The buzz on the election of Christine Quinn as the new Speaker of the City Council—repeated in a droning chorus every time her name was mentioned last week—focused on her two firsts: first woman to hold the post; first openly gay person to head the chamber. But the more revealing political surprise in the 39- year-old Chelsea councilmember’s election isn’t so much who she is, but where she comes from.
Prior council leaders served their apprenticeships as party loyalists or longtime staffers. But the first time Chris Quinn climbed the City Hall steps she was a rank outsider. It was 1989 and she was representing a group that had earnestly dubbed itself the Housing Justice Campaign, a community coalition committed to ensuring that government funds be used to create and preserve housing affordable to the city’s neediest.
To that end, Quinn, fresh from Trinity College in Hartford, was part of a pack of organizers who haunted the City Hall rotunda, buttonholing every councilmember they could, and keeping score every time a well-heeled real estate lobbyist walked in and out of the inner sanctum of then majority leader Peter Vallone.
When the Dinkins administration threatened in 1991 to wipe out community-organizing grants and slash its building inspection budget, Quinn helped spearhead a day-long “strike” in which organizers besieged city officials and politicians. They started the day at 6 a.m. outside the Brooklyn home of Norman Steisel, Dinkins’s top deputy. Steisel angrily told them they were hurting their cause—the standard response to bothersome activist types right before bureaucrats agree to a meeting.
But as much as she wanted to disparage the pols she encountered, Quinn found herself occasionally inspired. “When I was 20 years old I was adamant that I would never want elective office,” she said last week. ” ‘Why in the world would you ever do that?’ I wondered. ‘You’re only one vote. If you’re an organizer you affect so many more people.’ ”
She said she remembered watching Steve DeBrienza, the fiery ex–Brooklyn councilmember, on the City Hall steps vowing to help the advocates. “And he did help. I was so impressed with how he used what he had.” Eventually, she changed her mind about the futility of politics. “The more I saw of government, the more I became convinced one person really can make a difference.”
Quinn later worked to elect gay rights advocate Tom Duane to the City Council, becoming head troubleshooter and chief of staff. When Duane moved up to the state senate she tromped three opponents seeking his council seat, including a top aide to then mayor Rudy Giuliani.
With her own nameplate adorning the polished wooden desk in the council, she started hammering away—this time as an insider—at mayoral aides for failing to rally to the city’s housing crisis.
New York’s council has long had its share of members who emerged from the ranks of community activism, but most have been relegated to the sidelines. Pushy advocates-turned-legislators who dared to oppose the all-powerful majority leader, people like Ruth Messinger and Sal Albanese, spent more time in the political woodshed than in important assignments.
Quinn, who took office after term limits were introduced, and as part of a huge new class of members in an expanded council, said that wasn’t her experience. She got along well with former Speaker Gifford Miller, who rewarded her with a post as chair of the health committee.
“I’m not even sure the spin on Vallone is so accurate,” she said. Similarly, when two of the council’s most progressive members, Gail Brewer and David Yassky, urged her in a Daily News op-ed last week to make the body more open and independent, she said she wanted to wait and see. “I’m interested in having that discussion with my colleagues,” she said, sounding very much like the politician who cagily outmaneuvered six other candidates to win the Speaker’s post after the term-limited Miller stepped down.
A key part of that strategy was the courting of the city’s Democratic county leaders, and on Wednesday, at the council hug-fest that marked her election to the speakership, she parked the three bosses who backed her right up front where everyone could see them. Seated as guests of honor next to one another were Jose Rivera of the Bronx, Tom Manton of Queens, and Brooklyn’s new leader, Vito Lopez, who wore a bright red sweater vest to mark the occasion.
“I thought it was subtle,” quipped Quinn. But she offered no apologies for the public nod to her benefactors. “At the end of the day, 51 members voted. Some seek advice from people they trust and know. That’s human nature. For some people, that’s Tom Manton, and there is nothing wrong with that.”
But critics suggested it came at a cost. As a legislator, Quinn has fought fiercely to expand abortion rights, including an effort to win “morning after” contraceptives for rape victims. But last month she co-hosted a fundraiser for Queens and Bronx congressman Joe Crowley, a Manton favorite whose ambivalent abortion views have earned him a meager 30 percent rating by advocates.
“He’s anti-choice. She did it solely to win Manton’s support and the Queens delegation,” said Bill Dobbs, a radical gay organizer. Dobbs said Quinn’s public status as a lesbian counted for little compared to the issues she will wrestle with. “Let’s not confuse a seat at the table or a fancy title with progress,” he said. “Think Clarence Thomas, or Madeleine Albright. There is a lot more to change than diversifying representatives.”
Quinn’s evolution has been hard to miss. A tousled brunette when she first joined the council, she accepted her nomination last week as a carefully coiffed redhead in a black skirt-suit bedecked with white pearls. But neither the makeover nor the political accommodations bother her longtime fans. “I saw her star quality when she first started as an organizer,” said Michael McKee, a veteran tenant advocate who is also active in gay causes. “It may sound parochial, but I think the fact that a mere 19 years after the City Council passed a gay rights bill a lesbian is being elected Speaker says a lot.”
The Crowley fundraiser only demonstrated her astuteness, said McKee. “When I heard about it, I said, ‘That’s a smart move on her part. That is Manton’s favorite congressman and he is worried about holding onto his seat.’ Does it bother me? No.”
Quinn arrived at City Hall shortly before noon on Wednesday, sweeping across the plaza with her family as a crowd of photographers snapped away. Inside the rotunda there were more hugs and kisses than a mob wedding as a swarm of lobbyists, now dependent on Quinn’s goodwill, descended on her.
Among those embracing her was Joe Strasburg, the former Vallone chief of staff Quinn haunted in her lobbying days, a formidable opponent to many of her old causes who went on to become the city’s leading landlord lobbyist, head of the Rent Stabilization Association. The whispers among pro-tenant councilmembers last week was that Strasburg’s RSA would get from Quinn what it has gotten from every Speaker or majority leader before her: the right to approve the appointment of the next chair of the council’s housing and buildings committee, which considers all landlord-tenant legislation.
Asked about Strasburg’s clout, Quinn demurred with finesse. “I am sure there will be lots of advocacy groups and trade associations who will give their input to this office over the next two weeks over who should chair many of the committees. We will take everybody’s thoughts.”