Fearing life after Bloomberg, New York’s business establishment settles on former ‘radical’ Christine Quinn

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Christine Quinn. (New York City Council via flickr)
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In late April, the immaculate chairwoman of the New York real-estate lobby and her husband, an Upper East Side plastic surgeon, hosted a fund-raiser for the City Council speaker, Christine Quinn, at their condo across from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Roughly 50 real-estate executives paid $1,000 a head to hobnob with the woman who, for now, is the establishment’s choice for mayor in 2013.

Swilling white wine and champagne, the executives asked Quinn her thoughts on real-estate taxes, development, and rent regulation. Quinn said rent regulation was important to her, but otherwise struck attendees as fairly reasonable, particularly for a non-businesswoman and a career politician.

“I think the audience walked away feeling like she was impressive, that she’s somebody the community could work with to the betterment of the city,” said the event’s hostess, Mary Ann Tighe, who, in addition to her work at the Real Estate Board of New York, is one of the city’s top commercial real-estate brokers. “And that doesn’t mean we were in agreement with everything she said. But we liked her clarity and we liked her candor.”

Certainly Quinn sounds a lot better to the real-estate world than some of the other would-be successors to Michael Bloomberg, like, say, Comptroller John Liu and Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, co-sponsors of a retail rent control bill that’s anathema in the real-estate community.

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One real-estate professional who was at the event, voicing an opinion that is not atypical in the industry, said Liu is "nothing more than a union puppet," and that de Blasio was "not as bad as Liu, but he comes from the same place."

The funny thing is that Quinn, whom the real-estate industry has gravitated toward since the last mayoral election, comes from that same place, too.

She started out in what was the far left of New York City politics, working as a housing activist, and then as the chief of staff for the country’s first openly HIV-positive elected official. She went on to lead an organization that advocates for victims of anti-gay violence. Occasionally, she got sent to jail for civil disobedience.

All that is ancient history now. The business community seems to have appraised Quinn, and the rest of the likely 2013 field, and to have come to a collective decision that she is the least of many evils.

The most recent campaign filings showed Quinn far outraising her likeliest rivals for the mayoralty, with $4.5 million on hand, compared to about $2.7 million for Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, $1.5 million for Liu, $1 million for de Blasio, and $250,000 for former comptroller and one-time mayoral candidate Bill Thompson.

“In her role as speaker, Christine has established credibility and a strong relationship with many members of the business community,” said Kathryn Wylde, a former housing activist herself, now C.E.O. of the Partnership for New York City, a business lobby whose board, according to Businessweek, includes Henry Kravis, Richard Parsons and Lloyd Blankfein. “I was, as a young person, a radical too.”

CHRISTINE QUINN ENTERED THE PUBLIC EYE AS CAMPAIGN MANAGER for Tom Duane in the early 1990s. At the time, AIDS was still exacting a devastating toll on the community, and the notion that New York could one day legalize gay marriage was abstract at best.

Quinn, a Glen Cove, Long Island native and Trinity College graduate, found a political mentor in Duane, a councilman who was openly gay and H.I.V.-positive and for whom she eventually served as chief of staff. During five years with him, Quinn got a crash course in city government. 

In 1996, she became executive director of the Anti-Violence Project, making a name for herself citywide as an outspoken, often strident advocate for gay and lesbian victims of violence and police abuse. (The Post would later describe her as “shrilly lesbian.”) Following the brutalization of Abner Louima in 1997, Rudy Giuliani created a police brutality task force and appointed Quinn a member.

Two years later, Quinn won a four-way special election to succeed Duane, who had left to run for the State Senate. With more than 50 percent of the vote, Quinn now represented Chelsea, Times Square, the West Village, and the Meatpacking District in the City Council. At her swearing-in ceremony at New York University, Eve Ensler read selections from The Vagina Monologues.

MAYOR BLOOMBERG AND COUNCILMEMBER QUINN WEREN'T expected to jibe so well. At first, they didn’t. In the early Bloomberg years, Quinn fiercely resisted the mayor’s plans to build a stadium for the Jets and the 2012 Olympics in her district on the far West Side. She also helped lead the fight to require city contractors to offer domestic-partner benefits, despite Bloomberg’s opposition to the measure.

She ended up aligning herself with Upper East Side Councilman Gifford Miller, who was running for Council speaker. After Miller’s win, he duly rewarded Quinn for her support with the prominent health-committee chairmanship. Miller would ultimately develop a contentious relationship with the mayor in the run-up to the 2005 elections.

(Like Quinn today, Miller had leveraged his speaker position to raise lots of money. But his mayoral campaign, in which he was decidedly not positioned as the Bloomberg-friendly Democrat, was a disaster.)

By late 2006, relations between the mayor and Quinn had thawed considerably. The city was reveling in a prelapsarian economy, one that put into overdrive the gentrification that had already begun to sweep across Quinn’s own district. Speaker Miller had been term-limited out, and Quinn had run to replace him in a role that would require her to appeal to a broad citywide constituency. She fought a politically agile campaign to win over borough party leaders and her fellow members, thereby securing a victory over her main opponent, de Blasio, to become the Council’s first openly gay, first female, and first non-married speaker.

“There’s an interesting interaction between who you are and the position you hold,” said Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College. “When you’re representing a district that’s centered in Chelsea, you’re going to have a core constituency that is somewhere on the left of New York City politics. And when you’re a majority leader or speaker of the City Council, you have as your constituency every Democrat in the City Council, and that’s a much more centrist group of people.”

Soon enough, the press was commenting on the surprisingly cozy relationship between the newly minted speaker and her mayor.

“The honeymoon for Mayor Bloomberg and Council Speaker Christine Quinn is closing in on 100 days with nary a sign of the bickering expected between the city's No. 1 and No. 2,” the Daily News reported in April 2006.

As speaker, Quinn supported Bloomberg on nearly every initiative, from congestion pricing and his controversial trash management plan, to his term-limits overhaul. She backed his ban on smoking in parks and beaches, and his ill-fated selection of Cathie Black for schools chancellor. She refused to allow a vote on a bill that would have required businesses to give employees paid sick leave, even though a majority of the Council wanted it passed. She has allowed a living-wage bill to languish.

She has done all this without weakening her standing in the district that originally elected her as a hell-raising liberal, and without ever losing control of her overwhelmingly Democratic constituency of Council members.

The liberal interest groups that once counted her as a reliable ally are now reduced to hoping for an appearance from time to time by the old Quinn.

“I'm hopeful Chris Quinn will support Living Wage,” said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, via email. “What she does on living wage will define her as a public official and candidate for office. The needs of working people are the paramount issue in the city. They are struggling to survive and to support themselves and their families. Chris Quinn has been and still is a progressive, so I know that helping working families is important to her.”

In the course of her speakership, Quinn has acquired steadily more support in the business community. In July of 2007, The New York Observer reported that Quinn had vastly increased her take from the real-estate industry, which had come to account for about 20 percent of her private contributions. In 2003, that number had been just over 4 percent.