Christine Quinn, New Speaker,
Elected with Support of Bosses,
Worked her way up in Politics,
Will Be Tested on Many Issues.



By Henry J. Stern
January 5, 2006

The selection of Christine Quinn as Speaker of the Council illustrates the enduring power of political leadership (bossism to its enemies), which has demonstrated greater strength than misogyny and homophobia combined.
 
This in no way detracts from Ms. Quinn, who followed the Gifford Miller playbook in making friends wherever she could, investing thousands of dollars in the campaigns of her future constituency, and paying particular attention to the maximum county leader, Tom Manton of Queens.  Quinn did this without neglecting the Bronx leader, Assemblyman Jose Rivera (father of the Council's majority leader Joel Rivera), and the pillar of the Brooklyn Democracy, Clarence Norman's newly-crowned successor, Assemblyman Vito Lopez.  Mr. Norman was an Assemblyman until his unfortunate felony conviction on September 28.  Norman’s Assembly seat was filled in November by Karim Camara, an official of Norman’s father’s church.
 
lt is probably unfair to tar Ms. Quinn with the sins of these political worthies.  It should be known that none of the three current county leaders has ever been indicted, much less convicted, of any crimes, whether of violence, avarice or politics, and it was certainly necessary for her to touch the three bases in order to reach home.  If she had not done that, the men could well have selected the aggressive Brooklynite, Bill de Blasio, an alumnus of Senator Hillary Clinton's office.  De Blasio built what he called "a multi-borough progressive coalition" in his effort, and his tough approach positioned him to the left of Ms. Quinn, however unlikely it appears that there was any room there for him to occupy.

Ms. Quinn's accession is noteworthy for several reasons:  She is only the third person to serve as Speaker (the title was the choice of Peter Vallone, Sr.).  It evokes the power of the Speaker of the House, or the Speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, also of Manhattan.  Silver, however, has had twelve years to grow his power.  Vallone had sixteen years as speaker but Ms. Quinn will have but four, unless she can persuade the electorate into allowing her to seek re-election.  We predict the proposed coup by self-extension will not survive the furious newspapers and civic groups, and the promised mayoral veto.  Save your political capital, Chris.

She is the first Irish-American Speaker, Vallone being Italian-American and Gifford Miller a WASP.  However, Vallone's predecessor, then styled 'majority leader and vice chairman' of the Council, Thomas J. Cuite, was of Irish ancestry.  Cuite also despised homosexuality, and never allowed the Gay Rights Bill even to come to a vote in the City Council, despite our efforts as co-sponsors of the bill.  He defied Mayor Koch on this issue, although the two generally got along well.  We state with as much certainty as can apply in these matters, that Mr. Cuite would spin in his grave if he knew that, twenty years after he left office, his successor would be an Irish lesbian.

It is arch to describe her as the first 'openly gay' speaker.  The two previous speakers, Vallone and Miller, are breeders and not closeted gays.  She is the first gay speaker, period.  It is pointless to prattle about her predecessors' predilections.
 
We have known Ms. Quinn for many years and respected her rise through the toils of local politics.  Our fondest memory of her came at a ceremony on June 7, 2001, in which Mayor Giuliani announced that he would fund the completion of the Chelsea Recreation Center, whose construction had been abandoned a quarter-century before as a casualty of Fiscal Crisis I (Mayor Beame's cross to bear).
 
For years successive generations of Chelsea politicians pleaded for the Recreation Center to be finished, but without success.  Even with Democratic mayors, the radical community leaders had no clout.  Seven months before he was to leave office (and three months before 9/11) Mayor Giuliani listened to the pleas of his Community Affairs Commissioner, supported enthusiastically by his Parks Commissioner, and accepted a modest estimate of the project's cost and time of completion.  Giuliani ordered work to begin under the auspices of the Department of Design and Construction.  DDC designed buildings, we did parks and playgrounds.  The work began.
 
When Councilmember Quinn was informed of Mayor Giuliani's decision, she could not have been more pleased or surprised.  There was no political reason for the mayor to do it, Chelsea was not friendly territory, and the project couldn't be completed before he left office.  The progressive legislators from that district had absolutely no influence at City Hall, their exhortations, if made, might even have a negative effect.  The building had been a leaking wreck for 25 years, used only for document storage.

Of course, we invited Christine to the ceremony (it was her district).  She was naturally and unabashedly joyful at the event, and gracious and appreciative to Mayor Giuliani, who made the totally unexpected decision.  That day, Christine earned her place as a public official who was big enough to accept good news, not try to steal it or spin it, not to be obsessed by past disagreements, but simply to relish the day and event.  Like Zorba, she enjoyed life.

We were there, together again, on May 11, 2004, when Mayor Bloomberg and Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe cut the ribbon on the building that Mayor Giuliani had begun.  Christine was as pleased and generous on that occasion as she was on the morning she received the unexpected call to go directly to Chelsea Rec (BTW, it's at 430 West 25th Street).
 
From those days and other encounters, we know her to be a kind and decent person, who has not yet let the travails and vicissitudes of climbing the greasy pole make her into a political robot or a calculating machine.  We hope she keeps her freshness and open-minded attitude as she deals with the issues that lie ahead.
 
Probably the most important thing for Christine Quinn to remember is that the Council is her major constituency, but it is by no means her only constituency.  She has a responsibility to other people and their enterprises which are not represented by the ambitious activists who inhabit the Council.  As the second highest public official in a city of eight million people, she should feel obliged to help as many of them as she can through rational public policy decisions, not simply to accommodate the political structure from which she emerged.  Last, if you want to be mayor, or anything else, the best way to get the job is by being a good speaker, not by spending four years campaigning for higher office.  Do not weigh each decision in the light of your own ambitions.  That doesn't work.


#275 1.5.06 1109wds




Henry J. Stern starquest@nycivic.org
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