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Madam Would-Be Mayor

“The Council is made up of middle-class people representing middle-class people,” says Duane. “And the consensus that Chris has been able to create on the widest variety of issues is a wonder to behold. And it’s by the person who represents Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, and Chelsea—how amazing is that?” Quinn has become, by her own admission, more comfortable as speaker over the past seven years. “In a job like this, when you’re interacting with people a lot, you start off nervous,” she told me. “But being in government is like anything: You just have to practice. Put your big-girl panties on and go out there and do it!” (The reference, if you didn’t catch it, was to Real Housewives of New Jersey.) She’s a big believer in the idea that if you can just get people to the table, you can force a solution. Sometimes, the results leave everyone with a bitter taste in their mouths—for example, the nettlesome compromise over redeveloping the Chelsea Market building, which pitted two major constituencies in her district, neighbors and business interests, against each other—and at other times they turn out surprisingly well. In 2011, when Bloomberg was threatening to lay off 4,000 teachers, Quinn played the pivotal role in stopping it by working the phones. “The union leaders would say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ And I would say, ‘I have no blessed idea, but I don’t want to lay these teachers off and I don’t have enough money to not lay them off, and if you don’t like the mayor’s ideas, come up with your own.’ I just kept saying, ‘Stay in the room,’ and it worked.” In a way she’s the lesbian Tip O’Neill, the loud, funny Irish Catholic speaker of the House of Representatives during much of the Reagan years, who was famous for being cordial with the man whose policies he despised, calling them “one big Christmas party for the rich.”

As it happens, I was at a Christmas party for the rich just a few weeks ago. It was at a townhouse in the East Sixties, just off Park Avenue, and several times over the course of the evening the subject of Quinn came up. Each person I spoke with expressed doubts about whether she’s tough enough and smart enough to run the city. Implied, or overtly stated, was that the Bloomberg years have been marvelous and she’s no Bloomberg. By which they meant, if I understood correctly, that’s she’s just another politician. Later in the evening, the host interrupted me to point out that the mayor himself had just arrived. Did I want to meet him? Sure. My friend and I followed the host over, shook Bloomberg’s hand, and my friend thanked him for his position on gun control. Without even acknowledging the comment, Bloomberg gestured toward a woman in a very tight floor-length gown standing nearby and said, “Look at the ass on her.”

One morning in late November, I met Quinn outside City Hall for a trip to Staten Island, this time for a press conference with the mayor. Quinn had just come from a visit with Anthony Catullo at Sloan-­Kettering, and when I jumped into her SUV she was on the phone, deep in conversation, giving the full report of Anthony’s condition to one of the Catullos.

She looked particularly great in a purple tweed blazer, a black flannel pencil skirt, gray nail polish, and a pair of soigné black English riding boots she had bought over the weekend at Lord & Taylor. I complimented her, and we got to talking about fashion and bargains, and it was obvious to me that this was a conversation I would never be having with a male politician. Then she said, “The mayor is going to yell at me when I get out of the car because I have flat boots on. The mayor has no use for flat shoes.” Really, I said. Why would he care? “I was at a parade with him once and he said, ‘What are those?’ and I said, ‘They’re comfortable,’ and he said, ‘I never want to hear those words out of your mouth again.’ ” Everyone in the vehicle, including the security detail in the front seat, cracked up. “He likes me in high heels. Let’s see how long it takes before he notices.” She scrolled through her BlackBerry. “Another big thing with the mayor, when I am rooting … like, the couple of days a week before I need to get my hair colored, he’ll say, ‘Do you pay a lot to make your hair be two colors? Because now it’s three with the gray.’ And I’m like, ‘Did you wake up being this big of an asshole? Or did it take, like, all day to ramp up to it to be able to insult me like that?’ ”