By Alex Erickson
August 28, 2013
Christine Quinn just might become the first out LGBT mayor of New York City. But there’s a loud community of progressive gays who aren’t happy about that.
Christine Quinn in New York City
As the September 10 Democratic primary in this year’s New York City mayoral race fast approaches, the most divisive name in LGBT politics is without question Christine Quinn. The lesbian from Long Island, who now lives in Chelsea and represents Manhattan’s west side as the current City Council speaker, has elicited unprecedented vitriol from progressive gay activists— the people traditionally thought to be squarely in her camp. Call it the end of identity politics.
And yet, despite a recent tightening in poll numbers between Quinn and the more progressive public advocate Bill de Blasio, she has long been the assumed Democratic nominee. Quinn has garnered endorsements from The New York Times, The New York Daily News and—infuriating as it is for progressive gays—Gay City News. Despite a splashy fundraiser for de Blasio thrown by notable gay celebrities earlier this year, Quinn has her own impressive—and much more humbly touted—list of celebrity endorsements, including Lena Dunham, George Takei, Cheyenne Jackson, Neil Patrick Harris, Rufus Wainwright, Tim Gunn and DOMA plaintiff Edie Windsor.
Still, let’s be clear: this is not an endorsement. We at Next Magazine have never done political endorsements, and don’t plan to start doing them now. We feature her here because she is a member of our community on the precipice of greatness. Love her or hate her, there is a very good chance that she will be the first out LGBT mayor of New York City.
In the current race, Quinn has the advantage of her record as the City Council speaker. It’s something she’s proud of. “Whether it was my colleagues, whether it was activists, whether it was labor leaders or whether it was the mayor, when I saw opportunities to work with people to get things done, I seized them,” she tells me when we sit down to talk about the mayoral race. But it’s that very record that gays who stand to the left of her politically criticize so vehemently. “Unlike anybody else in the race she’s a very divisive and polarizing figure,” says longtime gay activist Bill Dobbs, who’s known Quinn since her early days in politics. “But on the issues she’s been a lapdog for Bloomberg as opposed to a watchdog for the people.” He says she’s missed the mark on several levels—the slush fund scandal and her silence on stop and frisk are still fresh in progressives’ minds. That, coupled with her late attempts to move to the left “at whiplash speed, last minute” according to Dobbs, have turned him off to the idea of her as mayor. The notion that she orchestrated the manipulation of City Council in order to usher Bloomberg into a third term is especially disquieting for Dobbs and many other progressives.
When I asked her about the perception that she’s too closely aligned herself with Bloomberg, she fires back, “You know, as the speaker, you’re the chief legislator of the city and the mayor is the mayor.” She frames her relationship with Bloomberg in the context of her desire to accomplish important legislation. “In order to get things done in the city, you need to work with the mayor,” she says. “Working with the mayor has helped us get tech jobs, manufacturing jobs. It’s helped get things like the safe housing law passed. We eliminated 67,000 housing violations in the worst projects in the city.”
She’s also quick to note the times that she disagreed with the mayor and made it known. “When he vetoed the living wage laws and the prevailing wage laws, which would have pt more money in New Yorker’s pockets, I stood up…and defended those bills in court. When the mayor said he was going to lay off 2,100 schoolteachers—like everyone else in the race, to be fair to them—I thought it was a bad idea and said so. I’m the only person who stopped him. When the mayor wanted to put an ill-conceived policy for homeless folks in place, I went to court and stopped it and when the mayor said he was going to support [lifting] the rent cap around people with HIV and AIDS services administration, I opposed that legislation.”
A common theme in the narrative that Quinn detractors spin is that despite getting her start in politics as a tenant advocate, her close associations with real estate developers and the moneyed interests that have driven much of the middle class from Manhattan and Brooklyn disqualify her from getting such working-class support. Many of her political associations, from Bloomberg to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, have come under fire from progressives. Those associations, they argue, have put her at odds with the people she now says she most wants to help.
“Quinn has done everything she can to hijack the working class and now she talks about how her priority is to see to it that there are more middle class,” says William Thompson supporter Allen Roskoff, co-author of the nation’s first gay rights bill and the current president of the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club.
Quinn, for her part, asserts that her plan to bring more New Yorkers into the middle class involves housing reforms. “It’s an enormous problem,” she says of skyrocketing rents all over the city. “It’s one of the biggest issues I’m going to have to deal with as mayor.” Quinn goes on to explain her threefold plan. “One, I have a plan to build 40,000 new moderate and middle income housing units across the city over the next 10 years,” she says. “I’ve found the resources and the budget to do that. Two, I have a plan for a property tax cap to keep affordable apartments in Manhattan and other parts of the city where it might be too expensive to build new ones—to keep existing units affordable for New Yorkers. Three, we need to strengthen the tenant and the rent laws. We need to give New York City more power over tenant and rent laws. Tennant and rent laws were weakened in the past. Those weakenings have lost us about 300,000 apartments. Those are apartments we need to recapture.”
But Quinn also opposes achieving her goals by raising taxes on the super wealthy, to the chagrin of progressives. And her plan for increased affordable housing could sound like lip service to liberal democrats who recall that Bloomberg, who oversaw 12 years of building boom and enormous increases in economic inequalities in New York, made similar promises to dump billions into affordable housing. He kept those promises, but they didn’t stop rents from rising an average of 8.5 percent between 2007 and 2011.
At one point in our conversation, Quinn begins to frame the mayor’s race in comparison to national politics. “There is a model of government where people put politics ahead of progress, where people put ideological definition ahead of the lives of their constituents; there is a place where you either agree 100 percent or you’re my enemy,” she says. “It’s called Washington, D.C. And I’m really not interested in any of that in New York City.”
She paints herself as a democrat who’s willing to put politics aside in favor of get-it-done pragmatism. “I don’t have time to sit around screamin’ and yellin’ for the sake of screamin’ and yellin’ when we need to make progress,” she says. “I can agree with you today and then make New Yorkers’ lives better and then disagree with you tomorrow. That’s what I’m going to do. My job isn’t to disagree with other people; it’s to make people’s lives better and I’m incredibly proud of the progress that I’ve been a part of."
But what sort of progress does she mean exactly? Roskoff, who says he’s known Quinn since before she was publicly out, is skeptical. “As far as I’m concerned she represents the worst in elected officials,” he says. “She’s in no way shape or form a progressive. She first blocked and then watered down the living wage and paid sick leave bills. That, and extending term limits, disqualifies her as a candidate for the working class.”
Quinn’s choice to frame the mayoral race in terms of the frustrating gridlock of Washington is an interesting one—especially in light of the left’s skepticism about her promises to fight for disenfranchised New Yorkers. Although she may want New York’s politics to be different from Washington’s, those outside the establishment on both ends of the political spectrum are asking more universal questions of politicians who’ve governed in both cities, questions that signify basic similarities between the two places.
The glitter, as some have said, is off the gay candidates these days. Identity politics were once a means to an end: gay inclusion and visibility in mainstream American politics. But many argue that we are beyond the point where the need to establish visibility by simply getting gays into office trumps all other issues. So as groundbreaking an event as the election of New York City’s first out mayor would be, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not Quinn’s politics and vision for the future of our great city match yours when you step into the ballot booth and cast your vote.