What did Christine Quinn do to deserve her lousy third-place finish Tuesday night in the New York Democratic mayoral primary? And is there any way to answer that question without pointing to her gender? Quinn was a capable candidate who spent the whole spring and summer as the all-but-anointed front-runner, enjoyed the support of much of the city’s political Establishment and the backing of many of its unions, and in the home stretch was endorsed by all three of the city’s newspapers. These are the ingredients of a very boring success story, but the results Tuesday were a pitiful failure — not just third, but a distant third, midway between also-ran Bill Thompson and national joke Anthony Weiner.
Quinn’s campaign may have had its faults, and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio may have keenly capitalized on them, but nothing about her candidacy merited a failing grade. She was tarred in the end by her alliance with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and her support for his third term, but that’s part of a political narrative, not a real-life one. According to a Marist poll the week before the election, 47 percent of New York liberals gave Bloomberg a “good” or “excellent” approval rating; he may be an obnoxious person, but people like him as mayor. But Bloomberg’s likability wasn’t transferable: Starting in February, Quinn’s favorability went down, down, down.
I submit that Christine Quinn is exactly the kind of woman that people don’t like. She may be qualified, but she’s bossy and brash. She has an annoying voice, weird hair, and ill-fitting clothes. She wants what she wants, and she wants it too much. In these particulars, she is reminiscent of another female politician who lost in a 2008 primary to another smooth-talking man with a telegenic family. The loathing directed at Hillary Clinton has long been out of proportion to her qualifications and has focused on aspects of her womanhood that people have found lacking: her moods, her hair, her marriage, her domestic skill set. It is only now, with eight years in the U.S. Senate and a term as secretary of State under her belt, that Hillary’s likability has ceased to be her biggest problem. I argued in a post in January that, come the 2016 presidential election, Hillary will be able to use her maturity to her advantage: She no longer has to worry — at all — about being girlish or sexy or appropriately maternal. At 65, she’s an elder stateswoman and past all that.
But Quinn does have to worry about it, and she’s failed. Here, according to the New York Times, is a list of the adjectives Democratic voters ascribed to Quinn: “petty,” “mean,” “bossy,” “self-interested, “ “defensive,” “combative,” and “argumentative.” All of these are euphemisms for “girls don’t behave like that.” Her sexual orientation and her domestic arrangement may have hurt her, too, but only in that they put her squarely in society’s most reviled demographic category: middle-aged women without children — the jealous queens and kidnappers of Disney movies. Quinn’s devastating loss stands as proof that in the privacy of the voting booth we are even less post-chauvinist than we are post-racial in our preferences.
I am one of the 15 percent, having voted on Tuesday for Christine Quinn. It was not with a full heart or trembling fingers; I didn’t love any of my choices. But a time when debates among ambitious women continue to rage about the extent to which sexism and “patriarchy” still define or limit our successes and our lives, the failure of Chris Quinn looks like an object lesson. The qualities that made her a successful speaker — sharp elbows, potty mouth, pragmatic, working class — failed to be persuasive, even to voters in this open-minded village of 9 million where every kind expression of gender is supposed to be okay. Could it be that even in New York an ambitious female politician needs to be decorous, somehow? I spoke to Quinn about her religious faith back in April, when being New York’s first female lesbian mayor seemed not just possible but like her destiny. What do you pray for? I asked. “What I pray for is to become the thing I’m supposed to become and to do that well. Obviously, I want to be mayor, but if not I pray that I’ll be accepting of whatever that is.” In that moment, she seemed pretty likable to me.