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Is Quinn’s Flip Showing?

Christine Quinn’s shifting term-limits position may cost her—but not in the way everyone thinks.


Illustration by Andy Friedman  

Enter Christine Quinn, stage left, to boos. It’s a chilly April Saturday morning, and the crowd filling the grand Art Deco auditorium inside the Salvation Army temple on West 14th Street is not in a charitable mood. Just the opposite. The topic of today’s mayoral-candidate forum is the woebegone New York City Housing Authority, and the audience of roughly 1,600 is composed of mostly nycha tenants—angry, angry tenants. They’re mad about busted elevators, about police stopping-and-frisking innocent residents, about rent increases, and about the extended bungling after Hurricane Sandy. They’re mad, and deeply suspicious, about a new city proposal to lease playgrounds and parking lots within nycha developments to private developers, who would build market-rate apartments to generate cash to address nycha’s multibillion-dollar shortfalls. The tenants blame nearly all of these problems on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an opinion that’s enthusiastically encouraged by the four candidates who are present, especially Public Advocate Bill de Blasio—who eagerly extends the guilt to the one Democratic candidate whose seat is glaringly empty for the first half-hour of the discussion. “I know Speaker Quinn has chosen not to be with us yet … ” De Blasio says, until he’s drowned out by approving whoops and cheers. “But unlike Speaker Quinn I believe we need a new police commissioner!” More and louder applause; De Blasio is grinning like a kid who’s showing off while the teacher is out of the room.

So when Quinn does climb onto the stage and takes her place, the crowd is highly stoked, and boos lustily, even as she apologizes, saying she’d long ago agreed to appear at a conflicting anti-bullying event this morning. “I oppose the Bloomberg infill plan, I think it’s dangerous,” De Blasio shouts, as he winds up to throw more gas on the fire. “It’s part of a third term that never should have happened to begin with!” Shouts of “Yeah! You go!” from the crowd. “Allow me to be clear and say we have Speaker Quinn to thank for the Bloomberg third term!” As the applause and yelling cascade, Quinn sits and frowns; it’s easy to picture an expletive-filled thought bubble floating above her red head.

Three days later, in Brooklyn, at another candidate forum, pretty much the same scene plays out again, this time with Bill Thompson joining in to take some swings at the term-limits piñata. But while the Quinn-as-Bloomberg-toadie angle is clearly a crowd-pleaser among a certain segment of New York Democrats, the real dangers for Quinn over term limits are more subtle.

In September 2008, Bloomberg announced that he wanted to change the rules and run for a third term as mayor. Quinn provided crucial aid by coming out in favor of rewriting the city’s term-limits law and then by wrangling the votes to win City Council approval. None of that is news. To sentient, adult, politically active New Yorkers, it’s very old news indeed: I’d bet, without the benefit of any fancy focus groups or polling, that among the people likely to vote in this September’s Democratic primary, there is close to 100 percent knowledge that Quinn helped Bloomberg stick around.

To use the political-consultant term of art, the Bloomberg episode is “baked in” to public opinion of Quinn. Polling shows that a steady 25 percent of likely Democratic-primary voters are probably lost to her this fall owing to their hatred of Bloomberg. Which sounds like a big number. Until you consider that a significantly larger number of Democrats voted to reelect Bloomberg in 2009, and they continue to give him robust job-approval numbers, currently in the fifties. Those folks, however, tend not to turn up and scream at candidate forums. Unless the city goes rapidly downhill in the next five months, that hard-core anti-Bloomberg 25 percent is unlikely to grow—so attacking Quinn for the mayor’s third term is a dead-end campaign strategy.

There’s a more intriguing term-limits story, though, and it’s the one that could dent Quinn with undecideds, but this nuanced tale isn’t reducible to sound bites: how she arrived at her decision to get onboard with allowing Bloomberg to run again. A bit of greatly condensed context is necessary. For years, Quinn opposed term limits, a position that helped her get elected speaker by fellow Council members in 2005. Once in the job, though, she commissioned a poll, and it showed that the public opposed tinkering with them. In December 2007, Quinn declared that repealing term limits would be “anti-democratic,” a position she called “firm and final.”

Well, for ten months. In the spring of 2008, a slush-fund scandal enveloped the City Council. Quinn was never implicated, and made changes to tighten accountability, but the mess hurt her chances of being elected mayor in 2009. Congressman Anthony Weiner, who’d run a smart 2005 mayoral-primary campaign, loomed as a strong contender. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s presidential dream collapsed, and his business pals began rallying for four more years. In September came the global financial crisis. At the time, Quinn said she was waiting for the mayor’s decision before making up her own mind about term limits, but one member of the Bloomberg camp says Quinn’s support was never in doubt. “She went through this whole period of, uh, reflection,” the Bloomberg insider says with a laugh, “but it was clearly in her interest to hit the PAUSE button on a race for mayor.”


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