The vaulted chamber of the City Council has an aging, down-on-its-luck appearance, with enormous chunks of plaster peeling from the ceiling. But back on April 6, shortly after noon, there was the sense of a new era beginning, as more than 350 politicians, lobbyists, and assorted other machers crowded in to hear the first major speech by Christine Quinn, the incoming council speaker.
The strains of Vivaldi trailed off as Quinn entered the room. She looked more stylish than usual, with her hair professionally blown-out and dyed a more muted shade than her standard brassy red. This was Quinn’s first encounter with a TelePrompTer, and the machine had been broken the night before, limiting her ability to rehearse. Earlier, she’d admitted to aides that she was nervous.
At the podium, however, Quinn paused and offered up a grin of such pure pleasure that even the roomful of jaded pols couldn’t resist smiling back. After introducing her father, retired union electrician Lawrence Quinn, she welcomed a laundry list of guests, from Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz to Pat Lynch of the Police Benevolent Association, many of whom had helped her win the speaker’s post. Then Quinn launched into a 31-minute performance that was interrupted 24 times by applause. In her distinctive mix of nasal Long Island–ese (she’s from Glen Cove) and Irish brogue (her grandparents came from counties Clare and Cork), she quoted John F. Kennedy (“The time to repair the roof is when the sun is shining”) and the Bible (“To whom much is given, much is required”). Then she outlined her vision for the city, with nods to the working poor, law enforcement, and small businesses. Quinn grew most animated when talking about good-government reforms, urging the mayor to give legislators more say in money matters. “This is the only way we can truly end the culture of lobbying at City Hall,” she said, “and bring real accountability to government.” When she finished, the audience gave her a standing ovation.
If anyone still thought of the first female and openly gay speaker of the City Council as an outsider, Quinn’s performance—polished, inclusive, and forceful—put them on notice to reconsider. The real Quinn, says longtime political consultant Hank Sheinkopf, is “an Irish pol, who happens to be a lesbian.”
In her first five months in office, Christine Quinn has emerged as a surprisingly bold, and calculating, city leader, not a bleeding heart, but a tough and savvy politician—Tip O’Neill from Chelsea. Once an outspoken gay-rights and tenants-rights activist, she’s now the second most powerful elected official in New York. Elected to the City Council in 1999, she represents the ultraliberal Third District (the far West Side from Canal Street to 55th) and was previously best known as the leading political opponent of Michael Bloomberg’s ill-fated West Side stadium. But the 39-year-old Quinn got elected to the speaker’s office by playing old-school politics, working the boroughs and courting powerful party bosses in Brooklyn and Queens, and, after she won, she passed out patronage to reward her supporters. Then, as speaker, she immediately fired 61 people, and quickly made sweeping reforms to change the way council members procure money for pet projects and to limit the influence of lobbyists. “To use a Yiddish phrase, she’s showing cojones,” quipped Lewis Fidler, a Brooklyn councilman who ran against Quinn for speaker but is now an ally. At the same time, Quinn has been carefully forging a cozy relationship with Bloomberg, a relationship surely meant to advance her political agenda—and her career. “Chris reminds me of those gestalt-switch things, where you either see the ugly old hag or the beautiful young woman,” says Douglas Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “She’s committed, vibrant, consultative, got an emotional core. Then when you look at the ugly old hag, she got there by playing traditional politics. Sometimes she looks like an old-fashioned, cold, calculating pol who is driven by expedience.”
Quinn was still settling into her office at the time of our first conversation in early February, just a few weeks after she was sworn in. It’s a small, high-ceilinged ground-floor space, newly painted pale blue, with clubby leather chairs and a couch. Politicians don’t usually show off their private bathroom, but Quinn offered a peek. “I had them put in makeup lights,” she said. Quinn has a raucous laugh that can often be heard corridors away, and she’s a master of little moments of political charm like that. As speaker, however, she’s been perfectly comfortable playing hardball.
Quinn’s first notable act in office was to impose a more formal Friday dress code for the council’s 278-member staff, banning sweats, jeans, T-shirts, and baseball caps. The move sent two clear messages: Quinn was in charge, and she planned to run City Hall with a kind of Fortune 500 efficiency.