The Bloomberg era has also had a profound impact on the city’s political culture. There’s a surplus of political hot air in New York, but our political muscles have atrophied in the past decade as the mayor’s money has muted dissent. For the past twelve years, there really hasn’t been a potent racial or ideological politics. Voter apathy has worsened, with just 26 percent bothering to show up in 2009.
Things might be about to change. The next mayor’s race will take place against a backdrop of economic anxiety the city hasn’t seen since the seventies. The scramble for votes might produce creative policy ideas and innovative coalition-building—or it might encourage a dispiritingly fragmented appeal to narrow ethnic and geographic bases. Voters aren’t paying much attention yet; some of the likely candidates are unwilling to admit they’re running, and none is fully prepared to roll out his or her own vision of a post-Bloomberg city. But the fight is on.
The real world can be stranger than an imagined one. At the El Caribe Country Club in Mill Basin, a trumpeter enters, dressed like a Medieval Times extra: floppy black beret, crimson-and-pale-blue cape, incongruous black wingtips. His horn, playing a tune that’s a combination of Renaissance Faire and post time at Aqueduct, startles the breakfast crowd. Thirty Brooklyn bank executives, religious leaders, and real-estate salesmen march in—plus one woman. The boys are being anointed “Kings of Kings County” by the publisher of a chain of community newspapers. The token girl, Christine Quinn, is Woman of the Year.
She has had a good one in many ways. Quinn, the highest-ranking openly gay elected official in the state, became a prominent part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s successful springtime push to legalize same-sex marriage, scoring points with the network of donors behind the effort. Her odds of moving up from City Council speaker to mayor got a bigger boost when the 2013 front-runner, former congressman Anthony Weiner, destroyed his own political career with a sexting scandal. She has been pursuing Weiner’s outer-borough, white ethnic base ever since. In September, she hired Joel Benenson, the pollster who’d helped craft Weiner’s appeal to middle-class voters in the 2005 Democratic mayoral primary before helping elect Barack Obama president in 2008. “The Benenson hiring was interesting to me, because it says she’s definitely going after that Weiner vote, that Queens-Brooklyn Ed Koch vote,” a Democratic strategist says. “But how does Quinn tap into that Everywoman-Everyman vote while still being the favorite candidate of the Real Estate Board?”
Bloomberg’s vision of the city as a “luxury product” has dominated New York life.
Quinn’s best asset in trying to pull off that balancing act between being the candidate of the business community and of regular folks is her personality. One October morning, the red-haired 45-year-old sits down for coffee in a restaurant three blocks from City Hall and launches into a story about her favorite waiter at the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea, part of the district Quinn represents in the City Council. She’s at once endearingly motherly and shrewdly sharp-elbowed, describing how the waiter gives her a reading on street-level opinion in his Jackson Heights neighborhood. “I’d love to think by 2013 the economy will be great and we’ll have tons of money in the budget,” she says. “There’s nothing to indicate a miraculous turnaround. So the race should be about who has real ideas to keep jobs, create jobs, to balance the budget in a way that keeps core services, a budget that’s honest and real that doesn’t make pie-in-the-sky promises.”
Quinn laughs loudly and curses fluently, but she can be a maddeningly cautious politician, claiming, for instance, that she still hasn’t made up her mind whether the “living wage” concept is a good or bad idea for New York. She’d like to see public schools add universal, full-day prekindergarten and reduce overcrowding but doesn’t envision any radical change of course. “I don’t think it’s worthwhile to spend a lot of time obsessing about the stats and how they’re manipulated,” Quinn says. “[The schools] are just not where they should be—period, end of conversation. Wholesale moving away from testing is not something that’s ever gonna happen. But you do want to give schools the ability to actually teach in a way that’s creative and gets the message across.” Quinn says she’d continue the NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic but order the department to scrub from its files the names of citizens who haven’t been charged with a crime.
When and if her campaign becomes official, Quinn’s opponents will try to paint her as the mayor’s pet. “She’s in every picture with him,” a potential rival says. “The hurricane—why is the speaker of the City Council in the picture? Peter Vallone and Rudy Giuliani worked together, but Vallone wasn’t standing next to Giuliani at every event. And extending term limits—it was his idea, but she implemented it.” Quinn’s team comforts itself with poll numbers that show Bloomberg with a 57 percent approval rating among Democrats, even after the Cathie Black, snowstorm, and CityTime debacles. And Bloomberg fatigue may well be overrated, especially outside the city’s media-intelligentsia complex. “The perception in the business community is that Bloomberg has done a great job,” says Kevin Ryan, the co-founder of DoubleClick who now runs the Gilt Groupe luxury-goods website. “Although it’s easier to write about how things should be dramatically different, I don’t think that’s the case. The schools are a problem, but in the last twenty years, the quality of life has gotten better, crime has gotten better, the subway system is better. And we need to continue on that path.”