The four-year tweak: Candidate Quinn adjusts her Bloomberg-era resume, unthreateningly

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Speaker Quinn remembers the Titanic. (Dana Rubinstein)
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Council Speaker Christine Quinn joined the Irish and British consuls general to New York at Titanic Park on Thursday morning to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the ship's collision with an iceberg (which her grandmother survived).

She laid a wreath next to the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse anchoring the southern corner of the park, accompanied by Sanitation Department bagpipers in emerald-green kilts, and then repaired to a spot under a newly leafed tree to take off-topic questions.

Immediately, she got a barrage of inquiries from reporters about an announcement she made via email the night before that negotiations were finally complete on a long-awaited, much disputed "living wage" bill, which would guarantee workers on some projects with city subsidies a wage of $10 with benefits, or $11.50 without.

The news had turned out not to be what was in her announcement, but what wasn't: the approval of the Partnership for New York City, the business lobby that has come to be broadly supportive of Quinn and which had originally endorsed a version of living wage in January at a City Hall press conference with the speaker. Kathryn Wylde, the Partnership's C.E.O., said she could no longer back the measure because it failed to allow the city to issue exemptions on a case-by-case basis. 

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Quinn, noted the Post, had accommodated labor at the expense of business; this was evidence that she was continuing to tack leftward, shoring up her support among the Democratic primary voters who  (to the consternation of Bloomberg) are expected to pick the next mayor.  

Was Wylde's abandonment of the living wage deal a sign of something bigger? Was Quinn, by her (mildly) increased willingness to govern in opposition to the strongly pro-business Bloomberg administration, in danger of undoing the reputation she had worked so hard to cultivate among members of the New York establishment as the candidate most likely to keep the city moving in a Bloomberg-like direction?

The answer is probably no. Or, maybe more accurately, not yet.

She's still seems to be the most acceptable choice for the pro-Bloomberg establishment among the Democratic candidates, and there's no non-Democrat on the horizon. She's still much more Bloomberg-leaning than the Council members she keeps in line, many of whom would have liked to see a much stronger living wage bill, and a far-reaching paid-sick-leave law, and generally stiffer resistance to the administration's pro-charter-school education policies than Quinn generally stands for. Quinn still takes her political guidance, and has for years, from the political consultancy SKD Knickerbocker, which counts both the mayor and the charter-school lobby among its clients.

Asked at the Titanic event whether the teacher's union needed that sort of counterweight, Quinn said, carefully, "Look, I welcome any group of New Yorkers who want to come together and raise their voice and put ideas in the public forum about how to make schools better. There should be no kind of command on that arena."

Former mayor Ed Koch, who has already endorsed Quinn on precisely the premise that she is the Bloomberg-continuity candidate, said last week (and reaffirmed this week) that he isn’t particularly thrilled with some of Quinn’s recent positions. He says she was "wrong" on living wage, and that “it was wrong when she criticized the mayor’s position with respect to the homeless and making sure they were in need of a city-funded place."

Koch said the continued strength of her support among the business community "depends on what she does between now and next year."

Asked whether Quinn was moving away from the mayor, a real estate executive I talked to indicated it was more a case of liberal due diligence: “I think you’re seeing a distance more in social service-y stuff."

There's something else to keep in mind, too. Notwithstanding the daylight that Quinn has put between herself and the mayor on living wage, homeless-shelter policy and a number of other issues, she has been highly selective about when she does so, as has very rarely couched her criticism of administration policy in a way that could be construed as personal about Bloomberg. 

She is careful to counterbalance her moments of opposition with resolute demonstrations of support for the administration.

In her February state of the city address, a prologue to a more fully developed campaign platform, Quinn sought to distinguish herself from the mayor by emphasizing a more grassroots approach to government, but she didn't criticize him. She has called Bloomberg’s new homeless shelter intake policy “cruel and punitive” and sued the administration to reverse it, but she will not let the Council vote on paid sick leave, which the mayor opposes. She has championed restaurateurs against the Department of Health’s much-reviled restaurant grading system, of which the mayor is very proud, while also expressing support for the underlying idea. She has expressed concern about the city's aggressive application of stop-and-frisk, but says she would like to see Ray Kelly stay on as police commissioner

“She’s not doing anything untoward or hard-edged,” said Fred Siegel, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and scholar in residence at St. Francis College who is a frequent critic of Bloomberg. “There’s an attempt to soften the connections and soften her ties to Bloomberg so they’re not a drag on her.”

Despite the business lobby's rejection of the her living-wage compromise, Quinn has pointed out, correctly, that the measure has meaningful business-approved provisions. For example, while the original proposal called for requiring both the recipients of economic development subsidies and their tenants to pay employees at least $10 an hour, the retail tenants were later exempted from the bill.

Quinn called that a "very fundamental change, which the business community was strongly, and is strongly, in support of."

The legislation, at least in draft form, also included an exemption for a portion of the Hudson Yards project that one of Quinn's big campaign donors is building on the far west side. Quinn declined to reveal if the Hudson Yards exemption was still in the legislation.

"You’ll see the final version and you’ll see what has been grandparented, what sectors have been exempted, and what geographic areas have been exempted," said Quinn.

Finally, the bill has been so heavily modified to address the mayor's and the business lobby's (and, presumably, Quinn's) concerns that it is quite small: It will probably not affect more than 500 workers a year, total.

It would exempt manufacturers and apply only to projects that receive $1 million or more in subsidies and have annual revenues of at least $5 million, according to a spokesman for RWDSU, which supports the compromise.

Los Angeles' living wage law, by contrast, applies to manufacturers and also to recipients of as little as $100,000.

Quinn took heated issue with the notion, posited by a NY1 reporter, that she was somehow "straddling" labor and business interests in the run-up to 2013.

"With all due respect, I haven’t straddled anywhere," said Quinn. "And I resent that characterization. I am a legislator. Some of my colleagues came to me with a concept and a bill. Who doesn't support the concept of lifting people's wages up? No one. Everyone supports that. Or everyone should support that. The bill sought to do that in a way that I thought was dangerous and would hurt the economy. So I worked to try to get to a different concept that could bring more people together, raise wages and not stagnate job growth. It’s not about straddling."

IT'S WORTH THINKING BACK ON WHAT IT LOOKED like in the past when Democratic Council speakers—Peter Vallone Sr. and Gifford Miller, neither of whom could ever have been described as a fire-breather, as a rule—geared up for campaigns when a non-Democratic mayor was in City Hall.

In 2000, the year before he was to run for mayor, “Mr. Vallone, a Queens Democrat, made frequent critical references to Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and sought to portray himself as having a far more compassionate style,” wrote the Times.  

In 2004, the year before speaker Gifford Miller was to run in the Democratic mayoral primary, "He used his State of the City speech to lash out at the administration for leaving many New Yorkers behind," reported the New York Post.

What Quinn is doing, Bloomberg-wise, bears no resemblance to any of that, really.

On the morning of March 17, she joined the mayor for a breakfast with Irish leaders at Gracie Mansion to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, as she has in years past.

“You know, I saw Christine and the mayor together on St. Patrick’s Day, that was only about two weeks ago, and she had already staked out some positions at odds with the administration and that’s natural,” said Bloomberg's friend and former communications director Bill Cunningham, recently. “She spoke and was very funny and it was the mayor and her and a minister from Ireland. All a very, very happy event.”

Cunningham suggested what everyone in New York politics pretty much knows, which is that Quinn's "distancing" act from Bloomberg is gestural—a necessary part of the act of running to succeed him.

“I think they knew this stuff was bound to bound to happen, especially as we get closer to the next election,” says Bill Cunningham, the mayor’s former communications director, adding, “That’s how you distinguish yourself."

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