Quinn on the politics of gender and sexuality

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Christine Quinn. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)
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Christine Quinn still struggles when she’s asked to explain what role her gender and sexuality should have played in her mayoral campaign.

"It's a challenging question, or it's a challenging answer," Quinn told Capital, in her first interview about the election since the end of her bid. "Because when you're running, you don't want to not embrace who you are, but then if you're seen to over-embrace it, then that gets criticized."

"I think the question of whether I hit the right balance on both of them is something I've thought a lot about, I'm thinking a lot about, and I don't quite know the answer yet," she continued, during an hour-long talk inside her office in City Hall, where she has presided over the City Council as speaker since 2006. 

Quinn, the early front-runner for mayor, ran as the candidate of competence and stability in what turned out to be a massive “change” election after three terms of her ally, Michael Bloomberg. She talked at times during the campaign of the “historic” nature of her candidacy, but rarely made a concerted effort to focus attention on her status as the potential first female or lesbian mayor.

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It had in fact been something of a departure for Quinn when, on the night of the primary, she stood before a packed room of staff and supporters and spoke gamely, and tearfully, of what she said would be the long-term payoff of her unsuccessful mayoral bid.

"There's a young girl out there who was inspired by the thought of New York's first woman mayor and said to herself, 'You know what? I can do this,'" she said.

But as she talked about her campaign's highlights, Quinn repeatedly returned to those exceptional moments in which her campaign and supporters highlighted her groundbreaking status.

"The weekend before the primary we did the women's rally on Sunday night, which was great. And Friday night (before the election) we did the gay rally, the LGBT rally, in front of Stonewall, which was one of the most moving and profound nights of my career," she said. "Now, I would've liked it to be about more than that, but it wasn't. And sometimes I think that night might have been enough, might've been a good enough reason to do it all."

Quinn said she recently shared those sentiments with James Clementi, the brother of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide in 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after being taunted for being gay. Quinn said she became close to the Clementi family during the campaign.

"I said sometimes I think it was all about that night, and James said, 'No, it was about so much more than that Chris, 'cause you showed people a lesbian could be the mayor of New York City,'" she said, tearing up as she recounted the conversation.

Quinn’s campaign considered placing more emphasis on her identity—her top adviser Josh Isay told Capital’s Dana Rubinstein after the race that they “tested” the idea, but ultimately decided against it. And Quinn herself was reluctant to run that way, according to a campaign source.

"She never did embrace it, not until it was too late," the source said. "She didn't want to be pigeonholed."

Also, Quinn was, and remains, reluctant to expose her family to the nastiness of electoral politics.

Her personable but press-shy wife Kim Catullo avoided the public eye until the last month of the campaign. And Quinn said she and Catullo will likely never watch a compelling documentary about the race produced by The New York Times, which quotes a Hasidic man calling her a “snake” because of her sexuality.

"I don't know that I want to have an image of, you know, a man talking homophobically,” she said. “I just don't know that it serves me in any way to have that image in my mind.”

During the campaign, Quinn conferred with the nation's leading female politician. Hillary Clinton, who lost to Barack Obama in another change election, spoke to Quinn by phone during the primary, and she and Bill Clinton both called her the day after the race to offer support.

"I talked to her once or twice" during the primary, Quinn said. "She really said to just keep plugging away and keep going and keep your head up and keep smiling."

Asked if she saw any similarities between her loss and Clinton’s, Quinn said, "It's tough to run and it's certainly tough to run as the front-runner. Being the front-runner ain't all it's always cracked up to be."

In replaying her defeat, Quinn questions whether she took full advantage of her skills as a retail campaigner, and worries she underperformed during the countless candidate forums, where her challengers routinely pummeled her over her closeness to Bloomberg and her role in extending term limits.

"That kind of a forum, a 90-second format, is not my greatest; it's not my forte," she said. "I think in hindsight, you know, I could've, should have done a better job of figuring out how to overcome that to the best degree I could. … And you know, we had great moments on the campaign with everybody, but particularly with women and girls. I wish there had been more time for that."

In one of her final campaign stops on the Upper West Side, Quinn embraced a sobbing 12-year-old girl on the who was overcome with emotion upon seeing the candidate—an anecdote she repeated during the interview.

Councilman James Oddo, a Staten Island Republican who is a close friend of Quinn, lamented the way she was branded by her opponents.

"It was a huge sense of frustration for me, as someone who knows her for 20 years, to see the public image that I did," Oddo said in a recent interview. "She can be gruff, she can be spending too much time on the Blackberry, but then there's a moment during the day, or several moments during the day where she has a human moment, an interaction with a person that is so genuine and so real and you see the empathy, you see the compassion."

He also said the Quinn campaign should have made a more explicit appeal to gay and female voters.

"I would've portrayed all of her strengths," he said. "You would've had interactions with women. Whoa, wouldn't that have been great in the campaign? You would've had interactions in the gay community and being a pioneer. … When you look back, can you really say that they saw her in the right light? No, I don't think so."

The days following the primary loss were particularly hard ones for Quinn, who had to continue to tend to her official duties as speaker.

The morning after her third-place finish Quinn attended the annual Sept. 11 memorial ceremony at Ground Zero, putting her face-to-face with de Blasio, with whom she has had a bitter rivalry that long predates this campaign.

Still, she said the ceremony gave her "perspective that was of great use to me at that moment in my professional life.

"Not to sound cheesy—all I did was lose an election," she said. "You're surrounded there by one of the worst human tragedies in a place where in a second, you know, close to 3,000 peoples' lives were gone and thousands and thousands of peoples' lives were changed forever. … So it was a sad day, but it was also a day that reminded me just how lucky I am, notwithstanding having had a professional setback."

Later that day she attended a ceremony on Staten Island and was seated next to Bloomberg, whose relationship with Quinn seemed to be a collateral victim of the Democratic primary.

When asked about the state of their relationship, Quinn was guarded, claiming it is "fine," "no bad blood" and saying she is "grateful to the mayor for the collaborative working relationship we have and how much we were able to get done through that professional relationship."

On Sept. 12, Quinn led a routine, pre-scheduled press conference before a Council meeting. As she approached the podium in City Hall looking weary and red-eyed, the press corps pelted questions about her loss.

But what she remembered from that day, she said, was the group of members who voluntarily attended the news conference and flanked her at the microphone in a show of support.

"One of the first people who was there who didn't have a bill [being passed] was [Councilman] Jim Gennaro," Quinn said, as she began to cry.

"That was powerful because Jim's wife is sick and Jim had been lovely during the campaign and to see Jim there and know everything that he's going through that's so much more powerful and significant than losing a race just again reminded me of what really matters," she said as an aide present for the interview brought her tissues.

On Sept. 17, Quinn endorsed de Blasio. She said strong attendance from her staff and supporters at the news conference outside City Hall eased what could have been an unpleasant experience.

The following Friday, hours after she hosted what she described as an emotional lunch with her campaign team at Campanile restaurant in Manhattan, her 87-year-old father-in-law was rushed to the hospital with a dangerously low heartbeat. Though he has recovered, Quinn said he developed an infection in the hospital, ran a fever of 104 degrees, and nearly died.

And the day before the general election, her wife's uncle, whom she described as "the patriarch of the family," died from cancer.

"It's been a hell of a year," she said. "As it relates to losing the election, you know, it was very disappointing. It was a dream to run for mayor. It would've been great to get to be mayor, so it was very disappointing, but it wasn't the plan. It wasn't meant to be and I'm just going to have to figure out the next chapter."

Quinn says her spirits are improving as she looks toward the next phase of her career and, more immediately, an overseas vacation with her wife over the winter holidays. She’s currently in talks with non-governmental organizations and nonprofits as she hunts for her next career.

"My next chapter I want to be about doing work in kind of the NGO, nonprofit, advocacy sphere," she said. "I want it to be something obviously relevant and related to New York, but also hopefully a little broader than New York, working in some other urban centers in the country and maybe even internationally."

She wants to focus on issues like hunger, poverty, health care and the environment, she said, noting she began her public-sector career as a tenant organizer.

"I also want to join the board of some not-for-profit organizations," she added.

She also said she hopes to return to government some day.

"I certainly don't rule that out,” she said. “I like government. I like serving in government.”