It’s a sparkling late-July morning in Brooklyn. The bluish-green sky nearly matches the teal on the candidate’s campaign posters. It would be a picture-perfect scene, except for the fact that Christine Quinn’s sidewalk-press-conference words are mostly drowned out by the roar of trucks and honks of cars snarled on Atlantic Avenue. She’s standing in front of a center for senior citizens, saying something about her plan to expand SCRIE, a city program that caps the amount of rent that certain elderly can be charged. The policy details disappear in the booming traffic, but the imagery comes through: Chris Quinn wants to help old folks. What’s more compelling and telling, though, is what happens when Quinn steps away from the podium. She envelops one of the center’s white-haired clients in a hug and trills, “I love your earrings!”
She’s snagged by a beefy man in a Windbreaker who says he’s a social worker employed by the city’s Human Resources Administration. “You’re with 371, right?” Quinn interrupts, smiling. He’s startled at her instant, and correct, identification of his union local. “Right,” he stammers. “And we’ve been trying to get a new contract for three years.” The gears shift in Quinn’s brain; she dials down the warmth and turns up the noncommittal pol-speak. “We need to sit down with each union and get to a fair contract,” she says. “Thank you for your work. It’s hard work you do.” Next comes a black woman who complains that her 26-year-old son has been stopped and frisked four times this year. “It’s obnoxious, and sad,” the mom says. “And dangerous!” Quinn chimes in. “He was doing nothing wrong,” the mom says. “This is exactly the problem!” Quinn replies. “We can keep you up to date on what’s happening with the inspector-general bill in the council. Alex or Margaret will call you,” she continues as the mom hands her a business card. “Oh! You work with Arthur Ashe!” Quinn says, recognizing the logo of the health institute named for the late tennis star. “That’s such a great group! I love the beauty shops with the self-exams! Alison from my office will call you about that!”
It was a quintessential Chris Quinn performance: She dispensed kisses, dangled the powers of her current office, straddled issues, and displayed a mastery of city-government arcana. And that’s why, after two months of Weiner-mania, as the Democratic contest for mayor heads toward an intense finale, Quinn is again the one to beat.
In late may, just before Anthony Weiner upended the race, Quinn was on top of the public polls, with about 25 percent. Ten weeks later, at the end of July, Quinn was on top of the Quinnipiac poll at 27 percent. It’s almost as if Carlos Danger had never texted.
Which is not to say nothing has changed for her. Weiner’s rapid rise turned out to be a gift to Quinn—though her camp didn’t see it that way when the former congressman knocked her out of first place in mid-June. “Yeah, they were nervous,” a Quinn ally says. “It’s never good when someone comes out of nowhere and sucks up twenty points, a lot of it coming out of your pocket. But they didn’t panic.” Quinn had already been on a steep downward slope, suffering through a spring full of concentrated attacks from her other rivals and a series of unflattering media stories; nothing her campaign had tried to stop the momentum had worked. But when Weiner grabbed the spotlight, Quinn caught her breath. She has had a few odd, shaky moments since, but mostly she’s exhibited a disciplined steadiness through the strange summer. She’s doggedly stuck to the fundamentals of the campaign game plan devised last winter: emphasizing her record as council speaker, talking about small business and small-bore policy initiatives, and wooing female and Latino voters. The first part of the strategy got an indirect boost from Weiner’s latest embarrassment, making her seem more serious and adult. “The greatest beneficiary of all the Anthony stuff is the perception of Chris through a different lens,” a Democratic strategist says. “For activists and lefties, she’s a disappointing, old-school machine pol. But after Anthony, that’s more palatable to other people.”
Maybe, but so far there aren’t enough of those “other people” for Quinn to close the sale. She remains a vulnerable front-runner, and with the Weiner boomlet fading, she’s grappling with the same weakness she’s had the whole race: Many voters have a visceral dislike for her. Up close, Quinn can be warm and warmly received, yet at a distance she generates the strongest negative emotions of any of the top Democrats—well, other than George McDonald’s feelings about Weiner. Some of the animosity, especially among Democratic-primary voters, is centered on Quinn’s help in extending term limits for Michael Bloomberg; some of it is based on broader substantive issues, like Quinn’s coziness with the real-estate industry. But the most problematic strain, for her mayoral campaign, is the free-floating distrust that was best summarized by a civically attuned television-writer friend of mine. “I just find her the most obviously politician-y of the politicians,” he said.