Quinn has risen this far on her keen political instincts. Now she’s trying to steer between the demands of 50 council members and the interests, often conflicting, of the city at large—and of the hundreds of thousands of voters she’d need to be elected mayor. Making nice with the council short-term doesn’t change the fact that Quinn’s best hope for remaining a mayoral contender lies in distancing herself from the very legislative body she leads. It’s a delicate, maybe impossible balancing act. Enough to make anyone weep.
It’s common to divide the City Council’s members into delegations by borough. The real organizing dynamic, though, is class. There are three main groups: The smallest is made up of the younger, wonky, exhaustingly ambitious types, many of whom were congressional or council staffers and can envision themselves as the next Chuck Schumer; people like Brooklyn’s David Yassky, Queens’s Eric Gioia and John Liu, and the Upper East Side’s Jessica Lappin. Another faction comprises the council members who’ve inherited the job, either literally or through time in a neighborhood political machine—such as Inez Dickens of Manhattan, Al Vann of Brooklyn, Peter Vallone Jr. of Queens, Joel Rivera of the Bronx. (A subset is formed by the type of sharp-elbowed operator whose council seat is often the hub of a local fiefdom, like Larry Seabrook of the Bronx, and who will probably head a community group supported by council funds when they leave office.) The third group is the government nerds. Its members started as activists, ran for the school board, moved up to a community board. They have a quaintly earnest devotion to democracy and no illusions that they’re going anywhere more prestigious—maybe a seat in the State Legislature. Here you find David Weprin of Queens, Lew Fidler and Tish James of Brooklyn, Gale Brewer of Manhattan.
What unites council members is a distinct inferiority complex. The city’s charter gives the mayor the vast majority of practical power over city functions. That’s why internal council fights over, say, the renaming of a street become so ludicrously intense. The sense of second-class citizenship has deepened considerably during Michael Bloomberg’s six years in office. The mayor’s side of City Hall is full of mammoth flat-screen TV’s; the council side is held together with duct tape. And Bloomberg’s lack of allegiance to any party may have been good for the city, but it’s as alien to council members as his eleven-digit bank balance. Quinn, many members believe, has cozied up to the popular Bloomberg in service of her mayoral ambitions—and at the council’s expense.
“Did I think, as a speaker, having the [reserve] money to give out through the year might give me political leverage? Of course I did. I’m not going to lie to people that I didn’t think that.”
All of which is why the rebellion against Quinn has been so fierce. It isn’t so much differences over budget policy as Quinn’s betrayal of the culture of the council. She was one of them, after all. Quinn got into politics in 1991 as a staffer for Councilman Tom Duane. When Duane was elected to the State Legislature, Quinn won the contest to replace him. She’s always reveled in the minutiae of zoning bills and council procedure, and she became well liked across the ideological spectrum by being an open-minded team player. “We’ve known each other since 1992, when we were both staff,” says Jim Oddo, one of the council’s two Republicans. “I consider myself a close friend of Christine’s. She’s the smartest person in the room. I don’t mean that in an Al Gore way; she’s the most prepped, the most organized person. She immerses herself in details.”
That reputation has made it difficult for people who know Quinn well to believe she was in the dark until last year on the extent of hidden council cash. “I had heard the term holding codes the summer or so before I got elected speaker,” she says. “I had no idea what it was.” As a rank-and-file member, had she ever received money outside the standard budgeting process? “Sure,” Quinn says. “I can’t recall going in to say, ‘Here’s X group that needs Y.’ I do remember getting calls, ‘Oh, hey, here’s $10,000 if you need it for a senior group.’ As a member, you don’t particularly think about where that comes from.”
When Quinn campaigned to replace Gifford Miller as speaker two years ago, her willingness to cut deals for votes brought Quinn the crucial support of the Queens and Bronx Democratic leaders and signaled a change in style that eventually alienated many members. “She was a very different person when she was running for speaker,” one council member says. “She needed people then. Now she’s become this hard-ass: slights, perceived slights—it’s iron fist all the time with Christine.” Quinn’s temper, expressed in a sharp, nasal accent that’s a combination of Edith and Archie Bunker, didn’t help. She has pushed through bills making it harder for lobbyists to influence public officials and tightening campaign-finance regulations. While many council members agree with her changes, even more chafe at what they think is the inference behind Quinn’s agenda—that she’s the white knight cleaning up the council cesspool.