Christine Quinn is crying. This isn’t an ambiguous, Hillaryesque moistening. The speaker of the New York City Council is tearful: big-globs-of-water tearful, speech-strangling tearful, uncomfortable-to-watch tearful. Quinn is in the middle seat of a big black city-owned SUV, on her way to a long-scheduled appearance at the 92nd Street Y, part of a series about women in politics. But wherever the red-haired 41-year-old goes these days, the prime subject is the scandal enveloping the council. Millions of taxpayer dollars have been channeled through fictitious groups to organizations that barely function and to outfits that seem to exist primarily to enrich relatives or supporters of council members. The dubious spending began years before Quinn was elected speaker in 2006, but that hasn’t spared her from a daily battering. She’s gone from being a well-respected contender for the 2009 Democratic mayoral nomination to the tabloid poster girl for inept leadership and sleazy spending with dizzying speed. Today’s setback was the announcement by City Comptroller Bill Thompson, a rival of Quinn’s in the ’09 mayor’s race, that he’d made a deal with the mayor’s office to review all council budget awards, effectively cutting Quinn out of the process. Plus the Post continues to mock Quinn by repeatedly running a photo of her with her eyes closed, seemingly on the verge of passing out.
Yet what turns on Quinn’s waterworks isn’t the political firestorm she’s living through, at least not directly. I’ve asked how her 81-year-old father, Lawrence Quinn, is handling seeing his daughter take a public drubbing. Lawrence Quinn, a retired electrical engineer, is a fixture at his daughter’s events and a comic foil in her speeches. “Um …” she begins, then pauses as the tears start flowing. “I’m not supposed to cry,” she finally says haltingly, forcing a laugh. “It’s way too girlie.” She collects herself. “He, um—my last tissue!” Another pause. “He’s been great, in that Irish 81-year-old guy’s way: ‘Okay, Christine, we’re gonna get through this, we’re gonna be fine!’ ” Imitating his gruff voice only provokes more tears. “But you know I’d rather provide him great opportunities, make him proud—” Her voice cracks.
Minutes later, Quinn’s father comes up again (her mother died of cancer when Christine was 16). This time, though, the moment provides a window into a different side of her. She’s perched in a tiny chair in the 92nd Street Y’s children’s library, chatting with some of the Y’s executives while waiting to go onstage for a Q-and-A with journalist Meryl Gordon. The conversation meanders from the early returns in today’s Pennsylvania presidential primary (Quinn’s a strong HRC backer) to obscure Bruce Springsteen B-sides (Quinn’s a huge fan) and is a reminder of Quinn’s gifts as a person and a politician: She’s funny, self-deprecating, knowledgeable on a wide range of subjects, an engaging storyteller. On the table is a children’s book titled Jacob’s Ladder, which prompts a discussion of the Tim Robbins movie of the same name and the biblical Jacob. Quinn mentions that she turns to her dad whenever there’s a question on Roman Catholic arcana; recently he dissected the confusion of Maundy Tuesday with Maundy Thursday. “But the day in-between is the interesting one,” Quinn says, her eyes narrowing. “The Irish call it ‘Spy Wednesday.’ That’s the day Judas betrayed Jesus. And the Irish are always most concerned about who’s screwing who politically.”
There are plenty of venal, egomaniacal, and downright corrupt politicians in the world, and even a few right here in New York. Christine Quinn is something more complicated and more compelling. She emerged from Manhattan’s left-wing, good-government tradition but has the hard-boiled soul of a Hell’s Kitchen ward boss. This is, possibly, a terrific combination in a modern public official. Throw in the fact that Quinn is proudly gay, and female, and her rise becomes not just politically intriguing but culturally symbolic. Yet now Quinn finds herself in the middle of a potentially career-ending crisis in large part because of the contradictions she’s embraced: positioning herself as a reformer of big-money, insider politics while playing the old-school game of favors and punishments.
Which doesn’t make her a hypocrite, exactly. It just means that as Quinn tries to navigate the City Council’s slush-fund scandal—which has already rung up the arrest of two council staffers and includes expanding investigations by both federal and local law-enforcement officials—she has an extraordinarily difficult juggling act to perform. The city’s newspapers are gleefully taking daily turns chasing down corrupt council spending. That would be plenty for any speaker to contend with, but Quinn’s first reactions to the scandal made matters worse: Her abrupt proposal to turn over most of the council’s budget power to the mayor set off howls in the ranks of members. So Quinn pivoted, made a show of apologizing to the council, and dropped her plan.