Council members were incensed, accusing Bloomberg and Quinn of lying to them. Quinn claims not to understand what went wrong in Albany. But that was the least of her problems: The slush-fund scandal was producing daily stories about hidden council funds doled out to flimsy, politically connected organizations. At a press conference the day of the first Post story, Quinn answered questions for nearly an hour, trying to confront every allegation. That night, at home with partner Kim Catullo, a corporate lawyer, Quinn says she couldn’t sleep. “I ran the story over and over in my head: What’s this going to mean? Will I be able to do this? Will I be able to do that? And it was making me sick.”
Three weeks later, sitting in her City Council office, opposite an enormous Lee Krasner painting, Quinn seems to have regained her equilibrium. Yet as soon as the conversation turns to her response to the scandal, Quinn begins tugging at the heart-shaped pendant around her neck. “At some point I had to make a conscious decision to put [the idea of running for mayor] on the shelf. Not in some wildly altruistic, ‘I’m better than other people who are politically ambitious’ way—but because it was making me crazy. If I asked one more person, ‘What do you think? Do you think I’ll be able to run for another office some day?’ Either people said yes, and I said, ‘Oh, you’re full of it, you’re just lying to me, you want to make me feel better,’ or they said no, and I’d be crushed and want to pull the covers over my head. So there was no point in the exercise. So I decided to put it aside. Tommy!”
She leaps up and dashes across the room toward an aide. Quinn has been sitting on her BlackBerry; it just buzzed with a message about a pregnant staffer, and Quinn wants to make sure the woman is safely on the way to a doctor.
These days, Quinn says, she’s concentrating solely on her job as speaker. “We need to pass a budget that New Yorkers can have some faith in, in the next eight to nine weeks. At a point like this, I can’t even begin to hypothesize what my political future might be. I don’t know. That’s really the furthest thing from my mind at this moment in time.”
Yet she’s going full speed ahead with a major fund-raising reception during Gay Pride Week in June. The invitation to the affair is refreshingly direct: “This event is to raise funds for Christine’s prospective run for citywide office such as Mayor in 2009.” Quinn has shown some early strength in the race to succeed Bloomberg. She’s raised a respectable $2.4 million, and coming from Manhattan gives her a broad and populous base. She wouldn’t have gone into 2009 as the front-runner—Congressman Anthony Weiner, by virtue of a strong 2005 primary run, has to be considered the early favorite—but the pre-scandal Quinn would have been a formidable contender.
“Someone who should have been functioning as the leader of the legislative body threw us under the bus,” says council member John Liu of Queens.
If Quinn is weakened or sidelined, Manhattan is in play. Weiner will get a greater hearing from yuppie voters. Bill Thompson, who’s raised the most money of the presumed contenders, will go harder after white voters. Tony Avella, a councilman from Queens, will argue that the scandal has proved his populist attacks on the culture of insider dealing were right all along. An even larger repercussion will be to enlarge the field. Marty Markowitz has been president of the city’s most populous borough, Brooklyn, for six years. Ray Kelly has presided over record-low crime statistics and come through the Sean Bell trial without a major racial eruption.
Bloomberg, who certainly owed Quinn after the congestion-pricing debacle, threw her an important life preserver by calling the speaker “the most honest person I know.” And last week, Quinn’s prospects got a badly needed boost from a Quinnipiac University poll suggesting a large majority of voters don’t blame her for the council’s shady reserve fund—though a worrisome 52 percent think she knew about it all along. “Her most serious problem is not allowing the idea that she can’t win because of the council scandal to set in and become conventional wisdom,” says a political strategist who has run mayoral races. “Not with voters—with labor leaders, the real-estate community, the chattering classes.”
All of the city’s editorial pages have called for a ban on member items. Quinn, scrambling to recover, had no chance of getting that through the council, and says she’s not even sure if it would be good policy. “It’s an idea and a suggestion I totally, totally understand. I understand where it’s coming from,” Quinn says. “The truth is, there’s a lot of politics in member items. There’s also some historical need for them. We, in a good way, are getting along with Bloomberg and trying to fund joint priorities. But there was a time when, if Rudy Giuliani didn’t like a group, the money didn’t go to them, whether it was in the budget or not.” Even if member items are sometimes a necessary corrective, does she think her first, tougher proposal would have been helped by discussing it in advance with council members? “In hindsight, I absolutely wish I had done more consultation,” Quinn says slowly. “Where myself and my colleagues end up at the end of this process will give illumination to where people would have ended up if there were greater consultation.”