

Quinn’s big personality is complemented by a compelling life story.

Her grandfather, an Irish immigrant, became a firefighter who drove legendary mayor Fiorello LaGuardia to watch blazes. Her grandmother used to confiscate the guns from all the cops in the clan at boozy family gatherings. Quinn was born to middle-class Irish parents in Glen Cove on Long Island. Her father, an electrical engineer, was all frank understatement, telling her that her big bones would make her good at sheep-flipping back in Ireland. Her mother was loud. “You knew what Mary Quinn thought six miles away,” she says.

By the time Quinn turned 16, her mother was dying of breast cancer. She washed and fed and medicated her mother, all the while attending to her grandmother, father and aunt.

“This is a race, a tough one — don’t get me wrong — and some might even say it’s a grueling one,” she says. “But that was life and ultimately death.”

Those early burdens had led the weight-conscious Quinn to binge-eating sessions, followed by surreptitious purging. In high school and Trinity College, in Connecticut, she drank heavily and wrestled with her sexuality.

After graduation, Quinn moved to Manhattan and worked as a housing organizer. Thomas K. Duane, one of the city’s first openly gay candidates for City Council, took her under his wing. She managed his winning campaign, and he helped her come out as a lesbian. Duane, also a recovering alcoholic, insisted that Quinn, then 26, get treatment for her eating disorder. She says rehab changed her life, removing the misplaced guilt over her mother’s death. She became a fixture in activist circles and ultimately won a seat on the City Council, eventually becoming its chair. In the process, she earned a reputation as an unsentimental operator with highly attuned, and many say self-interested, political antennae.

“You don’t give up your core values just for a victory,” she says. “But you also don’t say no to a victory when it can help you.”

The gender card

She’s accomplished much, as she will gladly point out: the teaching jobs she saved, the firehouses she kept open, the landlords she stood up to and the landmark development projects for which she helped to pave the way. And, yet, Quinn is not catching fire.

“Well, I hope there is nothing about me that people have a big problem with,” she says, laughing hard. “You know, I like to think of myself as lovable.”

And she’d like voters to think of some men in the field as loathable. As the only woman in the mayor’s race, she benefits from the contrast with Weiner and even Eliot Spitzer, the former governor and current comptroller candidate, who resigned from office after admitting to frequenting a prostitute. Everyone wants to know what she thinks of the bad boys. “Look, you have a bunch of guys talking about second chances, and I’m all about forgiveness, just like every other New Yorker. But you’ve got to earn it, and you’ve got to earn it by showing us what you did since your fall from grace,” she says gamely on a day that her campaign issues a video of support from feminist icon Gloria Steinem. She adds that Spitzer’s call for Weiner to drop out was “quite a statement of the ability of someone who doesn’t have any right to point fingers pointing fingers.”

Beyond the sound bites, Quinn is bringing the contrast onto the campaign trail. On Wednesday she will be endorsed by, and spend all day campaigning with, Sandra Fluke, the birth-control advocate who became famous for being the subject of sexist slurs by Republicans. But thus far, she refuses to call for Weiner’s or Spitzer’s departure. “I’m not going to pass judgment,” she says, adding, “there’s no way I see those guys leaving.”

On Friday morning, Weiner sat at a table of South and East Asian business owners at the Tandoor Restaurant in the Queens neighborhood of Rego Park. NY1, NBC, Fox, ABC and Fox News microphones were splayed out like a place setting before him. As Weiner spoke about small-business issues and parking meters, Washington Republicans issued a memo characterizing his antics as part of the Democrats’ “War on Women.” Weiner refused to take Carlos Danger/Eliot Spitzer-themed questions, or to comment at all about Quinn.

After the event, Loulou Thassim Saleem, a professor at St. John’s University, says she intended to support Quinn early “because she was the woman in the race.” Then Weiner got in, and seemed more impressive, she says, and Quinn left her cold.

Weiner’s decision to remain in the race is not necessarily bad for Quinn. He saps votes from de Blasio and Bill Thompson, the establishment choice with an African American base of support. A person with knowledge of the Quinn campaign’s deliberations said it was wrestling to find a path out of the primary, in which Bloomberg — her supposed benefactor — remains her biggest headache.

“Well, I don’t think it’s linked to Bloomberg,” she says, explaining her record of results as a legislator. She adds: “I don’t think getting results is a problem in this primary.”

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