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.
Quinn’s sartorial edict was symbolic, but was nothing compared with her staff putsch. In assembling her team of senior advisers, Quinn kept onboard Chuck Meara, the chief of staff of her predecessor, Gifford Miller (“Chuck knew the place, and a number of members spoke to me on his behalf,” says Quinn, who is close to Miller), but hired new deputy chiefs, including Maura Keaney, who had once run Quinn’s council office before leaving to work for the garment-workers union Unite Here, and Ramon Martinez, a Queens political operative who had previously worked for Hillary Clinton and Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum.
Then Quinn lowered the ax. On the morning of February 17, pink slips were hand-delivered to 61 council employees, their computer access was quickly cut off, and they were given until the end of the day to clear out their desks. The list included everyone from the respected veteran finance director Larian Angelo to policy analysts to secretaries. Quinn was conveniently out of the office that day—visiting a Queens hospital and then heading to Albany for a meeting—and thus missed the sight of teary-eyed staffers wandering around with moving boxes.
Although Miller had purged a similar number of people after taking office and did so on Valentine’s Day, Quinn created a bigger uproar with her firings, perhaps because people hadn’t seen the more ruthless pol in her. “Gifford didn’t even get a story in the Times,” Quinn says. “I got three.” A Quinn defender says she was clearing out previous patronage hires. “How did some of these people get here? Either you’ve got a rabbi or you do a lot of political work on the side. This is a political institution.” Other council members, however, grumbled that Quinn was firing competent people to open up slots for her own payback hires. Still, for Quinn, behaving so forcefully in the first few months of her speakership showed that she was willing to play as rough as the boys. When I mentioned to Bloomberg deputy mayor Kevin Sheekey that a number of legislators told me they’re scared of Quinn, he laughed. “Fear is good,” he said. “As the saying goes, when you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
The Kabuki ritual that is the annual fight between the City Council and the mayor’s office over how to spend the city’s money goes like this: The mayor presents his budget proposal—this year it’s $52.7 billion—which includes scores of spending proposals for projects and programs he deems worthy, plus cuts in popular programs like arts funding and libraries. “It’s smart of them because it allows us to be pigeonholed on working on one percent of the budget,” says Quinn. “If the council is spending all its time restoring important services, we don’t raise broader issues.” In turn, council members go ballistic, hold hearings, and demand that money be restored; they also give the speaker a long wish list of new programs, such as more funding to fight hepatitis B or to hire more housing inspectors. Ultimately, the mayor and the council speaker battle over what stays in and what gets cut out, with an annual June 30 deadline looming for a budget deal. The speaker has discretion over tens of millions of dollars, both by choosing which new citywide programs to push for in negotiations with the mayor and by controlling the purse strings of the council’s own $48.5 million operating budget. Traditionally, the process of wrangling money from the speaker has been a freewheeling, back-room affair. Council members would simply hand the speaker scraps of paper with their wishes written on them; a billion dollars’ worth of requests might wind up in $150 million in city spending, with all the decisions made behind closed doors.
In April, Quinn announced far-reaching reforms that essentially overhauled the process by fiat. Her 50 fellow council members are now limited to four requests. Members have to fill out detailed forms, which must include the signed support of nine of their colleagues, and the signers must represent at least three of the five boroughs. Members can back no more than seven requests in addition to their own four. The forms must be submitted by a deadline (it was May 17 this year); after that date, no further requests will be considered until the following year. Quinn says the reforms are intended to make the process more open, to force council members to set priorities, and to weed out proposals that don’t enjoy at least some degree of widespread support. “Every year I’ve been part of the budget process,” says Quinn. “A member would say, when the list was given out, ‘No one asked me.’ The perception was, ‘The speaker doesn’t like me.’ ” Critics say the changes create unnecessary paperwork and limit the number of worthy projects council members can lobby for. “She said she didn’t want to go through the whole budget dance with the mayor,” says Brooklyn council member Charles Barron. “Now we’ve got to go around dancing with each other.” The changes are imperfect—Quinn allows that she’s willing to tinker—but they’ve been hailed by good-government groups as a positive step toward greater accountability.
Quinn can also claim credit for helping to enact historic lobbying reforms. On May 24, the City Council unanimously approved three bills, introduced by Quinn at a joint news conference with the mayor in February, that ban all gifts from lobbyists to elected officials and enhance the enforcement of lobbying restrictions.
Newly elected politicians always try to push through a raft of legislation before their honeymoon period is over, but Quinn has even more reason to be in a hurry: term limits. Under the current law, which went into effect in 2001 and restricts council members to two four-year terms, 38 of the 51 city legislators, including Quinn, will be out of office by the end of 2009. “Me and everyone else are desperately trying to figure out where we’re going to land in four years,” says one council member. “We have to produce and get our headlines.”
The relationship between the City Council speaker and the mayor has always been fractious. But the past four years saw a virtual cold war at City Hall. Miller wanted Bloomberg’s job, Bloomberg wanted to keep it, and the two often seemed to put more energy into scoring political points than into working to solve the city’s problems.
Bloomberg and Quinn, on the other hand, are positively chummy. Now that Bloomberg has won his second term as mayor in a landslide and is term-limited from running again, he has been eager to forge a partnership with the speaker to secure his legacy. And Quinn has seized the opportunity. With only four years to make her mark, says Gene Russianoff, a senior lawyer with the New York Public Interest Group, “it’s wise of her to start by cooperating with the mayor.”
Ask Bloomberg and Quinn about each other, and they fawn. “I can say nothing but good things about her work ethic and her honesty and her openness and her style in terms of trying to find common ground,” says the mayor. Quinn describes Bloomberg’s style as a welcome change from the vindictive approach of his predecessor. “In the Giuliani administration, if you disagreed with him, you were shut out,” she says. Bloomberg, she says, is “100 percent a gentleman. He has been enormously helpful, open to my ideas, treated me as a real partner.”
Their lovefest is all the more remarkable given Quinn’s opposition to Bloomberg’s West Side stadium, which would have caused significant disruption in her district. “Even when she tried to block the stadium, even when she was out there screaming about my position on gay marriage, whenever I’ve met her, it’s still kiss-kiss, how are you,” says Bloomberg. (The mayor has said he is personally in favor of gay marriage, but feels obligated to enforce New York law.) Quinn says that the stadium has become a running joke in their relationship. “I’ll ask about economic development, and he’ll say”—then she mimics Bloomberg’s voice—“ ‘Well, we could have had great economic development if you’d voted for the stadium.’ And I just usually tell him to relax.”
For all the goodwill between Quinn and the mayor, the two are inevitably going to clash over term limits. Quinn campaigned for speaker by promising to try to soften the restrictions, and she’s under pressure from council members to live up to that pledge. Bloomberg vows to fight any change. “The public has spoken, twice,” he says, referring to citywide votes in 1993 and 1996 passing term limits. “Either you believe in democracy or you don’t. The arrogance of anybody to say, ‘Yeah, it’s a democracy, but I don’t agree with the public, and I want to keep my job … ’ ” Quinn, for the moment, anyway, is ducking the fight. “He and I disagree on whether term limits are a good thing, but exactly how we’re going to play out term limits in the council has yet to be determined.”
In her office, Quinn has surrounded herself with sentimental totems from her past. She hands me a small, beat-up metal garbage can with a newspaper story laminated on its side. It’s the tale of her maternal grandmother, Ellen Shine, who was sent as a teenager from Ireland to America to become a maid, sailing on the Titanic. She fought her way out of steerage and, as the story goes, was one of the last people to make it into a lifeboat. “That’s so Irish that they didn’t frame the story and put it on a wall,” Quinn says, laughing, as I hand back the can. “It had to be on something useful.”
Quinn points out a cut-glass bowl on a side table that belonged to her mother, Mary Callaghan Quinn, a Catholic Charities social worker who was diagnosed with breast cancer when Quinn was in second grade and died when she was 16. Quinn’s mother reacted to her illness by embarking on a crash quest to overeducate Quinn and her sister, Ellen. “She wanted us to know everything,” says Quinn. “There were horseback-riding and French lessons and bird-watching and painting and ballet and marine biology.”
Quinn is close to her 79-year-old father, who visits her office regularly. “He is devoted to me and my sister. At my swearing-in ceremony, I kissed a row of people and I shook his hand. In 39 years, I’ve never kissed him. He’s a tough Irish guy.” He also has an impish sense of humor. “What does she care what people wear as long as they can do their jobs?” Lawrence Quinn asked rhetorically when the subject of the new City Council dress code came up. “Maybe this has to do with all those Catholic-school uniforms she wore. There are a lot of different kinds of Irish—maybe she’s trying to be lace-curtain.” Quinn jokes that she has taken to introducing her father by saying that he is often off-message, and that she’s instructed to him to answer all questions by saying, “I am very proud of my daughter.”
Quinn’s family was knee-jerk Democratic. She says that Lawrence once said, “If Jack the Ripper were on the Democratic ticket, I’d vote for him.” As a child, Quinn says the only thing she was ever interested in was “politics and political figures.” She devoured political autobiographies, and practiced her organizing skills by lobbying in seventh grade for school-band uniforms and launching a letter-writing campaign to try to block the transfer of a popular deacon.
In retrospect, she says, she knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, but as a Catholic-school student in Glen Cove, she didn’t want to acknowledge those feelings. She did the same at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. “I had fallen in love with this woman, but I said, ‘This is not going to happen,’ and I pushed it away.” For a time, she dated men, but eventually “wrote off” relationships, she says, and expected to live her life alone. Being closeted is still such an emotional topic that she excused herself in the middle of one of our interviews for a break. “For almost every person, it becomes untenable,” she said when she returned. “It’s impossible for your psyche. It will get you one way or another.”
After graduating from college, Quinn moved to New York and got a job as an organizer for a housing advocacy group, lobbying City Council members to build and renovate affordable housing. At 24, she went to work as the campaign manager for Tom Duane and helped elect him as the first openly gay city councilman (she later became his chief of staff). She fell in love with a woman campaign staffer and came out.
On her desk, Quinn keeps a handful of photos of her live-in partner of the past five years, Kim Catullo, a corporate lawyer. The two have been together since they were fixed up four days after 9/11. For now, Quinn and Catullo share a one-bedroom rent-stabilized apartment in Chelsea and a beach house on the Jersey shore. Quinn’s new position means she has a security team with her whenever she’s out of the house. When the couple went to a gay bar in Brooklyn one Friday night, Catullo faxed over their plans in advance to Quinn’s police bodyguards, with a note saying, “The detail is going to love this one.” Quinn and Catullo talk longingly about their desire to marry. “If we could, we would,” says Quinn. “It’s important for me to do it in the place where I live.”
Quinn shows me a funny photo of the couple’s dog, Sadie, wearing a green Saint Patrick’s Day hat, with the caption “I was so ready to march in the parade.” In years past, Quinn was dragged off and handcuffed by the police at Saint Patrick’s Day parades on Fifth Avenue and in the Bronx for protesting the exclusion of gays, so she was dogged from the start as speaker with questions about how she’d handle this year’s festivities. Although the Supreme Court ruled eleven years ago that the parade organizers have a right to keep gay groups out, Quinn hoped that she could use her new clout to change that.
Intermediaries in the Irish community tried to intercede with parade officials on Quinn’s behalf, but when that effort failed, Quinn called John Dunleavy, the chairman of the parade, directly. Her message was not returned. Instead, Dunleavy gave an inflammatory interview to the Irish Times a few days before the parade, saying, “If an Israeli group wants to march in New York, do you allow neo-Nazis into their parade?” He said if he allowed the Irish Lesbian and Gay Organization to march, “is it the Irish Prostitute Association next?” On the day before Saint Patrick’s Day, Quinn sat down for a press conference with TV crews and reporters to discuss her disappointment. She declined to get into a war of words with Dunleavy over his remarks. “They are so outrageous that they don’t dignify a response,” she said. The reporters kept badgering her on why she was making a big deal out of the parade. “Can’t you march in it as a person of proud Irish descent,” one man asked, “and the other aspect of your life reserve for a gay-pride parade?” Quinn replied, “There is no other. There is the all of who I am. I am every day of the week an Irish lesbian. So I can’t take part of that and put it on the shelf. It’s not the kind of human being I want to be.”
Quinn’s considerable ambition and talent for playing the political game were evident from the earliest days of her career. In 1996, Quinn resigned as Duane’s chief of staff to become the executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. But in 1999, after Duane was elected to the State Senate, Quinn ran for his council seat and won (because Quinn won in a special election to fill Duane’s seat for the remaining two years of his term, she was entitled to run twice more). In that first race, Quinn beat out three contenders, two of whom were also gay. In one of the more bizarre moments in New York politics, a rumor began circulating that Quinn was actually straight and faking it—a story that could have hurt her with voters in her gay-centric district. “Dirty tricks,” she says. “You were inned?” I ask. “Yes, I was inned.”
After taking office, Quinn quickly ingratiated herself with the powers that be. “Spare me from the people who think they know it all,” says Peter Vallone, who was council speaker when Quinn took office. “Christine came in and said, ‘I’m willing to learn.’ ” Quinn made a priority out of fighting for funding for AIDS programs and the homeless; she also weighed in as an advocate for tenants and small businesses in zoning issues in her district. She established her political personality early on. In a meeting with a Vallone staffer to discuss a proposed law to require landlords to remove lead paint, she pressed for tougher rules without alienating her opponent. “She said, ‘I can’t be with you,’ but she didn’t want to make it personal,” the staffer says. “She could disagree without being disagreeable.” It was also clear she was willing, within reason, to play ball politically. A real-estate-industry lobbyist says he supported Quinn for speaker, despite her record as a tenants advocate, because he found her trustworthy and reasonable. “We thought we could do business with her,” he says.
When Vallone was forced out by term limits in 2001 and the 32-year-old Miller ran for speaker, Quinn backed his underdog quest. “Chris was one of the first to support me,” says Miller, who rewarded her loyalty by naming her chair of the powerful Health Committee. By campaigning at Miller’s side, Quinn also watched Miller put together a winning Queens-Brooklyn coalition and met many of the players whose help she’d need four years later.
The race for speaker isn’t just about wooing the votes of 50 colleagues: It’s a five-borough free-for-all that requires courting local pols and unions and lobbyists to create a critical mass of influential supporters.
Some council members say they’re afraid of Quinn. “Fear is good,” says Deputy Mayor Kevin Sheekey. “When you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
Quinn’s opponents in the hotly contested seven-person race included Bill de Blasio, a popular six-foot-five Brooklyn councilman with strong labor connections who worked in the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development during the Clinton administration and was the campaign manger for Hillary Clinton’s 2000 U.S. Senate race. De Blasio’s Brooklyn rival, Lewis Fidler, a councilman with close ties to borough officials, also sought the job. The other contenders were three influential Queens council members—Melinda Katz, a former assemblywoman who presides over the Land-Use Committee; David Weprin, the chair of the powerful Finance Committee; and LeRoy Comrie, a well-regarded African-American pol serving as assistant majority leader—as well as Bronx long shot Joel Rivera, the 27-year-old son of borough Democratic leader and state assemblyman Jose Rivera. Quinn was the lone Manhattan contender. The conventional wisdom held that De Blasio was the favorite. Brooklyn has more council members, sixteen, than any other borough, and De Blasio was considered the lead Brooklyn contender.
De Blasio, who ran a grassroots campaign, seemed to have the edge in romancing individual council members until shortly before the vote. In the final weekend of the campaign, however, Quinn brokered a backstage victory by winning the support of two influential Democratic Party bosses, former U.S. congressman Tom Manton of Queens and Vito Lopez, a Brooklyn assemblyman, who strong-armed council members from their vote-rich districts (Queens has fourteen council members) to rally to her side. “She understood, better than I did, that a lot of this ball game revolved around the county Democratic leaders,” De Blasio says. “She did a better job in developing those relationships, presenting a personality they were comfortable with, finding out how not to be threatening to them.”
Quinn insists that she did not make any specific promises to Manton or Lopez. Their discussions, she says, were “relational, not transactional.”
“She did all the right things in terms of campaigning in Queens,” Manton told me one day at City Hall. Was he promised a certain number of jobs or committees? “With politics—it’s a little harsh to say—to the victors belong the spoils.”
Quinn was sworn in on January 4 and two weeks later began paying out the campaign IOUs. After a whirlwind of meetings and cajoling phone calls from council members, she announced the coveted chairmanships of committees and subcommittees and passed out nearly $500,000 worth of extra pay to favored legislators (known as lulus, for “in lieu of expenses”).
Queens did well by virtue of the fact that Katz and Weprin held on to their influential posts. Quinn appointed her Brooklyn rivals, De Blasio and Fidler, to newly created leadership posts as assistant majority leaders, with $15,000 lulus. “I guess with De Blasio, it was a matter of keeping your enemies closer,” says a council member. Quinn’s most controversial choice was Brooklyn’s Erik Martin Dilan, who inherited his seat from his father, now State Senator Martin Dilan, who was named to head the influential Housing and Buildings Committee. According to Dick Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union, this was a fairly straightforward thank-you to Lopez. “Vito Lopez controls several not-for-profits that provide housing in Brooklyn, and he’s the chair of the Assembly housing committee,” says Dadey. “By putting Erik there, it keeps the housing empire within the family.” Quinn also gave Manhattan council members and key supporters Dan Garodnick and Inez Dickens plum positions: Garodnick a seat on the Land-Use Committee and Dickens the Ethics Committee chair. Only five council members were left entirely in the cold, without chairmanships or lulus. “My money was on the wrong horse, and she had to reward her supporters,” says Letitia James, a Brooklyn councilwoman who backed De Blasio and was one of the outcasts. But as Sheinkopf puts it, “What’s she supposed to do, reward her enemies?”
On the Wednesday before Memorial Day weekend, Quinn was riding in her city SUV down the FDR Drive, after visiting a Bronx community center. She showed me a 28-step style-makeover chart created for her by a makeup consultant. “I can almost remember all of them,” she said. She also confided about the awkwardness of a recent meeting with Cardinal Edward Egan. Her sexual orientation didn’t come up, she said, but the cardinal made it clear he disapproved of her position against school choice.
Even though Quinn has not yet put up pictures on the walls of her office, speculation has already begun about what she’ll run for next. There’s talk about whether she’ll make a bid for mayor in 2009. Maura Keaney says Quinn freaks whenever people mention the mayor’s race, turning red at the idea. “She’ll say, ‘I couldn’t possibly know enough to run the city.’ ” But then Keaney adds, “Look, my husband [Mark Guma] is Chris’s political consultant. In two years, will there be a conversation about what Chris might want to do next? Absolutely.”
Quinn, of course, brushes aside questions about her future plans. “The frustrating part of politics is that you’re never just doing what you’re doing,” she says. “If someone were named head of Bear Stearns, no one would say, ‘What company are you going to run next?’ ” Later, when I told her that one local politician suggested that she’s making nice to Bloomberg to position herself for a future race, she laughed. “When I watch the press conferences later, I seem not to manage to stand in the best spot to get into the pictures,” she said. “So if I really want to get that bang for my buck, I need to have a better camera sense and sharper elbows.” The speaker’s post, it’s worth noting, has not been a great political springboard of late. Miller finished an embarrassing fourth in the Democratic mayoral primary.
Still, the career-speculation game doesn’t end there. In March, Quinn headlined a gay fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton and is working on “message documents” for Clinton and other members of the New York delegation to use for the upcoming debate on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. And two of Quinn’s high-level hires have close ties to Clinton: finance director Michael Keogh, who previously worked in Bloomberg’s Office of State Legislative Affairs and is married to Hillary aide Karen Persichilli, and her new chief counsel, Liz Fine, who worked in the Clinton White House legal counsel’s office. “Chris is picking up chits and increasing her Rolodex,” says a lobbyist. “If lighting strikes and Hillary becomes president, a nice girl from the West Village could do well for herself.”
In April, at a Democratic National Committee fund-raiser at the Mandarin Oriental, Bill Clinton took the podium and 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.’ ”
Recalling that moment, Quinn sounded like a starstruck kid. “It was crazy. It was so exciting. It was unthinkably great. I thought, between that and the New York Post saying my budget response didn’t stink, that I should resign immediately and move to Vermont and open a goat-cheese farm.”
For the moment, anyway, Vermont would have to wait. In the next few days, she’d be attending more budget meetings at City Hall, a Memorial Day appearance on the Intrepid, and the state Democratic convention in Buffalo.