But oddly enough, the Chris Quinn as seen from City Council press conferences often appears anything but bold—indeed, among the leading candidates for mayor, she is known to be especially cautious and inoffensive. Earlier this month, she gave a “vision” speech for improving New York schools, advertised by her office as a major address. It was generally received as long on platitudes, short on ambition—the most memorable proposal being about replacing textbooks with tablets—and as simultaneously condemning yet basically endorsing Bloomberg’s more controversial education policies. She has a tendency toward triangulation, especially with respect to her relationship with the mayor, whose endorsement she has courted for years. I recently got into a conversation about her with a progressive woman from the West Village who gave me an earful about how disappointed she has been in Quinn for having drifted from the values of her housing-advocacy days. This is not an uncommon criticism from the liberals who make up the primary electorate.
When I brought this up to Quinn, she vigorously defended her record: “Productive, practical, pragmatic, and progressive.” She cited pro-tenant, environmental, living-wage, pro-immigration, and pro-choice legislation that the City Council has passed in her seven years as speaker, “hand in glove” with the mayor. “I think there’s this narrative that, because I’ve worked with the mayor, who is not a Democrat and is an affluent man, that by definition that’s somehow not progressive, when the facts just don’t bear that out.”
Quinn is widely considered to be the front-runner in the race. With an approval rating in the mid-sixties, she is by far the most popular Democrat in the city, and she polls at 35 percent in a Democratic primary, compared with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio at 11, former comptroller Bill Thompson at 10, and current comptroller John Liu at 9. She long ago raised the $4.9 million she’s allowed under the city’s public-financing system, and she’s received high-profile endorsements from groups like Emily’s List and the United Food & Commercial Workers union. Among colleagues and political observers, she is regarded as an effective legislator—someone who gets people in a room and “gets shit done,” as one put it to me—as well as a gifted retail politician, happiest when someone is bending her ear. In 2006, at a fund-raiser at the Mandarin Oriental, Bill Clinton told the crowd that his wife had described Quinn to him by saying, “You will not believe how good this woman is … She’s even a better politician than you are.” Some of her Republican colleagues are almost as complimentary. “She is always the smartest, most prepared person in the room, but not in a smug, Al Gore kind of way,” says Jimmy Oddo, a Republican councilman from Staten Island. “Her legacy as speaker is as an elected official who lives the job 24/7 and is as invested as much as you can be emotionally, mentally, intellectually.”
It’s her close working relationship with Bloomberg that makes her most vulnerable in a Democratic primary. For those inclined to see the mayor as an imperious billionaire, her worst crime was her role in extending term limits to give him four more years. Quinn knows the vote will cost her. “For some people, it’s a real deal-breaker,” she told me, sounding surprisingly blasé. “And for people who really believe that was a mistake, I respect their decision not to support me. What I would tell them is that I voted in a way that I thought was in the best interest of the City of New York. Even though I knew that the majority of the electorate disagreed with me. And at the end of the day, we want elected officials who do what they think is right, notwithstanding the political consequences.”
There are also voters, particularly in the Manhattan business community, who worry that Quinn is not nearly enough like Bloomberg, that she lacks the mayor’s spine and sophisticated sense of New York as a global city. It is possible Bloomberg himself shares this unease. In early December, the Times ran a story about his having encouraged Hillary Clinton to run for mayor. The next day, I spoke to Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who minimized the exchange as a ten-second hypothetical moment of jokey banter. Then, on January 7, the Times ran another story, this one reporting that Bloomberg has been casting all over the tri-state area, encouraging everyone who is not Chris Quinn to run. This time, Wolfson came right out and called bullshit. “I was very condemnatory of the piece on Twitter and was very clear in my denunciation and my denial,” he told me. “That’s not usually my style. But this piece was just flat-out wrong.” Does Chris Quinn have Mayor Bloomberg’s tacit support? “Yes. There is no confusion.” Have they ever discussed an actual endorsement? “They have not had a conversation about an endorsement. They obviously have a very close working relationship, but the subject of an endorsement had not come up yet.”