Quinn says, vehemently, that the economy was the reason she flipped on term limits and that her own career prospects had nothing to do with it. “At that moment in time, I was extremely worried about the impact of the economy on New York City,” she tells me. “And I was really worried about the impact that a wholesale change in government would have on the ability of the city to recover. I thought it was appropriate to give New Yorkers a choice, at the ballot box, to either keep some level of consistent leadership in city government or to change. I have no regrets about the decision I made. The term-limits decision and [my political prospects] couldn’t have less to do with each other. When I made the decision about term limits, it was exclusively based on the economic situation.” Inflexibility in the face of an emergency, she says, would have been a mistake for the city. “With elected officials, and with human beings, you say what you mean, you say what you believe, and sometimes things change,” Quinn says. “Things evolve. And then you’ve got to stand up and say this is why things have changed. And then you’ve got to accept the consequences of that as a leader.”
When it came to rounding up the necessary 26 council votes, Bloomberg didn’t leave the task completely to Quinn, mounting a muscular political operation. The mayor’s men weren’t exactly pushing against a locked door: Most council members were eager to hold on to their jobs. Yet persuading individual members to take a controversial vote was tricky, and Quinn’s strategizing played an important role. “We worked hand in glove with her and her staff,” a Bloomberg aide says. “Certain members were undecided, and you had to compare notes on what their issues were. Sometimes there are things that are desired that one side can’t offer but the other side can. It was a joint effort.” One council member says he got multiple calls from Quinn lieutenants dangling a committee chairmanship in exchange for a “yes” vote. “The mistake people make with Christine is they think, She’s from Manhattan, she’s gay, and hence she’s a liberal,” he says. “But at heart she’s really an old-school Irish boss.”
Her main term-limits antagonist, De Blasio, has different skills. He’s a nimble salesman who can dress up contradiction as principled enlightenment better than most: Running for council speaker in 2005, De Blasio was aggressively in favor of changing the rules and doing it through legislation, not a public referendum. Yet as a councilman in 2008, he led the opposition to the extension and is now using term limits to batter Quinn. “There is no question I was wrong in 2005. I evolved in the context of the fight in 2008. We were fighting for the preservation of a democratic system that wasn’t controlled by the power of money,” he tells me. “This was about much bigger things than I previously thought it was. The people were ultimately right that, given the nature of our government, term limits made sense the way they were.”
Most elections are won by the candidate who sketches a convincing vision of the future instead of refighting the battles of the past, but De Blasio is urgently trying to get traction as the white, outer-borough alternative to Quinn before Weiner jumps into this year’s contest. So he will keep taunting the front-runner about what happened five years ago. Quinn was in a tricky spot in 2008, where her genuine belief that Bloomberg could be the best mayor for the moment coincided with her political self-interest. Which is why the real vulnerability for Quinn isn’t her connection to Bloomberg’s third term. It’s that her opponents will use her role in extending term limits to argue Quinn doesn’t have any core convictions beyond preserving her shot at becoming mayor. But that’s a much tougher thing to do successfully than riling up an already seething crowd.