Meet New York’s Next Mayor
Will an out-and-proud lesbian become the next mayor of New York City?
That’s not a hypothetical question; City Council Speaker Christine Quinn appears poised to enter the 2013 mayoral race as the presumptive frontrunner. Possible challengers, including Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, current City Comptroller John Liu, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, have trailed her in the polls. Quinn has yet to declare officially her candidacy, but one thing is certain: her mayoralty would certainly resonate far beyond the five boroughs.
"Nothing is more powerful than being at the table," said New Yorker Andrew Tobias, who as the Democratic National Committee’s treasurer is the most powerful out-gay man in the party. He asserts that Wisconsin Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank and more recently Colorado Congressman Jared Polis and Houston Mayor Annise Parker have demonstrated the significant political power wielded by LGBTs in office. "Who could look Tammy in the eye," Tobias asked, "or Barney, or Annise, or Jared, or Chris, or by now any of hundreds of out-LGBT elected officials, and say: ’You don’t deserve the same rights I do’ or, ’I don’t want your life to be a happy one?’"
Quinn repeatedly referenced her sexual orientation when she lobbied state lawmakers to support NY’s marriage equality bill. She famously urged notoriously homophobic state Sen. Ruben Diaz, Sr. (a Democrat, incidentally), and other opponents of the ultimately successful measure to "look me in the eye" and tell her that she and partner Kim Catullo were not a family. Quinn also categorized 2010 Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino as a "bully" after he made a series of anti-LGBT comments on the campaign trail last fall.
"[They] can go to their colleagues, look them in their eye and have direct and honest conversations," said Chuck Wolfe, president and chief executive officer of the Victory Fund, a national organization that helps fun LGBT candidates. "It doesn’t happen overnight, but it has a dramatic impact on our rights. Each time we break a ceiling somewhere, it raises hope for more people who are able to see they can run for office."
Quinn’s ascent to become one of New York City’s most powerful politicians began when she managed Sen. Tom Duane’s campaign to become the city’s first out-city councilmember. Quinn served as Duane’s chief-of-staff for five years before she moved over to the non-profit sector. As executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project, she evolved into the city’s most visible public face of the fight against gay bashings.
After Duane moved to Albany in 1999, she inherited his district, which includes the Manhattan West Side neighborhoods of Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen, as well as parts of Soho and, on the east side, part of tony Murray Hill. Quinn’s colleagues overwhelmingly elected her speaker in 2006, the second-most powerful position in city government after the mayor.
Controversial Stands By a Powerful Politician
While Quinn has clearly shattered the glass ceiling of New York City politics, she has also cultivated a growing list of detractors. They oppose her stances on contentious issues, most notably her vigorous backing of an extension of the city’s term limits - passed not once but twice by the city’s voters - that allowed her, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other incumbents to run for a third term in 2009. A City Council slush fund scandal that erupted in 2008 also hurt her reputation. Quinn came under fire for her failure to thwart the closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital, a pioneer institution servicing people with AIDS and the only hospital in Greenwich Village. She alienated First Amendment advocates when she backed a New York Police Department policy that requires groups of more than 50 people to obtain a permit to assemble. In addition, she angered her gay constituents by fighting against the increase in clubs sprouting up across West Chelsea - especially the notorious Limelight, now closed.
Bloomberg’s apparent efforts to groom Quinn as his heir apparent have certainly not curried favor among progressive Democrats who comprise the bulk of her base. They have long mocked Bloomberg as a party-jumping plutocrat who bought the mayoralty with his personal fortune. But Quinn has developed a close personal and professional relationship with the billionaire mayor. In August,
the New York Times Bloomberg’s strong preference for Quinn to succeed him as "the worst-kept secret in City Hall."
In many eyes, Quinn has morphed from an activist to a member of the political establishment who puts business interests first. Most recently, she has come in for severe criticism for not backing a "living wage" bill. As the Times put it, "To critics, she is Mr. Bloomberg’s lapdog and a sellout to business." But her supporters point out that, to win office in such a large, diverse city, a would-be mayor has to appeal to a broad spectrum of constituencies, from Upper West Side liberals to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn.
"It’s very important to have LGBT representation in terms of both qualified candidates and competent officials," said Yetta Kurland, a civil rights lawyer who ran against Quinn in the 2009 Democratic primary that pit the two out lesbians against other. Then again, the idea two such people would run against each other is not so surprising in a district that identifies as LGBT to the 30th percentile. Quinn received 52 percent of the vote in that election. Kurland’s 31 percent was seen as a rebuff by many constituents of what they consider her increasingly close ties to the city’s business establishment and Bloomberg himself. (Third candidate Maria Pessannante-Derr won the other 16 percent of the vote.)
"When I ran against her, I ran as an openly LGBT candidate," said Kurland. "The more people who run in a specific race, the better. I hope that by a competitive race against Christine Quinn, it raised the bar for her - and certainly for me."
Quinn did not respond to requests by EDGE for comment, but speculation over her expected mayoral campaign continues to captivate those within the five boroughs and beyond who would certainly welcome a lesbian in Gracie Mansion. "What we want is LGBT people in public service and we want them in appointed positions and we want them in elected positions," said Wolfe. "Gaining our civil rights in a city, a county, a state or at the federal level, the thing that happens first is we gain power, and we gain power by winning elections."