It’s a sparkling late-July morning in Brooklyn. The bluish-green sky nearly matches the teal on the candidate’s campaign posters. It would be a picture-perfect scene, except for the fact that Christine Quinn’s sidewalk-press-conference words are mostly drowned out by the roar of trucks and honks of cars snarled on Atlantic Avenue. She’s standing in front of a center for senior citizens, saying something about her plan to expand SCRIE, a city program that caps the amount of rent that certain elderly can be charged. The policy details disappear in the booming traffic, but the imagery comes through: Chris Quinn wants to help old folks. What’s more compelling and telling, though, is what happens when Quinn steps away from the podium. She envelops one of the center’s white-haired clients in a hug and trills, “I love your earrings!”
She’s snagged by a beefy man in a Windbreaker who says he’s a social worker employed by the city’s Human Resources Administration. “You’re with 371, right?” Quinn interrupts, smiling. He’s startled at her instant, and correct, identification of his union local. “Right,” he stammers. “And we’ve been trying to get a new contract for three years.” The gears shift in Quinn’s brain; she dials down the warmth and turns up the noncommittal pol-speak. “We need to sit down with each union and get to a fair contract,” she says. “Thank you for your work. It’s hard work you do.” Next comes a black woman who complains that her 26-year-old son has been stopped and frisked four times this year. “It’s obnoxious, and sad,” the mom says. “And dangerous!” Quinn chimes in. “He was doing nothing wrong,” the mom says. “This is exactly the problem!” Quinn replies. “We can keep you up to date on what’s happening with the inspector-general bill in the council. Alex or Margaret will call you,” she continues as the mom hands her a business card. “Oh! You work with Arthur Ashe!” Quinn says, recognizing the logo of the health institute named for the late tennis star. “That’s such a great group! I love the beauty shops with the self-exams! Alison from my office will call you about that!”
It was a quintessential Chris Quinn performance: She dispensed kisses, dangled the powers of her current office, straddled issues, and displayed a mastery of city-government arcana. And that’s why, after two months of Weiner-mania, as the Democratic contest for mayor heads toward an intense finale, Quinn is again the one to beat.
In late may, just before Anthony Weiner upended the race, Quinn was on top of the public polls, with about 25 percent. Ten weeks later, at the end of July, Quinn was on top of the Quinnipiac poll at 27 percent. It’s almost as if Carlos Danger had never texted.
Which is not to say nothing has changed for her. Weiner’s rapid rise turned out to be a gift to Quinn—though her camp didn’t see it that way when the former congressman knocked her out of first place in mid-June. “Yeah, they were nervous,” a Quinn ally says. “It’s never good when someone comes out of nowhere and sucks up twenty points, a lot of it coming out of your pocket. But they didn’t panic.” Quinn had already been on a steep downward slope, suffering through a spring full of concentrated attacks from her other rivals and a series of unflattering media stories; nothing her campaign had tried to stop the momentum had worked. But when Weiner grabbed the spotlight, Quinn caught her breath. She has had a few odd, shaky moments since, but mostly she’s exhibited a disciplined steadiness through the strange summer. She’s doggedly stuck to the fundamentals of the campaign game plan devised last winter: emphasizing her record as council speaker, talking about small business and small-bore policy initiatives, and wooing female and Latino voters. The first part of the strategy got an indirect boost from Weiner’s latest embarrassment, making her seem more serious and adult. “The greatest beneficiary of all the Anthony stuff is the perception of Chris through a different lens,” a Democratic strategist says. “For activists and lefties, she’s a disappointing, old-school machine pol. But after Anthony, that’s more palatable to other people.”
Maybe, but so far there aren’t enough of those “other people” for Quinn to close the sale. She remains a vulnerable front-runner, and with the Weiner boomlet fading, she’s grappling with the same weakness she’s had the whole race: Many voters have a visceral dislike for her. Up close, Quinn can be warm and warmly received, yet at a distance she generates the strongest negative emotions of any of the top Democrats—well, other than George McDonald’s feelings about Weiner. Some of the animosity, especially among Democratic-primary voters, is centered on Quinn’s help in extending term limits for Michael Bloomberg; some of it is based on broader substantive issues, like Quinn’s coziness with the real-estate industry. But the most problematic strain, for her mayoral campaign, is the free-floating distrust that was best summarized by a civically attuned television-writer friend of mine. “I just find her the most obviously politician-y of the politicians,” he said.
It’s curious that Quinn is the candidate to whom the “inauthentic” label sticks the most. Some fraction of this is sexism, the different standard by which female politicians are judged. Bill de Blasio, Bill Thompson, and Weiner are plenty ambitious, and can be elastic on issues—whether it’s De Blasio voting for the Upper East Side waste-transfer station as a city councilman, then equivocating, then supporting it; or Thompson opposing an independent inspector general for the NYPD and then saying the department’s use of stop-and-frisk has “institutionalized” the suspicions that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin. But there’s also Quinn’s style: She’s stiff on-camera, and even when she’s advocating a good idea—like a pilot program she created to place recent college grads in tech-sector jobs—Quinn can lapse into soapbox cadences. “It’s understandable that voters want their elected officials to have core values,” she tells me. “And for me, it’s about fighting for progress for all people. I’m just who I am. This idea that I’m going to walk around and think about being more authentic—that’s not how it works. You go out there every day and talk to New Yorkers, you engage with them. And then you try to work with them to put policies in place that are gonna help them. I hope that’s where the authenticity is most demonstrated—in the work, in the results.” This kind of canned candidate-speak isn’t helping her. “People don’t see Chris Christie in Chris Quinn, put it that way,” says a Democratic strategist. The less polite way of putting it is that people see Quinn as a hack.
It’s going to be difficult for Quinn to reverse this impression between now and September 10. It may even be impossible, given her prominence as City Council speaker and the messy sausage-making that comes with the job—and her choice to partner with Bloomberg more than she’s opposed him. For all of Quinn’s potential as a cultural groundbreaker—she’d be the first woman and first openly gay mayor—the more impressive first might be winning the mayor’s office straight from the top of the city legislature. But Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani have shown that you don’t need to be loved to win, or to govern effectively. And Quinn is most comfortable, politically, being her pragmatic, tough-as-nails self. She won’t be going on the attack full time, but with De Blasio and Thompson still unknown to many voters, she has an opening to define her opponents before they do it themselves. Last week, she smacked Thompson about a dubious investment he made, as city comptroller, in Northern Ireland. Fighting hard comes naturally to Quinn, and it’s something her allies think will earn her respect, and votes, down the stretch. “No one hands you the keys to City Hall,” a Quinn insider says. “Voters want to see you tested; they want to see you get punched and stand up.”
Thanks in part to Weiner, Quinn has demonstrated some of that resilience, but this bout is still in the middle rounds. Thompson returned Quinn’s fire by demanding she release legal documents related to the 2008 Council slush-fund scandal. The skirmish was a preview of what will happen if Quinn is one of the two candidates in the Democratic-primary runoff: Whoever she’s up against will try to paint her, during the frantic three weeks leading up to October 1, as a corrupt compromiser, and to consolidate the anti-Bloomberg vote. Quinn’s camp believes the election will turn on whether voters think the city is headed in the right direction. That’s probably true. But for Chris Quinn to stay on top, she needs to convince enough New Yorkers that—like her or not—she’s a competent battler whose hard bargains will be in their best interests.