Racing history: Is aspiring mayor Christine Quinn a gay leader, or a leader who happens to be gay?

Christine Quinn, positioning herself to run for mayor. (bosstweed via flickr)
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In early April, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn called Kathryn Wylde, the president of the city’s most powerful business lobby, with a proposal: She wanted Wylde to round up some of her members and release a letter in support of same-sex marriage.

Wylde's Partnership for New York City, an organization that represents the city’s business elite, does not ordinarily embark on social crusades. But Quinn, who has become the preferred 2013 mayoral aspirant among business leaders like Wylde, made the Richard Florida-esque argument that gay marriage was as much a business issue as it was an issue of civil rights. Open societies build creative classes, which, in turn build economies, and so on.

“So I talked to some of our key executives about it, raised it with [Goldman Sachs C.E.O.] Lloyd Blankfein and Terry Lundgren of Macy’s, and several others, who felt very strongly that this was an appropriate issue for the Partnership to take up at this point,” Wylde said.

The letter was part of a broader statewide effort on behalf of gay-marriage advocates to get business leaders on board and maybe a few Republican state senators as well, by giving them, as Wylde put it, “a reason why this wasn’t a matter of personal, religious or social views but rather the interest of our larger economy at a time when it needed a boost.”

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The move was also typical Quinn, if we're talking about the Quinn of recent years. The speaker, who is a lesbian, initially got involved in New York politics as a gay- and civil-rights agitator, of the sort who would get herself arrested while protesting police brutality under Giuliani and anti-gay discrimination at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Since becoming speaker of the City Council in 2006, Quinn has skillfully consolidated her institutional power by tending to the political needs of constituent members while forging close alliances with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the business community. Her days of agitating from outside the system are an almost unimaginably distant memory. She is the establishment.

The mainstreaming of Christine Quinn has been concurrent with the mainstreaming of the gay-rights agenda in New York generally. The atmosphere of crisis surrounding H.I.V. and AIDS, the context of Quinn’s early politicization, has eased and marriage equality is now enshrined in state law, while issues like homelessness among lesbian, gay and transgender youth and the high rate of disease among gay black men have been relegated to the margins. And Quinn’s gayness is pretty much a non-issue, in transactional political terms: The fact that she's grown so close to Bloomberg comes up a lot in the context of the 2013 election; the fact that she stands to become the city's first openly gay mayor comes up, for horse-race purposes, almost never.

A look at her record, and conversations with some of the city's most prominent gay-rights activists, suggest that Quinn has by no means forsaken what was once her signature cause, and is arguably in a better position than any other official in the city to advance its aims. But at the same time, even as New York and the country become ever more receptive to complete equality for gay individuals and families, she has become much more pragmatic and calculating in her advocacy.

“I think she has been very strong on civil-rights issues and issues that I think would be largely popular in New York City,” said Charlie King, president and C.E.O. of Housing Works, which provides services for people with H.I.V. and AIDS. “Not to say that, as a lesbian, she doesn’t very strongly believe in these issues. I think she does. But they also tend to be the issues that would be the most politically popular issues for an elected official who has higher aspirations.”

While the Bloomberg administration has several times proposed cutting funding for the H.I.V./AIDS Services Administration, which pays for things like case workers, supportive housing and food assistance programs, Quinn and her colleague on the city council, Lew Fidler, have reinstated those cuts. 

But on issues of poverty, Quinn has on a number of occasions—most notably during a debate over a proposal to expand housing aide to people with H.I.V.—sided with the socially liberal but business-friendly Bloomberg administration mayor than with the activist types with whom she used to fraternize.

Quinn declined to comment for this article, but her allies call LGBT activists who complain about such things “fringe."

“I’m a social worker by training and I’ve been putting a lot of thought into why there are some who feel that way,” said Gary Parker, former president of Brooklyn’s Lamda Independent Democrats, and founder of the Greater Voices Coalition of LGBT Political Clubs. “I think there are always going to be extremists on the fringe of the gay community.”

“We’re going to have to share her talents and vision and leadership with the entire city,” he said. “In a strange way, these outliers are grieving the loss of a leader that they perceive as solely their own. And now she’s not just their leader, she belongs to all New Yorkers. It’s almost like a sibling rivalry. 'They want me to share? I don’t want to share.'”

That tension came to the fore in early 2008, when Council member Anabel Palma of the Bronx introduced a bill that would have extended housing aide to H.I.V.-positive New Yorkers who don't have AIDS. Quinn opposed it, arguing that it would “drain city resources and raise issues about supporting the poor with other illnesses.”

The New York Post editorial page, which, back when Quinn was an activist, called her “shrilly lesbian,” applauded her stance, writing, “Everyone, it seems, is a victim—and victims, the expectation is, should be entitled to free lifetime care on the public dime. Yet, as Quinn rightly notes, the city's resources are limited—and need to be targeted where they are most needed.”

The following year, Quinn inspired yet more grumbling from some gay-rights activists when she declined to endorse any of three openly gay Democratic primary candidates for City Council in Queens: Danny Dromm, Jimmy Van Bramer and Lynn Schulman.

“If you’re a progressive member of the LGBT community, then you care about electing LGBT candidates,” said Allen Roskoff, one of Quinn’s more outspoken opponents.

Roskoff heads the Jim Owles Liberal Democratic Club, whose board of governors includes three non-gay candidates running to the left of Quinn in the incipient field of 2013 mayoral candidates: Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and Comptroller John Liu. It's an indication of the fact that Roskoff and his colleagues fault Quinn for being insufficiently liberal on non-gay-specific issues, too, and for her general closeness with the mayor. They point in particular to her role in overturning term limits for the mayor (and, not incidentally, the City Council), and to her unwillingness support "living wage" legislation and a law mandating paid sick leave.

“On LGBT issues she’s obviously pretty good,” said Earl Plante, vice president of the Jim Owles club and development director at the Latino Commission on AIDS. “But I’m looking at a whole series of issues across the board.”

Take, for example, Quinn’s recent opposition to the Bowery Residents' Committee’s new homeless shelter in her district on West 25th Street. Quinn has supported B.R.C.’s work in the past, even contributing a letter to the organization’s fund-raising booklet in celebration of its 40th anniversary. But when the well-regarded social service agency announced plans to open a 300-plus-bed shelter in her district—in her backyard—she turned on it, to the surprise of some of the people who were involved.

“She very much showed herself in that case, and it was, from our perspective, kind of a ludicrous sight,” said King, of Housing Works. “I compare her with [State Senator] Tom Duane and [City Councilwoman] Deborah Glick. When we had siting issues in Community Board 1 and in Community Board 3, they actually led the charge in support of our projects and took on community members who opposed the siting of a program.”

In 2009, Quinn drew two primary challengers for her Council seat, who attacked her on the grounds that she had become too close to the administration. She wound up winning only 52 percent of the vote in a three-way race.

What this suggests, among other things, is that notwithstanding the history-making potential of a Quinn mayoral candidacy, liberals, including gay liberals, won't be giving her a free pass.

(Estimates about the percentage of voters in a city Democratic primary who are gay vary. Ken Sherrill, a professor of political science at Hunter College, estimated it to be 10 percent at most.)

Quinn herself pointed that out that back in 1999, when she was running for Council against a number of other gay candidates.

"It's good for people to see our community isn't a monolith,” she told the Times.

And in that, Quinn sounds more like the political clubs that spawned her. The gay movement itself has both broadened its purview and become more ideologically diverse. It's no longer about electing its own, and no longer solely about gay rights. Neither is Quinn running as the first gay mayor, or the mayor of gay liberation, which is why she and the movement are no longer hand in glove. There is abundant room for disagreement.

“As an LGBT club, we’re focused on a lot of things that are not just LGBT-specific,” said Larry Menzie, executive vice president of the Lesbian and Gay Democratic Club of Queens, which endorsed the straight candidate Deirdre Feerick over the openly gay candidate, Jimmy Van Bramer, in 2009. “We have many times endorsed non-gay candidates over gay candidates who we just felt were better on the gay issues.”

This proposition will certainly be put to the test when it comes to Quinn’s prospective challengers, all of whom were rated high on gay-rights issues by virtually everyone interviewed for this article.

“We have a very good relationship with the speaker and also with the comptroller, who has been floated as a possible candidate,” said Menzie.

“Certainly the comptroller has been very progressive on LGBT issues, and has been more progressive than her on H.I.V./AIDS issues,” said King. “I think de Blasio had been very outspoken on a lot of these issues. Certainly both of those people have positioned themselves to be a more progressive candidate than where she has put herself.”

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