Quinn exclusive: My legacy

Christine Quinn. (Official New York City Council Photo by William Alatriste)
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In 2006, Christine Quinn outmaneuvered a number of capable Democratic opponents to capture the city's second-most-powerful elected job: speaker of the City Council.

Over the course of eight years in that position, she compiled a record that includes rules and budget-process reform, and significant legislative victories on campaign finance, tenant protection and solid-waste management.

But now, as Quinn prepares to leave politics after an unsuccessful run for mayor, that record has come to be defined for a significant number of New Yorkers by a single, controversial act: leading the Council, at Michael Bloomberg’s behest, to overturn the two-term limit for elected officials.

In her first extensive interview since the mayoral election, Quinn argued that the most profound and lasting aspects of her Council legacy are the institutional changes she oversaw during her extended tenure.

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"There's a ton of different ways that the operations of this institution have become more professional, more focused on being responsive to the daily needs of New Yorkers and more responsible about protecting the public purse and the public taxpayer dollars, and that's something I'm incredibly proud of," Quinn said the interview in her City Hall office.

Quinn, who had a cordial relationship with Bloomberg for most of her speakership, says she saw it as her responsibility to give the Council a more meaningful role in shaping laws and running the city.

"You know, the Council was known for quite some time as only the place that did street re-namings," Quinn said. "We never kind of lost that unfair moniker of ‘what's the difference between a Council and a rubber stamp? A rubber stamp at least leaves an impression.’"

Image mattered, she said. To alter the perception that the Council spent undue time and energy on gestural politics, Quinn reduced the number of resolutions Council members could introduce, doing away with those focused on international affairs in which the Council has no role. (Resolutions carry no legislative weight and are largely symbolic expressions of a political mood.)

To facilitate political cohesion, if not vigorous debate, Quinn instituted twice-monthly Democratic caucus meetings to review upcoming Council votes and other issues before the body.

"We've had bills that we thought we were gonna vote on that have gotten never voted on because of objections [raised] in caucus," she said. "I wanted the Council members to have as much information as possible about what they were voting on before they voted on it and I wanted an opportunity for them to ask questions in a more conversational way."

She also set up a computerized tracking system for constituent complaints, so members could record and compare quality-of-life concerns in their districts.

And faced with perhaps the sternest political test of her entire time as speaker—a federal investigation into a Council budget practice of hiding money, which dated back to before her tenure—Quinn ended up pushing through a dramatic overhaul of the system of doling out discretionary funds known as "member items" to nonprofits. (Quinn says she knew nothing of the practice until her attorneys informed her. She was never implicated, but three members and two aides were charged criminally for misusing their own member items in separate cases that mushroomed out of the initial investigation.)

"I give her positive marks for government reform,” said Gene Russianoff, senior attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group. “She did the right thing, and she did it well.”

Russianoff worked with the Council on its sweeping campaign finance laws in 2007, which limited the maximum allowable campaign donations that lobbyists, developers and individuals with land-use and zoning applications pending before the city could give. (Unions were excluded from that cap—a source of consternation among business leaders.)

Quinn also counts among her legislative accomplishments a bill to empower tenants to sue harassed landlords—"the most significant legislation to hold bad landlords accountable that we've ever seen in this city," she said—a measure allowing the city to repair dilapidated buildings and bill landlords later, and a citywide solid-waste management program to allow trash to be removed by barge instead of truck.

In accounting for her accomplishments, Quinn had less to say about some other bills passed recently by the Council via compromises that she had an important hand in crafting, but which caused her significant political grief.

After three years of stalling a proposal to require that private companies offer paid sick days, Quinn passed the measure in March, after it became a political liability for her mayoral campaign. She reached a compromise by persuading the bill's advocates to exclude firms with fewer than 15 employees, which placated the business community. She then overrode Bloomberg's veto.

"The issues that I dealt with her most closely on, she basically cut her own path and made nobody happy," said Kathy Wylde, president of the Partnership for New York City, a business group that opposed the paid-sick-days bill.

Wylde said that Quinn’s management style, which did not always help her politically, is "absolutely to her credit.”

"She was concerned as to what impact [the paid sick legislation] would have on the overall economy, so she tried to be an intermediary and you know, sort of meet the advocates halfway," Wylde said.

Quinn negotiated similar deals on a bill to mandate companies that take $1 million in city subsidies pay their workers a "living wage" of $11.50 an hour, and two measures to rein in the NYPD's use of stop and frisk.

On paid sick leave, most members and operatives involved in the negotiations said she only brought it to the floor for a vote because bill sponsor Gale Brewer threatened to use a little-known measure to force a vote without the speaker's support.

And on the stop-and-frisk bills, known as the "Community Safety Act," she allowed a vote on both pieces of legislation even though she voted against one of them.

Her critics on the Council accused her of putting power before principle, bottling up bills sponsored by disobedient members and using her control over a $50 million pot of discretionary funds to punish her foes.

"She didn't put up with dissent well, and her favorites were her 'yes men' and if you wanted to do what she said, much like Albany under Shelly Silver, then you could continue to be a favorite, but if you wanted to represent your district or try to do something that was important to you, then she attempted to squash you,” said Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who fell out of favor with Quinn after opposing her on the renaming of the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. “And that's not my idea of leadership.”

Quinn has denied punishing Vallone.

Even as he criticized some of her tactics, Vallone credited Quinn with reforming the Council.

"To her credit we did get a lot done as a City Council and we passed a lot of groundbreaking laws," he said, pointing to bills he sponsored to ban trans fats and require supermarkets recycle plastic bags. "We led the way when it came to environmental legislation."

He also applauded her overhaul of the member-item system.

"She made it tougher for sleazy elected officials to fund their pet not-for-profits which were just for the profit of the elected official. She made it much tougher for casual lawbreakers to be successful," he said.

Regarding her management style, Quinn said she simply brought order to a chaotic legislative body.

"You know I'm not sure that the greatest legislative leaders of our time—Tip O'Neill, LBJ—didn't have order, didn't have process, didn't have steps of a ladder things had to go on,” she said. “You have to.”

Still, all that seems to pale in comparison to the term-limits decision, which permeated the public consciousness in a way no complicated legislative accomplishment ever could and provided Bill de Blasio and Quinn’s other mayoral opponents with all the material they needed to caricature her as a Bloomberg lackey.

"Still to this day, I don't care where I am, somebody comes up and says they didn't vote for her because of her vote on term limits," said Councilwoman Gale Brewer, who voted against the term-limits extension. "It was monumental, life-changing, number one. The peoples' information about the City Council and what they remember about the City Council—all the good things that we do get lost when they think about term limits. Sometimes that's all they remember."

It’s easy to forget that, during her second term as speaker, Quinn successfully sued the city over one of its homeless policies, and fought the mayor on his idea to fingerprint food-stamp recipients. She fought him on budget cuts to libraries, firehouses, teaching jobs and after-school programs, and a lot of the time, she won.

Those fights often took place behind closed doors, but they did take place.

"She should be proud of playing the [budget] dance enough to keep the libraries and the day-care centers open," Brewer said. "She was not a complete ally of Bloomberg. I think some of it was she believed that the institution should get things done with the mayor."

When Quinn herself was asked where she thought term limits fit into her legacy, she reverted to candidate mode, giving a fittingly political answer.

“Term limits was something that I believed was the right thing to do,” she said. “Something where I had to stand up, and I have no regrets."