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.

In 2008, when Quinn and the Council found themselves mired in a slush-fund scandal—she had quietly continued a bad-old-timey Council practice that allowed the speaker to consolidate power by doling out discretionary money to members in secret—she found an invaluable, unshakable source of support in Bloomberg and in the real-estate community.

“He has taken her under his wing—vouching for her integrity, offering her a place at his podium, even giving her a ride to her family's ancestral Irish home on his private jet,” reported the Daily News, of Bloomberg. Real estate, meanwhile, continued to ply her with donations

LAST THURSDAY MORNING, SPEAKER QUINN joined Police Commissioner Ray Kelly inside the Police Department’s fortress near City Hall to announce a new anti-domestic-violence initiative. Quinn, in a well-tailored pantsuit, wore her rust-colored hair like a helmet. 

Kelly, whose name has been popping up periodically for years as a Continuity candidate for mayor—but who, unlike Quinn, has a distaste for politics, and has taken no steps to lay the foundation for an actual run for anything—appeared exhausted. His red-rimmed eyes and crooked tie bespoke late nights investigating the murder of 8-year-old Brooklyn boy Leiby Kletzky. He looked like everything New York wants to see in a police chief. But, as the press conference got underway, Quinn looked in charge.

Over the years, Quinn has learned her way around the levers of power, becoming a skillful practitioner of old-school politics, petty and otherwise. In 2009, Quinn gutted the budget of the public advocate at the time, Betsy Gotbaum, following Gotbaum’s opposition to the term-limits overhaul. And earlier this month, she punished the Astoria-based councilman Peter Vallone for publicly opposing the renaming of the Queensborough Bridge for former mayor Ed Koch by lopping 42 percent off of his member-item allocation. 

“She’s an old-time pol,” said Douglas Muzzio, a professor of public affairs at Baruch College. “She understands power and how to leverage it.”

It’s a leadership attribute that, coupled with her near-unwavering support of and implicit anointment by business demigod Michael Bloomberg, has attracted a growing legion of supporters within the permanent establishment that runs New York City.

Her campaign-finance filings read like a Who’s Who of New York's business and cultural elite, from Barry Diller, Ron Perelman, Dick Parsons and Aby Rosen, to Agnes Gund, Ingrid Sischy, and Karen Brooks Hopkins. The Barnetts and Dursts have done their part, as have the Musses, Walentases, and Eataly landlord David Levinson.

Her hold on the establishment has only been strengthened by the self-immolation of Anthony Weiner, who was in a strong position to contend in 2013 and who was popular among real-estate types because, in Tighe’s words, “He seemed like one of the guys. He could be in real estate. And they’d known him for years and years.”

“None of us want John Liu to be mayor—he’s not a business-friendly guy,” said Jeff Gural, a prominent landlord. “I think Christine has done a good job. I haven’t heard anything negative about her from the real-estate community.”

“I feel that one of her qualities is that she keeps herself accessible, and she’s willing to listen to different points of view,” said Francis Greenburger, another prominent landlord. “That doesn’t mean she’s going to agree with you. At least you know she’s going to hear you, and hear whatever your issue is.”

Quinn declined multiple email and phone requests to comment for this article, which she was aware would be about the fact that the business and real-estate establishment is closing ranks behind her. At the Thursday N.Y.P.D. event, she complimented this reporter’s necklace, but declined to comment without the presence of her chief press aide, Jamie McShane. After he arrived, she declined to comment at all.

Quinn, a crafty politician, will be under no illusions about the risks and the rewards of tying her fortunes so closely to Michael Bloomberg's, and to the establishment that has rallied around the mayor for the last decade.

She is no doubt aware that in an election, money is nice, but it isn't everything.

“The business community does not dominate a Democratic primary,” said Wylde. “So this cuts many ways.”

Clarification: The original version of this article listed Sanford Weill as a board member of the Partnership for New York. Although his name still appears on the Businessweek list cited in the article, he is no longer on the board.

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