Christine Quinn, Irish to the core, is possessed of the booming voice of a concrete-truck operator, the bada-bing timing of an outer-borough wiseguy, and the laugh of a pirate. You hear her coming down the great marbled halls and the carpeted ballrooms of New York—Aaaaaah-HA-HAHAHAHA-HAAAAA!!!! —well before she presents in the flesh. Her advance team is literally never caught off guard.
She’s boisterous even on the most decorous of occasions. When President Obama was visiting Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy and shaking the hand of Republican assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, he told the 32-year-old she didn’t look a day over 23. At that, Quinn spontaneously burst into a hand-clapping cheer: Be-come-a-Dem-o-crat! Be-come-a-Dem-o-crat! Her goofiness is infectious; even Obama played along. (“Come on, honey!” he teased. “I said you’re pretty! I said you look 23!”) And then there was the day not long ago when Quinn, sitting in a conference room of the law firm of Blank Rome, was giving a talk about the importance of diversity. As she wrapped up her remarks, one of the partners asked a question designed to draw her out further on the subject. “That’s all I got on diversity,” she cracked. A few minutes later, another lawyer earnestly asked the City Council speaker to share her views on how the mayoral race is shaping up, and she barked, “I’m gonna win!,” then laughed uproariously.
In most big Irish Catholic families, being loud and funny is a coping skill, a way to get heard above the din. For Quinn, whose mother was sick with cancer most of her childhood and was buried on Christmas Eve when Christine was 16, the black humor seems born not just of inheritance. One afternoon in mid-December, we met for coffee at the Moonstruck Diner in Chelsea, her regular joint not far from the apartment on Ninth Avenue that she shares with her wife, Kim Catullo. She and Catullo got married last May; their wedding made a splash in the tabloids. They have been together since a blind date on September 14, 2001, shortly after which Quinn discovered that Catullo had lost her mother to cancer when she was 17—and that her mother died on Christmas Day. “I always thought I had the saddest story,” Quinn likes to say, “until I met Kim.”
This afternoon, the two women were in the midst of planning a funeral for Kim’s brother Anthony, who had just died from pancreatic cancer. “Could December suck any harder?” Quinn muttered after hanging up from another call from Kim. Despite the fact that Anthony’s deterioration colored nearly every minute of her life this fall, Quinn seemed, perhaps not surprisingly, unusually deft at steeling herself against the sadness of hospital vigils and grim phone calls with doctors and getting on with the business at hand.
A couple of weeks earlier, before Anthony died, we had been in her SUV, flying along the Belt Parkway on the way to another public event. Quinn, who had been at the hospital all morning, was juggling phone calls between two of Anthony and Kim’s siblings, Jim and Debbie. The care she was taking with her in-laws was touching; her grasp of the minutiae of oncological jargon and her ability to translate it all was dazzling. Partly because Kim, a corporate litigator, was busy with a case in Chicago, Quinn, alone, seemed to be the one managing the flow of information. She hung up with Jim and got on with Debbie, and after a long explanation of Anthony’s current slate of maladies, she couldn’t resist a bit of gallows humor. “I said to Jim, ‘How ironic would it be if, at the end of all of this fucking drama, the answer is, he has to shit more?’ That would be the ultimate Catullo answer to cancer: that you just need to shit more!” I could hear Debbie cackling through the phone.
At Moonstruck, I asked her about her impressive volume. “It feels genetic,” she said. “Like if I tried not to be loud, I would be unable to do it. My late mother was very clear to my sister and I that we were to be strong women; that we were to be effective; that we were to be heard. My mother was also extraordinarily hard of hearing—and toward the end of her life was almost totally deaf—so I think part of the loudness is left over from me yelling, ‘Maaa!’ ” She let out one of her explosive laughs and then yelled once more—“Mommy!”—and laughed even harder.
This amount of candor is unusual for any politician, especially one whose career ambitions are in front of her and whose election would break both the gender and sexual-orientation barriers at once. But she doesn’t see her campaign through either lens. “I try to not think too much about how stuff gets seen as it’s being done by a woman,” she says. “Because if you think about it, then you end up thinking about how you’re acting, and if you are thinking about how you’re acting, then you are preoccupied and you’re going to end up being insincere. You’re kind of not present.”
But oddly enough, the Chris Quinn as seen from City Council press conferences often appears anything but bold—indeed, among the leading candidates for mayor, she is known to be especially cautious and inoffensive. Earlier this month, she gave a “vision” speech for improving New York schools, advertised by her office as a major address. It was generally received as long on platitudes, short on ambition—the most memorable proposal being about replacing textbooks with tablets—and as simultaneously condemning yet basically endorsing Bloomberg’s more controversial education policies. She has a tendency toward triangulation, especially with respect to her relationship with the mayor, whose endorsement she has courted for years. I recently got into a conversation about her with a progressive woman from the West Village who gave me an earful about how disappointed she has been in Quinn for having drifted from the values of her housing-advocacy days. This is not an uncommon criticism from the liberals who make up the primary electorate.
When I brought this up to Quinn, she vigorously defended her record: “Productive, practical, pragmatic, and progressive.” She cited pro-tenant, environmental, living-wage, pro-immigration, and pro-choice legislation that the City Council has passed in her seven years as speaker, “hand in glove” with the mayor. “I think there’s this narrative that, because I’ve worked with the mayor, who is not a Democrat and is an affluent man, that by definition that’s somehow not progressive, when the facts just don’t bear that out.”
Quinn is widely considered to be the front-runner in the race. With an approval rating in the mid-sixties, she is by far the most popular Democrat in the city, and she polls at 35 percent in a Democratic primary, compared with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio at 11, former comptroller Bill Thompson at 10, and current comptroller John Liu at 9. She long ago raised the $4.9 million she’s allowed under the city’s public-financing system, and she’s received high-profile endorsements from groups like Emily’s List and the United Food & Commercial Workers union. Among colleagues and political observers, she is regarded as an effective legislator—someone who gets people in a room and “gets shit done,” as one put it to me—as well as a gifted retail politician, happiest when someone is bending her ear. In 2006, at a fund-raiser at the Mandarin Oriental, Bill Clinton told the crowd that his wife had described Quinn to him by saying, “You will not believe how good this woman is … She’s even a better politician than you are.” Some of her Republican colleagues are almost as complimentary. “She is always the smartest, most prepared person in the room, but not in a smug, Al Gore kind of way,” says Jimmy Oddo, a Republican councilman from Staten Island. “Her legacy as speaker is as an elected official who lives the job 24/7 and is as invested as much as you can be emotionally, mentally, intellectually.”
It’s her close working relationship with Bloomberg that makes her most vulnerable in a Democratic primary. For those inclined to see the mayor as an imperious billionaire, her worst crime was her role in extending term limits to give him four more years. Quinn knows the vote will cost her. “For some people, it’s a real deal-breaker,” she told me, sounding surprisingly blasé. “And for people who really believe that was a mistake, I respect their decision not to support me. What I would tell them is that I voted in a way that I thought was in the best interest of the City of New York. Even though I knew that the majority of the electorate disagreed with me. And at the end of the day, we want elected officials who do what they think is right, notwithstanding the political consequences.”
There are also voters, particularly in the Manhattan business community, who worry that Quinn is not nearly enough like Bloomberg, that she lacks the mayor’s spine and sophisticated sense of New York as a global city. It is possible Bloomberg himself shares this unease. In early December, the Times ran a story about his having encouraged Hillary Clinton to run for mayor. The next day, I spoke to Deputy Mayor Howard Wolfson, who minimized the exchange as a ten-second hypothetical moment of jokey banter. Then, on January 7, the Times ran another story, this one reporting that Bloomberg has been casting all over the tri-state area, encouraging everyone who is not Chris Quinn to run. This time, Wolfson came right out and called bullshit. “I was very condemnatory of the piece on Twitter and was very clear in my denunciation and my denial,” he told me. “That’s not usually my style. But this piece was just flat-out wrong.” Does Chris Quinn have Mayor Bloomberg’s tacit support? “Yes. There is no confusion.” Have they ever discussed an actual endorsement? “They have not had a conversation about an endorsement. They obviously have a very close working relationship, but the subject of an endorsement had not come up yet.”
And yet the whispering continues. Perhaps the most vivid indication that, as one longtime city Democratic consultant notes, “the elites clearly are not settled” is the nascent candidacy of Joe Lhota, who recently resigned as head of the MTA to run for mayor as a Republican. “Only the New York City intelligentsia could think that it would be okay to put forward a candidate for mayor who is about to be at the head of yet another fare increase,” says the consultant. “It’s easy for them because none of them have MetroCards. But that stupidity notwithstanding, it does demonstrate—even for those who are in the Bloomberg coalition who are Democrats—that there is a kind of a they’re-not-sold-on-this-person-quite-yet restlessness.”
And so: A very skillful political operator nonetheless finds herself caught between those who see her as Bloomberg Lite and, well, those who see her as Bloomberg Lite. The truth is that while the decision to work with the mayor was surely part calculation, it also has a lot to do with Quinn’s nature: She is pragmatic above all else. To win the mayoralty, she will have to convince the city that her pragmatism is not purely strategic—or rather, that the strategy is genuine. At Moonstruck, when we talked about her relationship with the mayor, she got more worked up than usual, banging her cell phone on the table to hammer home points. “Our job is to get things done.” Bang. “And ultimately the best way to get things done is to work collaboratively. Is this model of Washington, where nobody can find common ground, better? I mean, that’s a rock around people’s necks. That’s an albatross.” Bang, bang. “What other type of business would people go, ‘Ugh! You know that woman? She’s finding a way to work with people. Oh, we gotta put a stop to that! And you know what else? They’re passing budgets on time! They’re putting money in a trust fund! That’s crazy talk.’ I think New Yorkers are thrilled that things are working, that things are civilized, and that things are productive.” Bang, bang, bang!
One Sunday afternoon in early December, I met Quinn at the Hudson Guild, a community center in Chelsea. She was here for the 85th birthday of a neighborhood fixture and activist for the elderly, Muriel Beach. “I present you with the highest honor you can get from the City Council,” Quinn said to Beach, “a proclamation framed in plastic.” Quinn’s father, Larry, was also here—“LQ,” as they call him around City Hall, where he keeps a desk and is, as Chris likes to say, “an unpaid and un-listened-to adviser.” He is 86, and because someone told me that Larry reminded him of Clarence Odbody, the guardian angel from It’s a Wonderful Life, I spotted him instantly, wearing his Sunday best—tweed trousers and camel-hair blazer. He has a very unusual, high-pitched voice and a twinkly eyed, gentle aspect. We wound up chatting about our shared obsession with the Housing Works thrift shops, which he visits regularly. “They have terrific stuff,” he said. “I was just at the one on 17th Street this morning because my other daughter, Ellen, is looking for serving pieces for Christmas.” Suddenly, Chris appeared next to us and butted in. “Serving pieces of what sort?” she asked. “Platters! And bowls!” he said, suddenly shouting like Gilbert Gottfried, and at last I understood where the decibel level comes from. They talked for a bit about Ellen, a geologist who lives on the water in Guilford, Connecticut. “You know where your sister lives,” said Larry to Chris, “how there’s no land next to her? Well, there was land there before the hurricane in 1938.”
“Oh, really,” Chris said as a puzzled look crossed her face. “You know, it’s a dumb place she lives. Especially for a geologist.”
Chris then wandered off, and Larry got to telling me that, despite the fact that he now lives on 87th and Riverside, he parks his beloved 2002 Mercedes at 212th Street and Tenth Avenue, under the el. Chris was now back at his side. “Are you saying inappropriate things?”
“We’re discussing why the father of a big shot has to go all the way up to 212th Street to park his car,” he said.
“Because you’re a piece of work!” she shouted. “And when congestion pricing was being discussed, you went off in a fit of pique, yelling at the deputy mayor, saying you didn’t agree with congestion pricing, and moved your car! You didn’t ask if it was gonna pass, you didn’t ask for a political calculation, you just went off in some fit of pique. So you have no one to blame but yourself.” At this point they were both smirking, amused by their little Ralph and Alice Kramden routine. Chris reached out and stroked the lapel of his blazer. “You look very dapper,” she said sweetly.
“Well, who do you think bought the jacket?”
“My mother,” Chris said.
“Yes!” Larry replied, his eyes a-twinkle. Chris erupted in laughter—“AHAHAHA-HAHAAAA!!!!”—as Larry opened his jacket and showed off the label. Chris examined it. “Yeah, it’s from Saks Fifth Avenue,” she said.
“She’s been gone for 30 years!” Larry yelled.
“Over 30 years!” Chris yelled back.
Chris, now 46, was 6 when her mother, Mary, got sick. “In a very Irish way, they didn’t actually ever tell me. A nun told a friend who told me, and that’s how I found out. But you know something’s wrong. It was difficult, because when you are a kid and you don’t know what’s going on, when things are not good you assume they’re your fault.” Before she had children, Mary was a medical technician and later a social worker; she inherited from her Irish father the idea that you are here to learn as much as you can, go as far as you can, and do some good. “Her illness instilled a sense of purpose and urgency in Christine,” Ellen told me, “because you could feel it in my mother. Just because you’re sick doesn’t mean you don’t have a really strong life force.”
Like any good politician, Quinn has polished the stories of her earliest stirrings of interest in government: eavesdropping on her mother’s social-worker friends; picking up on the political sensibilities of her father, the shop steward of his union; and, most important, discovering the shelf of mini-biographies of historical women “firsts” when she was in elementary school. But when I brought this up to Ellen, she laughed. “Oh, she was just bossy. Even as a little kid, she was always bossing everyone around.” (The Quinns lived in Glen Cove, on a street called Libby Drive, and Chris’s next-door neighbor once made her a T-shirt that said MAYOR OF LIBBY DRIVE.)
Ellen is ten years older than Chris, and in talking with her I couldn’t help but notice she has no trace of her sister’s Lawn Guyland accent. “My mother was fairly quiet, and I’m comparatively quiet,” Ellen said. Whereas, at least in this sense, Chris is all Larry. “My father was a union guy. He had opinions, and he was going to share them. It’s a Quinn thing: If you are in a room, you are going to let everyone know you are in the room. You fill space.”
One night in mid-October, Chris was making her way through the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel and Towers in midtown, where she was to speak to yet another group of people all dressed up for the night—in this instance, the Empire State Pride Agenda fall dinner: a Big Gay Night with the Big Gay Speaker. She had an entourage of four staff and security trailing, and along the way throughout her brisk march she kept getting stopped by the kind of guys who usually recognize her: working-class outer-borough types—doormen, porters, and security guards who often want to say something surprisingly sweet. “Yo, Quinn!” they’ll shout, and maybe congratulate her on her “weddin’ ” or “nup-chools.”
Kim Catullo had joined the group tonight, and as soon as Chris and Kim got to the top of the lobby’s escalator, the bowing and scraping began: They are, after all, the most celebrated married lesbians of the year. The gays swirled around them. Nightlife fixture Montgomery Frazier planted himself in front of Quinn: “You are going to be our next mayor!” Retiring state senator Tom Duane drifted over. “Hiiiiiiii, how are yoooooouuuu?” he said, sounding like a gay Al Franken. Paul Lombardi of NY1 fame, that tall fellow from What Not to Wear, a giant drag queen. Suddenly, a very elegant, very old Madison Avenue blonde swanned by. “She’s pushing right past me to get to Kim!” Quinn shouted. It was Edie Windsor, the octogenarian whose federal case, recently taken up by the Supreme Court, may very well decide the future of marriage equality across the land. Kiss-kiss, Hello, my darling.
Before long, Quinn was introduced to the audience by Justin Vivian Bond, then took to the podium so that she could introduce Chuck Schumer. “His favorite song?” she said. “I swear to God … I am not making this up … ‘It’s Raining Men!’ ” As Schumer all but endorsed Quinn for mayor, we headed for the exits, and as we were all escalating down to the lobby, Catullo said to one of her wife’s staffers, “Did you see that guy who came up to me? He gave me his card!”
“What happened?” said Quinn, missing nothing.
Kim laughed sheepishly.
“What happened?” Quinn said, now not kidding around. “Who tried to pick you up?”
“Swear to God …” Back to the staffer: “Did you not witness?”
“I did,” said the staffer. “He gave her a big hug and handed her his card and said, “Use it, don’t lose it.”
“Naaaahhhhhoooo!” Quinn said, now roaring with stunned, disbelieving laughter. “A straight guy?”
“Absolutely,” said Catullo. “I haven’t been hit on like that by a guy in a long time.”
“Let me see the card,” Quinn said, and Catullo pulled it away. “Let me see it!”
Quinn and her entourage had another stop—the twentieth-anniversary party for NY1 at the Public Library. Catullo bailed and jumped in a cab, and we headed down the block toward Quinn’s SUV. Clustered near her car was a gaggle of young lesbians taking a smoke break. The cutest and drunkest spotted Quinn. “Thank you so much for … like, for everything,” she said. “Can you give me a hug right now? You’re like … we love you!” Quinn cautiously hugged the woman. “Can I tell you one more thing? I am a foreigner living in America for, like, twelve years. I don’t even have a green card. Even if I marry anyone in America, I’m not going to get a green card through them, because—”
Quinn stopped her. “You know, eventually, when we get DOMA repealed and we get marriage on a federal level, then we’ll be able to address this issue.”
“I hope so!” the woman said. “I don’t want to get deported at this stage in my life. If I get deported, can you accompany me to the airport?
“Where ya goin’?” Quinn asked.
“Well, we’re going to try to prevent the deportation,” Quinn said, grabbing her shoulders and looking her square in the eye. “That’s the focus! All right? Not the dark trip to the airport! What’s your name?”
“Dewey. All right, thank you.”
As Quinn got in her car and the doors closed, she said, to no one in particular: “Dewey was adorable.”
One day not long ago, I asked Quinn when she came out both to herself and to others. “To myself,” she said, “probably in college, in a fairly non-coming-outy way. I actually remember being in my dorm room and saying out loud, ‘You are not going to have this problem.’ And then I started working on Tom Duane’s campaign for City Council. I was in the super-duperest gay environment ever—and, look, at 25, it becomes hard to keep it tucked away. Tom and I were on the subway on the way to a rent-guidelines-board meeting, and I said to him, ‘I need to talk to you about something important.’ And he said, ‘Oh my God, you’re quitting.’ I said, ‘No.’ And he said, ‘What? You’re a lesbian?’ ” Here, she imitated Duane by rolling her eyes and languidly waving her hand. And then she shouted, as if to Duane, “A little more sensitivity, please!”
This was when Quinn was managing Duane’s 1991 campaign. At that point she was a few years out of college, but already fairly seasoned in politics: At Trinity, she took on so many political internships that the college later changed the rules on how many credits you could get for them. Soon after moving to New York, she was running a housing-justice campaign, which is where she got Duane’s attention. “That red hair is distinctive,” he says, “and it was more distinctive then.” When Duane won the election, he made Quinn his chief of staff, and when he left to run for State Senate in 1998, she campaigned and won the seat herself. Aside from a three-year stint leading a gay activist group called the Anti-Violence Project, she has worked in the City Council for over two decades.
One morning in October, I went down to City Hall to watch her in action. It was a full, stated meeting of the Council: almost all 51 members, present and accounted for. Quinn began by holding a press conference to introduce three pieces of legislation, and as I watched her stand in front of a garish display of municipal flags, it struck me that she is a lot like the Irish Catholic women I grew up with in Jersey: domineering and jocular, with a repertoire of exaggerated facial expressions. She did one, to reporters, where she pulled her chin into her neck and made her eyes huge, as if to say, Whaddayafuckin’kiddin’me?
The speaker was running what felt a bit like the Chris Quinn Show. Most of the questions from the press had to do with proposed new laws about bicycles. After patiently fielding a dozen or so, she finally shouted, “I have no more bike knowledge!” A few moments later, she was milling around on the floor of the Council Chambers, drinking soup from a takeout container like it was a cup of coffee, waiting for the members to take their seats. The meeting began, and what struck me most was how raucous it got. And that there were so many accents that it almost felt like the General Assembly of the U.N. At one point, things got so rowdy that Quinn yelled, “Can we get a little quiet?!” Should she succeed in her quest for the mayoralty, she will be a one-woman boon to the fortunes of SNL impressionists.
“The Council is made up of middle-class people representing middle-class people,” says Duane. “And the consensus that Chris has been able to create on the widest variety of issues is a wonder to behold. And it’s by the person who represents Hell’s Kitchen, Greenwich Village, and Chelsea—how amazing is that?” Quinn has become, by her own admission, more comfortable as speaker over the past seven years. “In a job like this, when you’re interacting with people a lot, you start off nervous,” she told me. “But being in government is like anything: You just have to practice. Put your big-girl panties on and go out there and do it!” (The reference, if you didn’t catch it, was to Real Housewives of New Jersey.) She’s a big believer in the idea that if you can just get people to the table, you can force a solution. Sometimes, the results leave everyone with a bitter taste in their mouths—for example, the nettlesome compromise over redeveloping the Chelsea Market building, which pitted two major constituencies in her district, neighbors and business interests, against each other—and at other times they turn out surprisingly well. In 2011, when Bloomberg was threatening to lay off 4,000 teachers, Quinn played the pivotal role in stopping it by working the phones. “The union leaders would say, ‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ And I would say, ‘I have no blessed idea, but I don’t want to lay these teachers off and I don’t have enough money to not lay them off, and if you don’t like the mayor’s ideas, come up with your own.’ I just kept saying, ‘Stay in the room,’ and it worked.” In a way she’s the lesbian Tip O’Neill, the loud, funny Irish Catholic speaker of the House of Representatives during much of the Reagan years, who was famous for being cordial with the man whose policies he despised, calling them “one big Christmas party for the rich.”
As it happens, I was at a Christmas party for the rich just a few weeks ago. It was at a townhouse in the East Sixties, just off Park Avenue, and several times over the course of the evening the subject of Quinn came up. Each person I spoke with expressed doubts about whether she’s tough enough and smart enough to run the city. Implied, or overtly stated, was that the Bloomberg years have been marvelous and she’s no Bloomberg. By which they meant, if I understood correctly, that’s she’s just another politician. Later in the evening, the host interrupted me to point out that the mayor himself had just arrived. Did I want to meet him? Sure. My friend and I followed the host over, shook Bloomberg’s hand, and my friend thanked him for his position on gun control. Without even acknowledging the comment, Bloomberg gestured toward a woman in a very tight floor-length gown standing nearby and said, “Look at the ass on her.”
One morning in late November, I met Quinn outside City Hall for a trip to Staten Island, this time for a press conference with the mayor. Quinn had just come from a visit with Anthony Catullo at Sloan-Kettering, and when I jumped into her SUV she was on the phone, deep in conversation, giving the full report of Anthony’s condition to one of the Catullos.
She looked particularly great in a purple tweed blazer, a black flannel pencil skirt, gray nail polish, and a pair of soigné black English riding boots she had bought over the weekend at Lord & Taylor. I complimented her, and we got to talking about fashion and bargains, and it was obvious to me that this was a conversation I would never be having with a male politician. Then she said, “The mayor is going to yell at me when I get out of the car because I have flat boots on. The mayor has no use for flat shoes.” Really, I said. Why would he care? “I was at a parade with him once and he said, ‘What are those?’ and I said, ‘They’re comfortable,’ and he said, ‘I never want to hear those words out of your mouth again.’ ” Everyone in the vehicle, including the security detail in the front seat, cracked up. “He likes me in high heels. Let’s see how long it takes before he notices.” She scrolled through her BlackBerry. “Another big thing with the mayor, when I am rooting … like, the couple of days a week before I need to get my hair colored, he’ll say, ‘Do you pay a lot to make your hair be two colors? Because now it’s three with the gray.’ And I’m like, ‘Did you wake up being this big of an asshole? Or did it take, like, all day to ramp up to it to be able to insult me like that?’ ”
More than one person has pointed out to me that if Quinn were a man, her working relationship with Bloomberg would be covered much more respectfully by the press, but it would also likely be a lot less interesting. “It’s not that complicated,” Quinn told me when I asked about their rapport. “People have asked me, ‘How is it that you have such a good relationship with the mayor?’ And this is the truth, and it sounds a little arrogant, but it kind of fits into my little mind-over-matter worldview: When I got elected speaker, I decided that the mayor and I would have a productive and cordial working relationship, and because I decided it, it was so. And when we get in meetings and he starts going on, or my people start going on, or his people start going on, I just say, ‘Stop! We’re not doing this. And if we are unable to not do this today, we will adjourn and come back when we are able to not do this.’ Which doesn’t mean we’re going to agree all the time, but we’re just not going to get involved in petty politics or stupid foolery that wastes time. He’s actually much more silly than people think. Sometimes in meetings he’s just telling stories and goofing around. And he’s got a potty mouth.”
When I asked for her take on his positives and negatives, she said, “In a weird way, they are one and the same. You cannot say this guy doesn’t have big ideas. Whether it’s a cockamamy stadium on the West Side of Manhattan or the wisdom to see that we should ban smoking in restaurants or congestion pricing, he is willing to put big ideas out there without the guarantee they’re going to succeed. That’s unusual, not just in politics, but in life. Now, you could also argue that at times he needs to listen a little more to what people are saying.”
I suggested that perhaps after twelve years, New Yorkers’ idea about what kind of person the mayor is supposed to be has changed. She looked at me like this had never occurred to her. “Oh, I don’t know.” The not-very-charming but super-competent CEO type, I said. “It’s funny. New Yorkers clearly like the mayor,” she said. “That’s a fact. And they love Ed Koch! Who was a different kind of mayor! I think New Yorkers have the ability to see positives and like different things and different ways of doing stuff.” We talked for a moment about Giuliani, for whom she has far less warm feelings. “I did not like him very much,” she said. But then she brought up 9/11 and went somewhere surprising. “Seeing this guy who for so long I thought of as heartless in such emotional distress was an important learning experience. It taught me that everybody, regardless of what you think of them, has pain, has emotion, has loss. And that, in a weird way, is a very powerfully uniting thing. Thinking about 9/11 and him and mayors lately, that’s helped remind me not to write anybody off.”
Quinn became more cautious when I asked, point-blank, what kind of city she wants New York to be under her mayoralty. “A network of neighborhoods,” she responded. “In Queens, you don’t send your mail to Queens. You send it to Bayside, to Flushing, to Sunnyside, because people’s neighborhood identities matter. We have lost a bit of our neighborhood identity in kind of the Duane Reade–ing of New York. I worry about that.” I mentioned Bloomberg’s notorious quote about the city being a luxury product. “One of the things I loved about Chelsea,” she said, “is that on Eighth Avenue, there is the Rawhide bar—not a luxury product. And for many years there were Latino guys from the neighborhood who had a folding card table every Friday and Saturday night and played dominoes. And they knew every guy who walked into the Rawhide, and every guy that walked in the Rawhide knew them. A leather bar may or may not be the best example, but it is the type of neighborhood experience we want to be able to have, what Jane Jacobs called ‘the eyes on the streets’ all watching out for each other.”
I pressed a little harder; neighborliness did not seem much of a platform. What would you do differently from Bloomberg? Again, caution. “I think whoever the next mayor is will do things differently because they are different people and they come from a different place.” She went on in this vein for a while, but then finally settled on an answer about inclusiveness that is echt Quinn. “I want an administration that would be fueled by the recognition that actually hearing from people and letting them drive the agenda in part not only makes your agenda better, but makes the city better, because then everybody is invested in it, and everybody is lifted up by the power that position and the title holds, not just the person who happens to be lucky enough to be in it.”
We arrived at the location in Staten Island, an abandoned car dealership on Hylan Boulevard that had been repurposed as a FEMA “Recovery Center.” We were early, and Quinn got out a Bobbi Brown makeup kit and freshened up her face. She pulled a big can of hair spray out of her canvas tote and said to the staffers in the backseat, “Duck!” and then blasted her cap of red hair into place. When she stepped onto the curb, there were two sisters—Joan Cusacks in Working Girl, 25 years later. They pounced on Quinn, and within seconds one of them was in tears. Turns out her house had flooded and she didn’t want to go back, ever. Quinn listened and got her a tissue. She asked where the woman was staying. “At my mom’s right now.” When Quinn asked her how that’s going, the woman’s face contorted into a rictus of terror and they both fell out laughing.
When the mayor arrived, Quinn was deep in conversation with another constituent and didn’t look up. He headed straight toward the podium and waited until one of her aides told her he was ready. They were here to announce a tax-relief program for people who lost their homes, an idea that Councilman Jimmy Oddo had suggested to Quinn, who had then taken it to the mayor. “Our hearts go out to all of the New Yorkers who really are suffering,” Bloomberg said in the least heartfelt voice imaginable. When he turned the floor over to Quinn, she projected her voice to the back of the room and immediately picked up on the anxiety in the air. “The real fear is that as bills were gonna come in they weren’t gonna have the money to pay them,” she said. “And these are hardworking people, people who saved and scrimped to buy their homes, people who probably never missed—and couldn’t imagine missing—a tax bill.” Bloomberg, who was carrying an iPad, checked it more than once while others took their turn at the microphone, at one point holding onto the edge of his podium to steady himself while he read an e-mail.
It was the night before the night before Christmas, and Quinn and Catullo were at home wrapping gifts and baking cookies, getting ready for visits with both sides of the family, the Dixie Chicks playing on the stereo. When I arrived, Catullo took their dog Justin for a walk, and Quinn ordered Chinese food and then showed me around the apartment. In the guest bedroom that doubles as an office, there is a framed portrait of Bruce Springsteen in his twenties wearing a Rutgers T-shirt on the wall. (Kim, who grew up in Jersey and went to Rutgers, is a superfan.)
The last time I had seen Catullo, her brother was still alive, so the first thing I said when she returned was how sorry I was for her loss; she talked for a moment about how difficult the past few months had been. She picked up a photograph of Anthony that looked like it was taken in the seventies. “This was during his days living in the Village,” she said. He is handsome, mustachioed, wearing a flannel shirt. Quinn ran and grabbed another photo, this one from 2006, of Anthony flanked by Chris and Kim, still handsome, still smiling. Kim, who looks just like him, is handsome herself. She is soft-spoken, but full of thoughtful questions.
Several people have told me that her relationship with Catullo has changed Quinn in some fundamental way. “I get the sense that Kim is much more of the grounded one,” says Mark Palladino, a Staten Island prosecutor and college friend of Quinn’s. “She probably gives Chris a good perspective that isn’t as knee-jerk.” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand went to their wedding and told me about a video that played during the reception. “It is so charming, very When Harry Met Sally,” she said. When I brought this up, Quinn told Catullo to put it on. She rooted around for the DVD and popped it in and said, “Wow, I haven’t watched this since the wedding.” It opens with the two of them sitting on a couch talking about how they met.
Kim: I was told she was a politician, and I said I wasn’t interested.
Kim: In dating politicians. For reasons I now fully understand.
Catullo is a reluctant political spouse. “I’ve tried to talk her out of it,” she told me regarding Quinn’s mayoral run. “But I realize the significance of it on so many levels if she wins, and that’s the only thing that gets me past it: the impact it could have on women. And New Yorkers. And gays!” I mentioned the tantalizing notion that, should Quinn prevail, the mayor and the First Lady will both be lesbians. Catullo looked like she was going to throw up. “My heart is literally racing,” she said. Then Quinn pointed out that almost everyone who is running is married. “We haven’t had a married mayor in twelve years, which means we haven’t had a first spouse, regardless of sexual orientation, in twelve years.” All the blood had drained from Catullo’s face.
But there is something else that is tantalizing about the idea of a Quinn mayoralty, something that has little to do with what she would get done or even what her election would represent. Whether she chooses to think about it or not, she is a woman, one who happens to get very excited about wedding dresses and reads Vogue, a woman who breaks down and sobs in her SUV when she finds out that her wife’s brother is being rushed to the hospital, a woman who, when she meets a pretty girl on the street named Dewey, calls her “adorable.” She is a politician whose interior emotional life is right there on the surface, for anyone to see. She is the kind of person who worries about having sufficient emotional regard even for those she despises. It is this ability to emote and connect that offers the most vivid departure from a dozen years of Bloombergian just-the-facts-ma’am competence and equanimity.
After we polished off pork dumplings and spicy noodles, we got to talking about the day back in 2009 when gay marriage did not pass in Albany and Quinn cried at a press conference at City Hall. “Not the tough-girl image I like to put out there,” she said about tears before the cameras. “But I got upset, because what happened is that people had a choice to vote yes in a way that would have helped my life, and they voted no, and that created the risk that two 83-year-old men wouldn’t get to be at their daughters’ wedding.” She paused for a long moment. “The other night,” she continued, “our hairdresser, Dave, came over. And he had just been visiting Anthony. After our wedding, we had an after-party at the Dream hotel. It was a perfect night, and for some reason the Empire State Building was green. Anthony and Dave and Dave’s boyfriend, Alex, stayed out until like 4 a.m., just sitting on a wraparound balcony talking and drinking and whatever. And they talked about it at the hospital, and Anthony talked about just what a perfect New York moment that was. Now, if there was no wedding, there might have been a night out at a bar, and there might have been Dave and Anthony sitting on a wraparound balcony, but it wouldn’t have been that moment, that night.” She looked like she could cry, but fought it. “It wouldn’t have been the after-party of our wedding. And if you think about somebody’s dying words—well then, that’s why things like that matter.”