By Julie Bolcer
Politicians on the rise invariably need to renegotiate their relationships with core constituencies as they try to broaden their electoral appeal. In the midst of these courtships of new voters, the awkward routines of complicated footwork and sidestepping among long-term supporters are painfully common.
But when the politician is one of the highest-ranking openly gay elected officials in the country, not to mention a likely mayoral candidate in New York City, this well-worn dance somehow maintains an air of novelty, and maybe even romance.
Of course, mood lighting helps. The seasonal glow of candlelight and poinsettias greeted New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn on Thursday night at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in the West Village. There, in the heart of a constituency that has been critical to her political ascendancy over the past decade, more than 60 attendees listened as she spoke with WCBS-TV political reporter Andrew Kirtzman in a special conversation sponsored by the Out Professionals networking organization.
During a surprisingly brief 30-minute presentation, Kirtzman, Quinn and audience members waltzed across hot button issues like housing for HIV-positive people, the economic environment of New York City, and the decline of gay nightlife. The overall discussion seemed to revolve around a simple question Kirtzman posed near the outset: “Do you find yourself having to balance where you come from with where you are now?”
“You do think about things through bigger prisms when you’re in this position,” said Quinn, referring to her role as leader of the city’s 51-member legislative body with sole approval of the $59 billion budget. Her colleagues elected her to the position in January 2006, after what she concedes was a delicate, behind-the-scenes campaign of three years’ duration. She made history by becoming the first woman, and the first openly gay person, to hold the office, which was created in 1986.
The notion of a more complex calculus, described by Quinn more than once as a “bigger prism,” permeated the comparisons Kirtzman repeatedly attempted to establish between her early days in LGBT advocacy, followed by election in 1999 to represent City Council District 3, and her star status today as the legislative counterweight to Mayor Bloomberg’s executive authority.
Citing a recent spat with leading HIV/AIDS organizations over her refusal to support legislation that would open city-sponsored housing to low-income and homeless HIV-positive New Yorkers, regardless of their AIDS diagnosis, Kirtzman asked whether Quinn would have made the same decision before she was Speaker. She replied, “You end up in this position having to look at things through additional prisms. It’s not just my district anymore that I think about when having to make decisions.” However, she pointedly added, “I don’t like disagreeing with people with whom I have almost always agreed.”
Quinn said her decision not to support housing benefits for HIV-positive individuals, which could cost as much as $100 million, also was a reaction to the lackluster economic climate. She noted the downturn on Wall Street and the potential impact of the sub-prime mortgage meltdown on the all-important real estate market. “I’m not sure before being Speaker I would have worried so much about the economic status of the city,” she explained.
Big picture talk such as this naturally fuels the rampant speculation about Quinn’s mayoral run in 2009. She is widely considered to be a likely candidate in a Democratic field that will include Bronx Borough President Adolfo Carrion, City Comptroller William C. Thompson, and Congressman Anthony Weiner.
Kirtzman scored smiles with his use of gay lingo when he said to Quinn early in their conversation, “You’re openly thinking about running for Mayor.” She laughed abundantly, with implied affirmation, but then categorized her future vaguely by using the phrase, “whatever I decide to do next.” Was that a wink?
As Kirtzman concluded his questions, he asked Quinn about the dearth of gay nightlife, and suggested that her well-publicized campaign for improved nightlife safety last year may have gone “overboard” and become a cause of the problem. Some gay activists bristled at legislation proposed in the wake of the high-profile murders of Imette St. Guillen and Jennifer Moore to install video cameras, among other measures, in bars and clubs. The Speaker rebutted his proposal, and argued that the fate of gay nightlife relates more to the economics of the city, where shuttered clubs like the Roxy are now being developed as luxury residences.
Development was likewise on the minds of audience members, who asked a limited amount of questions in the final ten minutes of the conversation. One woman mentioned the effort to stop the Atlantic Yards project in downtown Brooklyn, and asked what Quinn thinks should be done now.
“I think there’s not a lot that’s left to be done and that the project will be getting developed,” the Speaker replied. She reminded the audience that she never took a public position on the matter because it moved forward in a significant way before she took her citywide office. However, she did offer that she believes the development should not be excused from ULURP simply because it is a state process, and she recited her similar belief about the West Side Stadium.
2005. Those were the days.