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Madam Would-Be Mayor

Hanging out with the crude, playful, openhearted front-runner, Christine Quinn.

Christine Quinn, Irish to the core, is possessed of the booming voice of a concrete-truck operator, the bada-bing timing of an outer-borough wiseguy, and the laugh of a pirate. You hear her coming down the great marbled halls and the carpeted ballrooms of New York—Aaaaaah-HA-HAHAHAHA-HAAAAA!!!! —well before she presents in the flesh. Her advance team is literally never caught off guard.

She’s boisterous even on the most decorous of occasions. When President Obama was visiting Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy and shaking the hand of Republican assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, he told the 32-year-old she didn’t look a day over 23. At that, Quinn spontaneously burst into a hand-clapping cheer: Be-come-a-Dem-o-crat! Be-come-a-Dem-o-crat! Her goofiness is infectious; even Obama played along. (“Come on, honey!” he teased. “I said you’re pretty! I said you look 23!”) And then there was the day not long ago when Quinn, sitting in a conference room of the law firm of Blank Rome, was giving a talk about the importance of diversity. As she wrapped up her remarks, one of the partners asked a question designed to draw her out further on the subject. “That’s all I got on diversity,” she cracked. A few minutes later, another lawyer earnestly asked the City Council speaker to share her views on how the mayoral race is shaping up, and she barked, “I’m gonna win!,” then laughed uproariously.

In most big Irish Catholic families, being loud and funny is a coping skill, a way to get heard above the din. For Quinn, whose mother was sick with cancer most of her childhood and was buried on Christmas Eve when Christine was 16, the black humor seems born not just of inheritance. One afternoon in mid-­December, we met for coffee at the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea, her regular joint not far from the apartment on Ninth Avenue that she shares with her wife, Kim Catullo. She and Catullo got married last May; their wedding made a splash in the tabloids. They have been together since a blind date on September 14, 2001, shortly after which Quinn discovered that Catullo had lost her mother to cancer when she was 17—and that her mother died on Christmas Day. “I always thought I had the saddest story,” Quinn likes to say, “until I met Kim.”

This afternoon, the two women were in the midst of planning a funeral for Kim’s brother Anthony, who had just died from pancreatic cancer. “Could December suck any harder?” Quinn muttered after hanging up from another call from Kim. Despite the fact that Anthony’s deterioration colored nearly every minute of her life this fall, Quinn seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, unusually deft at steeling herself against the sadness of hospital vigils and grim phone calls with doctors and getting on with the business at hand.

A couple of weeks earlier, before Anthony died, we had been in her SUV, flying along the Belt Parkway on the way to another public event. Quinn, who had been at the hospital all morning, was juggling phone calls between two of Anthony and Kim’s siblings, Jim and Debbie. The care she was taking with her in-laws was touching; her grasp of the minutiae of oncological jargon and her ability to translate it all was dazzling. Partly because Kim, a corporate litigator, was busy with a case in Chicago, Quinn, alone, seemed to be the one managing the flow of information. She hung up with Jim and got on with Debbie, and after a long explanation of Anthony’s current slate of maladies, she couldn’t resist a bit of gallows humor. “I said to Jim, ‘How ironic would it be if, at the end of all of this fucking drama, the answer is, he has to shit more?’ That would be the ultimate Catullo answer to cancer: that you just need to shit more!” I could hear Debbie cackling through the phone.

At Moonstruck, I asked her about her impressive volume. “It feels genetic,” she said. “Like if I tried not to be loud, I would be unable to do it. My late mother was very clear to my sister and I that we were to be strong women; that we were to be effective; that we were to be heard. My mother was also extraordinarily hard of hearing—and toward the end of her life was almost totally deaf—so I think part of the loudness is left over from me yelling, ‘Maaa!’ ” She let out one of her explosive laughs and then yelled once more—“Mommy!”—and laughed even harder.

This amount of candor is unusual for any politician, especially one whose career ambitions are in front of her and whose election would break both the gender and sexual-­orientation barriers at once. But she doesn’t see her campaign through either lens. “I try to not think too much about how stuff gets seen as it’s being done by a woman,” she says. “Because if you think about it, then you end up thinking about how you’re acting, and if you are thinking about how you’re acting, then you are preoccupied and you’re going to end up being insincere. You’re kind of not present.”