A campaign postmortem with Quinn strategist Josh Isay

Isay on the campaign trail. (Azi Paybarah via Flickr)
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City Council Speaker Christine Quinn was widely regarded as the Democratic front-runner when the 2013 mayor's race began, despite simmering resentment in the party about the way she'd wielded power at times and, more importantly, about her role in extending term limits. She ended up finishing third, behind Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former city comptroller Bill Thompson. 

The following is a conversation about the race, transcribed and edited for length, with Quinn's top political strategist Josh Isay.

Dana: What happened?

Josh: They won because they had a better message and ran a better campaign. They deserve all the credit that they are getting—and then some.

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Elections—especially urban elections like this—are an ongoing narrative, a story of the city. Dinkins was a reaction to Koch, Giuliani was a reaction to Dinkins, Bloomberg was a reaction to 9/11—a unique event —and de Blasio was, in many ways, a reaction to Bloomberg. We believed that people thought that the city was heading in the right direction and, while some may have had qualms with Mayor Bloomberg, [that] there was a desire for the city to keep making the progress it had made and not turning in a completely new direction.

For us there wasn't much of a choice in that message. First of all, she believed it. But second of all, she had been a legislative partner for a long time. And it would have been disingenuous for her to change that message.

Dana: So then your only option was to embrace her status as the Bloomberg continuity candidate and bet that the city wanted that?

Josh: That’s not exactly right. We could not be the opposition candidate. It wasn’t where she was. We could be the "We want progress, but for everyone" kind of candidate. We tried to do that. But the truth is, it was not heard. It was too complex. And that was an untenable spot to be in considering the mood of the electorate.

Dana: Did your closeness to Bloomberg, who is a major client, factor at all into your thinking about how aggressively Quinn ought to have been in criticizing the administration?

Josh: No.

Dana: Would it have been possible, even if you thought it was the right tactical thing to do, to be playing on Team Change and Team Stability at the same time?

Josh: Yes. Just look at the last six months, Chris got into major dust-ups with the administration over the inspector general bill, paid sick leave and homeless policy—to name just three. She thought they were the right bills and the right actions to take.

...

Second of all, I do think there was a lot of money spent against her at a critical moment. And that was definitionally problematic for us.

Dana: You mean the Anybody But Quinn stuff?

Josh: The ABQ, the ads, there was a million dollars of ads.

Dana: Even though they were so poorly done? Does it matter?

Josh: It was just negative information in the bloodstream. She was the only candidate to have that kind of money spent directly against her. And yes they were poorly done, but they played to a narrative that was being built about her. I think that was an element of it. That was part and parcel of being a front-runner for so long and having brickbats thrown at you. And it was very difficult to maintain that front-runner status for so long.

And then I think that there was a gender and a gay issue here that is not homophobia or sexism per se, but is the way society and people view women and gays and how they relate to them and I think that was an element to this as well.

Dana: Do you regret not playing identity politics more?

Josh: No.

Dana: Why?

Josh: It doesn’t work.

Dana: It worked for de Blasio. He campaigned (in part) on his son’s afro.

Josh: He was introducing his son to the city. Everyone knew she was gay and a woman. So I think there’s a difference by saying, "Here’s my family, look at them." The same way that Chris said, "Look at my wife, here she is on the campaign trail," and saying, "I’m a woman. Vote for me because I’m a woman."

Dana: Has anyone to your knowledge ever successfully won with that?

Josh: No, I don’t think so. And look, it’s not like we didn’t test it out and see if it worked. It doesn’t work. Voters want more than that.

Dana: Not even for older women voters?

Josh: Our research showed it wasn’t going to work. And I think if you talked to the Hillary people, they would tell you not to do it. Emily’s List people would tell you don’t do that. There’s no one who has actually run those races that would tell you that’s a smart path to take.

Dana: Let's talk about that temperament story.

Josh: It’s not that that story wouldn’t have been written for a man because it has been written for a man. Giuliani’s had that story written about him a million times, Christie, Andrew. It sticks to a woman in a way that doesn’t stick to a man. A man who has a bad temper, people interpret as, "leader, getting things done." A woman with a bad temper is mean and a bitch. … For a woman it means she’s not likable. And a woman who’s not likable is a big problem. A man who’s not likable, doesn’t matter. People vote for men they don't like as long as they feel like they're getting the job done. It's not the same for a woman.

And then it becomes, we were fighting for months, "Is she trying to soften her image?" We weren’t trying to soften her image. There was no conscious decision to quote "soften her image." There really wasn’t ever.

Dana: What were the campaign memoir and the Barnard event about then?

Josh: The campaign memoir was written six months, a year before any of that happened. She wanted to tell her story, which we thought was a compelling story. And we also knew that there was a reasonable chance that come August, someone who hated her in the West Village would have said, "I saw her at an [AA] meeting." It was not to soften her. It was look, we have to get ahead of this story. How do we get ahead of this story? ... Then the temperament story comes out, the book’s coming out. What are you supposed to do?

One frustrating thing was, why was there this unbelievable vitriol towards her. … I don’t know what it is, exactly. But it was anger. You look at Twitter. It was vicious.

Dana: It’s the perception of power.

Josh: Yes, I think that’s right.

Dana: And de Blasio got to …

Josh: Be Occupy Wall Street. That’s right. We were perceived as the establishment and a front-runner for too long.

Dana: Is there a platform from which Quinn could run again, a la Hillary?

Josh: I’m sure there is. But actually I have not talked to her about it. I don’t know if she wants to. I am not going to speculate on that.

Dana: What do you think happens with this run-off, and how does de Blasio do against Lhota?

Josh: I don't know exactly how we get there but Bill de Blasio will be the next mayor of New York and he will be great.