On Tuesday afternoon city council speaker Christine Quinn will take the stage at midtown’s CUNY Graduate Center to deliver her 2011State of the City speech. The political media will review the address through the prism of Quinn’s ambition to run for mayor in 2013: Is she distancing herself at all from Mike Bloomberg? How much is she pandering to the constituencies she’ll need in a crowded Democratic primary, like the business community? That analysis is entirely appropriate, because the jockeying by Quinn and the many other mayoral aspirants — including Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, Congressman Anthony Weiner, former comptroller Bill Thompson, and current comptroller John Liu — is well under way. Yet Quinn’s speech deserves to be taken somewhat at face value, too, because among the platitudes, her four previous SOC’s as council speaker have contained an unusually high number of actual smart ideas — things that haven’t simply sounded good on the podium only to be promptly forgotten the next day.
Last year her theme was the economy, a blatantly obvious subject in the middle of a nasty recession, and something the city council speaker has only minor ability to influence. Yet Quinn, along with other city agencies, has followed up admirably on a number of proposals. Most of the initiatives aren’t glamorous, but they’ve tackled real daily problems that make creating jobs, or landing a job, or keeping a job more difficult.
For instance: In 2010 Quinn pushed a regulatory change so that small businesses would have a grace period to correct small violations, and helped streamline procedures for paying fines without in-person appearances, so mom-and-pop operators wouldn’t lose time at work. Quinn also got the council to establish a pilot program in GED test prep for high-school dropouts, increasing their odds of not only passing the exam but eventually being hired by employers who require a diploma. Two years ago Quinn talked of boosting grassroots food-industry entrepreneurs, and she followed up, along with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, by launching an East Harlem “super-kitchen” that allows culinary start-ups to move from apartment ovens to state-of-the-art baking facilities. And a 2008 proposal will finally, in June, become a reality: all-day ferry service along the East River, with seven stops from East 34th Street to Long Island City to Williamsburg to the Brooklyn Bridge, and, on summer Fridays, Governor’s Island.
Coming after the governor’s annual State of the State and the mayor’s State of the City, the city council speaker’s address often seems like a self-promotional afterthought, and for the past month Andrew Cuomo and Bloomberg have dominated the news coverage — rightly so, given the billions in budget deficits they’re battling over. Yet if the previous years are any guide, Quinn’s remarks will also be worth a listen for the impact they could have on lives across the city, regardless of whether those words help her move across City Hall two years from now.