In writing my previous post about New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and her announced run for mayor, I came across a brilliant piece in the New York Observer written in 1999 by Greg Sargent. The piece was setting the record straight about Quinn’s sexuality. “I’m a lesbian. Yup. Hundred percent. Hundred percent,” she told him as part of an effort to quash the wild rumor that she had taken up with a man.
But the piece was superb for another reason. Reading it after the nonsense that was the supposed White House “threat” against The Post’s Bob Woodward, the 14-year-old article vividly displays what real political threats and how they are carried out look like.
“One local who had crossed Ms. Quinn said he received an ominous call from a Quinn aide: He’d do well to remember he was up for reappointment to a community board under her control,” Sargent wrote. In another vignette, he noted, “At a recent meeting of Community Board 2, [Quinn] drew gasps when telling of an episode with a hapless city commissioner: ‘I’ll be frank: I ripped her a new a—–e!’” And then there was Quinn’s own clear-eyed description of herself to Sargent.
“I am very clear that a part of my personality is what some people might call a bitch,” she said. “And I am very comfortable with that. I accept it both as a personality asset and as a personality defect. And I think as I’ve gotten more mature–$500,000 worth of therapy later–I know when to be a bitch and I know when not to be a bitch. I make a conscious decision about when I’m gonna, you know, open up the bitch tap and let the water run. It can be really effective when I need it to. I’ve gotten through to people who are far more important than me by being, you know, a real bitch to their staff on the telephone.” Who said the zeal has gone out of public life?
Quinn doesn’t apologize for her personality. Nor should she. I’ve known, covered and followed her career since her activist days at the New York City Anti-Violence Project. The transition from firebrand activist to savvy political operative with an eye for governing isn’t easy. Quinn has done so with amazing aplomb. That’s not to say that everything she has done is universally adored. Lifting term limits that allowed Mayor Bloomberg to run for (and win) a third term is chief among them.
Yet, once you read the bare-knuckled rhetorical brawling cataloged by Sargent and Quinn herself, the recent accusations of threats leveled against Woodward by White House economic adviser Gene Sperling are rendered even more meaningless. After what seemed like an eternity of coverage about Sperling ominously telling Woodward he would “regret” his assertion that President Obama was moving the goalposts on revenue, the e-mails revealed otherwise.
Sperling: I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.
But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim…
Woodward: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance…
How very genteel.
Yes, there is a big difference between an elected official tearing the skin off a political rival and a political appointee getting into a spirited conversation with a reporter. But when it comes to leveling a real threat via intimation or enunciation, Quinn has been a force to be reckoned with for quite some time.
Critics decried her “Tammany-in-lavender tactics” to Sargent in 1999. Talking about the dramatic moves made by the newly minted City Council speaker, who was dubbed “Boss Quinn,” in the piece, a former rival told Meryl Gordon of New York magazine in 2006, “To use a Yiddish phrase, she’s showing cojones.”
Then-Bloomberg deputy mayor Kevin Sheekey summed up the fear Quinn engendered in some legislators nicely. “Fear is good,” he told Gordon. “As the saying goes, when you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.” There was none of that in the Woodward-Sperling set-to. Not even close.
Follow Jonathan Capehart on Twitter.