Is Quinn’s Flip Showing?

Illustration by Andy Friedman

Enter Christine Quinn, stage left, to boos. It’s a chilly April Saturday morning, and the crowd filling the grand Art Deco auditorium inside the Salvation Army temple on West 14th Street is not in a charitable mood. Just the opposite. The topic of today’s mayoral-candidate forum is the woebegone New York City Housing Authority, and the audience of roughly 1,600 is composed of mostly nycha tenants—angry, angry tenants. They’re mad about busted elevators, about police stopping-and-frisking innocent residents, about rent increases, and about the extended bungling after Hurricane Sandy. They’re mad, and deeply suspicious, about a new city proposal to lease playgrounds and parking lots within nycha developments to private developers, who would build market-rate apartments to generate cash to address nycha’s multibillion-dollar shortfalls. The tenants blame nearly all of these problems on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an opinion that’s enthusiastically encouraged by the four candidates who are present, especially Public Advocate Bill de Blasio—who eagerly extends the guilt to the one Democratic candidate whose seat is glaringly empty for the first half-hour of the discussion. “I know Speaker Quinn has chosen not to be with us yet … ” De Blasio says, until he’s drowned out by approving whoops and cheers. “But unlike Speaker Quinn I believe we need a new police commissioner!” More and louder applause; De Blasio is grinning like a kid who’s showing off while the teacher is out of the room.

So when Quinn does climb onto the stage and takes her place, the crowd is highly stoked, and boos lustily, even as she apologizes, saying she’d long ago agreed to appear at a conflicting anti-bullying event this morning. “I oppose the Bloomberg infill plan, I think it’s dangerous,” De Blasio shouts, as he winds up to throw more gas on the fire. “It’s part of a third term that never should have happened to begin with!” Shouts of “Yeah! You go!” from the crowd. “Allow me to be clear and say we have Speaker Quinn to thank for the Bloomberg third term!” As the applause and yelling cascade, Quinn sits and frowns; it’s easy to picture an expletive-filled thought bubble floating above her red head.

Three days later, in Brooklyn, at another candidate forum, pretty much the same scene plays out again, this time with Bill Thompson joining in to take some swings at the term-limits piñata. But while the Quinn-as-Bloomberg-toadie angle is clearly a crowd-pleaser among a certain segment of New York Democrats, the real dangers for Quinn over term limits are more subtle.

In September 2008, Bloomberg announced that he wanted to change the rules and run for a third term as mayor. Quinn provided crucial aid by coming out in favor of rewriting the city’s term-limits law and then by wrangling the votes to win City Council approval. None of that is news. To sentient, adult, politically active New Yorkers, it’s very old news indeed: I’d bet, without the benefit of any fancy focus groups or polling, that among the people likely to vote in this September’s Democratic primary, there is close to 100 percent knowledge that Quinn helped Bloomberg stick around.

To use the political-consultant term of art, the Bloomberg episode is “baked in” to public opinion of Quinn. Polling shows that a steady 25 percent of likely Democratic-primary voters are probably lost to her this fall owing to their hatred of Bloomberg. Which sounds like a big number. Until you consider that a significantly larger number of Democrats voted to reelect Bloomberg in 2009, and they continue to give him robust job-approval numbers, currently in the fifties. Those folks, however, tend not to turn up and scream at candidate forums. Unless the city goes rapidly downhill in the next five months, that hard-core anti-Bloomberg 25 percent is unlikely to grow—so attacking Quinn for the mayor’s third term is a dead-end campaign strategy.

There’s a more intriguing term-limits story, though, and it’s the one that could dent Quinn with undecideds, but this nuanced tale isn’t reducible to sound bites: how she arrived at her decision to get onboard with allowing Bloomberg to run again. A bit of greatly condensed context is necessary. For years, Quinn opposed term limits, a position that helped her get elected speaker by fellow Council members in 2005. Once in the job, though, she commissioned a poll, and it showed that the public opposed tinkering with them. In December 2007, Quinn declared that repealing term limits would be “anti-democratic,” a position she called “firm and final.”

Well, for ten months. In the spring of 2008, a slush-fund scandal enveloped the City Council. Quinn was never implicated, and made changes to tighten accountability, but the mess hurt her chances of being elected mayor in 2009. Congressman Anthony Weiner, who’d run a smart 2005 mayoral-primary campaign, loomed as a strong contender. Meanwhile, Bloomberg’s presidential dream collapsed, and his business pals began rallying for four more years. In September came the global financial crisis. At the time, Quinn said she was waiting for the mayor’s decision before making up her own mind about term limits, but one member of the Bloomberg camp says Quinn’s support was never in doubt. “She went through this whole period of, uh, reflection,” the Bloomberg insider says with a laugh, “but it was clearly in her interest to hit the PAUSE button on a race for mayor.”

Quinn says, vehemently, that the economy was the reason she flipped on term limits and that her own career prospects had nothing to do with it. “At that moment in time, I was extremely worried about the impact of the economy on New York City,” she tells me. “And I was really worried about the impact that a wholesale change in government would have on the ability of the city to recover. I thought it was appropriate to give New Yorkers a choice, at the ballot box, to either keep some level of consistent leadership in city government or to change. I have no regrets about the decision I made. The term-limits decision and [my political prospects] couldn’t have less to do with each other. When I made the decision about term limits, it was exclusively based on the economic situation.” Inflexibility in the face of an emergency, she says, would have been a mistake for the city. “With elected officials, and with human beings, you say what you mean, you say what you believe, and sometimes things change,” Quinn says. “Things evolve. And then you’ve got to stand up and say this is why things have changed. And then you’ve got to accept the consequences of that as a leader.”

When it came to rounding up the necessary 26 council votes, Bloomberg didn’t leave the task completely to Quinn, mounting a muscular political operation. The mayor’s men weren’t exactly pushing against a locked door: Most council members were eager to hold on to their jobs. Yet persuading individual members to take a controversial vote was tricky, and Quinn’s strategizing played an important role. “We worked hand in glove with her and her staff,” a Bloomberg aide says. “Certain members were undecided, and you had to compare notes on what their issues were. Sometimes there are things that are desired that one side can’t offer but the other side can. It was a joint effort.” One council member says he got multiple calls from Quinn lieutenants dangling a committee chairmanship in exchange for a “yes” vote. “The mistake people make with Christine is they think, She’s from Manhattan, she’s gay, and hence she’s a liberal,” he says. “But at heart she’s really an old-school Irish boss.”

Her main term-limits antagonist, De Blasio, has different skills. He’s a nimble salesman who can dress up contradiction as principled enlightenment better than most: Running for council speaker in 2005, De Blasio was aggressively in favor of changing the rules and doing it through legislation, not a public referendum. Yet as a councilman in 2008, he led the opposition to the extension and is now using term limits to batter Quinn. “There is no question I was wrong in 2005. I evolved in the context of the fight in 2008. We were fighting for the preservation of a democratic system that wasn’t controlled by the power of money,” he tells me. “This was about much bigger things than I previously thought it was. The people were ultimately right that, given the nature of our government, term limits made sense the way they were.”

Most elections are won by the candidate who sketches a convincing vision of the future instead of refighting the battles of the past, but De Blasio is urgently trying to get traction as the white, outer-borough alternative to Quinn before Weiner jumps into this year’s contest. So he will keep taunting the front-runner about what happened five years ago. Quinn was in a tricky spot in 2008, where her genuine belief that Bloomberg could be the best mayor for the moment coincided with her political self-interest. Which is why the real vulnerability for Quinn isn’t her connection to Bloomberg’s third term. It’s that her opponents will use her role in extending term limits to argue Quinn doesn’t have any core convictions beyond preserving her shot at becoming mayor. But that’s a much tougher thing to do successfully than riling up an already seething crowd.


Is Quinn’s Flip Showing?