It’s curious that Quinn is the candidate to whom the “inauthentic” label sticks the most. Some fraction of this is sexism, the different standard by which female politicians are judged. Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, and Weiner are plenty ambitious, and can be elastic on issues—whether it’s De Blasio voting for the Upper East Side waste-transfer station as a city councilman, then equivocating, then supporting it; or Thompson opposing an independent inspector general for the NYPD and then saying the department’s use of stop-and-frisk has “institutionalized” the suspicions that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin. But there’s also Quinn’s style: She’s stiff on-camera, and even when she’s advocating a good idea—like a pilot program she created to place recent college grads in tech-sector jobs—Quinn can lapse into soapbox cadences. “It’s understandable that voters want their elected officials to have core values,” she tells me. “And for me, it’s about fighting for progress for all people. I’m just who I am. This idea that I’m going to walk around and think about being more authentic—that’s not how it works. You go out there every day and talk to New Yorkers, you engage with them. And then you try to work with them to put policies in place that are gonna help them. I hope that’s where the authenticity is most demonstrated—in the work, in the results.” This kind of canned candidate-speak isn’t helping her. “People don’t see Chris Christie in Chris Quinn, put it that way,” says a Democratic strategist. The less polite way of putting it is that people see Quinn as a hack.
It’s going to be difficult for Quinn to reverse this impression between now and September 10. It may even be impossible, given her prominence as City Council speaker and the messy sausage-making that comes with the job—and her choice to partner with Bloomberg more than she’s opposed him. For all of Quinn’s potential as a cultural groundbreaker—she’d be the first woman and first openly gay mayor—the more impressive first might be winning the mayor’s office straight from the top of the city legislature. But Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani have shown that you don’t need to be loved to win, or to govern effectively. And Quinn is most comfortable, politically, being her pragmatic, tough-as-nails self. She won’t be going on the attack full time, but with De Blasio and Thompson still unknown to many voters, she has an opening to define her opponents before they do it themselves. Last week, she smacked Thompson about a dubious investment he made, as city comptroller, in Northern Ireland. Fighting hard comes naturally to Quinn, and it’s something her allies think will earn her respect, and votes, down the stretch. “No one hands you the keys to City Hall,” a Quinn insider says. “Voters want to see you tested; they want to see you get punched and stand up.”
Thanks in part to Weiner, Quinn has demonstrated some of that resilience, but this bout is still in the middle rounds. Thompson returned Quinn’s fire by demanding she release legal documents related to the 2008 Council slush-fund scandal. The skirmish was a preview of what will happen if Quinn is one of the two candidates in the Democratic-primary runoff: Whoever she’s up against will try to paint her, during the frantic three weeks leading up to October 1, as a corrupt compromiser, and to consolidate the anti-Bloomberg vote. Quinn’s camp believes the election will turn on whether voters think the city is headed in the right direction. That’s probably true. But for Chris Quinn to stay on top, she needs to convince enough New Yorkers that—like her or not—she’s a competent battler whose hard bargains will be in their best interests.