NEW YORK — The same day the first details of Anthony Weiner's latest sexting escapades turned the city's mayoral race into a circus, another candidate, long considered the front-runner to replace outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, was standing almost alone in an outermost section of Queens greeting voters she hopes will support her this fall.
Even as the race has turned into a tabloid frenzy and tawdry national spectacle involving photos of Weiner's private parts and speculation about his marriage, Christine Quinn has tried to avoid her rival's personal drama and seize the moment to raise awareness of her own campaign. Quinn, the city council speaker and decidedly less flashy campaigner than the attention-grabbing Weiner, is betting that the nuts and bolts of retail campaigning and making her pitch to voters will help her ultimately prevail.
It was barely 8 a.m. last week when Quinn walked up to the Far Rockaway subway station in Queens, the very last stop on the A subway line. From here, it can take almost 90 minutes to get to midtown Manhattan, and local residents, many of whom are still rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy last October, don't see politicians come around very often.
Despite polls showing her the front-runner to succeed Bloomberg as mayor of the nation's largest city, Quinn arrived at the station with almost no entourage other than a lone aide holding a campaign sign and a one-man NYPD security detail.
If elected, the 47-year-old Quinn would make history as not only the first female mayor, but also the first openly gay person to lead the fractious city of more than 8 million residents. But Quinn works hard to shift the subject from the potential breakthrough nature of her candidacy.
“What I am talking to New Yorkers about is their future, what they want,” Quinn said in an interview with Yahoo News. “This race isn’t about me. It’s about them.”
And in the Rockaways, Quinn wasn’t talking history. With most polls showing her with a clear but narrow lead heading into the Sept. 10 primary, she was there to win votes. Armed with a stack of fliers, Quinn seemed intent on shaking everyone's hand — even bleary-eyed commuters wary of overenthusiastic politicians.
“I’m Christine Quinn, running for mayor,” Quinn announced again and again in a raspy voice still heavily inflected with her native Long Island accent.
Almost immediately, she came across an older black woman who seemed stunned to see Quinn on her daily commute.
“What are you doing here?” the woman incredulously asked Quinn, who let out a boisterous laugh so loud it could be heard all the way back in Brooklyn.
“I’m running for mayor,” Quinn replied, affectionately squeezing the woman’s shoulder as she offered her a flier.
After a minute or so of the full Quinn treatment — in which the mayoral candidate delivered her spiel on how she wants to make things better for middle class New Yorkers — the woman began edging toward the subway. But Quinn, who has frequently described herself as a “pushy broad,” didn’t let her get away without a hug — a move that couldn’t be more different than the cold detachment of Bloomberg, a Quinn ally to whom she has been considered an heir apparent.
Not unlike voters’ love-hate relationship with Bloomberg and his policies, it’s a connection that Quinn both covets but, in some aspects, also rejects.
One of her biggest perceived liabilities as a candidate has been her support of a 2008 effort that overturned a term-limits measure to allow Bloomberg to serve a third term at City Hall. Her complicity in that push has been trashed again and again by her rivals, including Weiner and Bill de Blasio, the city's public advocate. The two rivals have repeatedly attacked Quinn as a Bloomberg crony who has compromised with the mayor too much.
Quinn defends her support of the term limits measure, arguing she thought it was the best move for a city then under siege from the financial crisis and on the brink of a major recession. Quinn has also sought to cast her close relationship with Bloomberg as a model of good governing — one that lawmakers in the nation's capital ought to emulate.
“There are governments out there where it’s all or nothing, and you are either in lockstep or agreement, and if you are not, you are the enemy. That government is called Washington, and it is not helping Americans or New Yorkers," Quinn told Yahoo News. "Nothing is happening. It’s complete gridlock. That’s not what New Yorkers want, and it’s not what they deserve, and I’m not going to let New York City government ever become that.”
But Quinn seems to have suffered more downsides of her relationship with the current mayor than she has benefited from the upsides. Last year, it seemed more a question of when than if Bloomberg would endorse her candidacy, but then came reports he had actively searched for another candidates to run, reaching out to Hillary Clinton and others in hopes of finding a big name candidate to replace him.
Quinn refuses to comment on the report. She’s tried in recent months to balance her relationship with Bloomberg by not only talking up their collaboration but also citing the moments when she stood up to him on things like his efforts to furlough public school teachers and change how the city handles homeless people.
Bloomberg still won't say which candidate he wants to succeed him, though many have noted he’s allowed Quinn to stand in for him at some city ceremonies in recent months — a move that some have viewed as almost a quasi-endorsement. But the two have also avoided one another in some instances — almost humorously.
A few weeks ago, Quinn was in the middle of a press conference on the steps of City Hall when Bloomberg marched out the front door and froze just steps away. Virtually every head in Quinn’s audience turned to stare at Bloomberg before he hustled off. With the cameras trained on her, Quinn sought to diffuse the potentially awkward moment with humor.
“Nothing to see over there,” she said, grinning, using her arms to wave the attention back her way.
Quinn dodged a question from Yahoo News about whether she'd sought Bloomberg's endorsement but pointedly rejected the idea that she’s his heir apparent.
“You have to earn every vote every day out there in New York City, as it should be,” Quinn said. “They call this the second most important job in America, the second toughest job in America. You have to earn it.”
But Quinn is also careful to praise the ambitiousness of Bloomberg’s stewardship, which has included achievements like an aggressive smoking ban and miles of bike lanes along the city's traffic-choked streets.
“One of the things I think is really noteworthy about the mayor is he put big ideas out there. Now some of them I agreed with … some of them I didn’t agree with,” Quinn said. “But he wasn’t afraid to think big. And he wasn’t afraid to not always win if he thought it was the right thing (to do). And those are two qualities that I think are really important that I would want to keep moving forward.”
Quinn has also sounded a more empathetic tone on New York's future than Bloomberg, a multibillionaire often criticized for lacking a common touch. She’s made a push for more affordable housing and improved public transportation to appeal to those who have been marginalized by a growing gap between the city’s rich and poor.
“We need to make sure that New York City is always a place where people want to come, but we also need to make sure New York is a place where middle class folks can afford to live,” Quinn said.
Quinn has stressed her own middle-class roots as the daughter an electrical engineer father and a social-worker mother, whom she credits for encouraging her to use politics as a way of helping people.
Quinn’s mother was sick with breast cancer for much of her childhood and died when Quinn was just 16. In a recently published memoir, Quinn described her struggle to deal with her mother’s illness, admitting that she had suffered from bulimia and alcoholism during that period — ultimately forcing her to briefly enter rehab when she was 26.
But by then Quinn was already a rising star in New York politics, getting her start as a tenants' rights advocate before working for Tom Duane, one of the city’s first openly gay city council members.
Quinn later headed up the New York City Anti-Violence Project, a group that sought to raise attention about anti-gay discrimination and crimes. In 1999, when Duane announced he would run for state Senate, Quinn ran for his council seat and won. In 2006, she was elected speaker.
In subsequent years, Quinn became one of the visible advocates of legalizing gay marriage in New York — making a passionate plea for her aging father to be able to see her marry attorney Kim Catullo, the love of her life. After the state legalized same sex marriage in 2011, Quinn and Catullo married in a lavish ceremony in May 2012 that attracted major media coverage and was the subject of several chapters of Quinn’s memoir.
While no one doubts Quinn’s commitment to gay rights, she has not made her sexuality or the history she would make if elected mayor a focus of her campaign — even though it would be a pivotal moment for the city and for supporters of gay rights.
“For the LGBT community, (Quinn’s election) would be analogous to the dynamic around Barack Obama being elected president of the United States,” says Ethan Geto, a longtime gay rights advocate in New York who has known Quinn for at least 20 years. “It has far-reaching consequences. … It has tremendous symbolic importance in reinforcing American society’s transition to not only acceptance of openly gay people in society but in important leadership positions.”
Geto said the reason Quinn doesn’t make her sexuality “a centerpiece” of her campaign is because most people already know who she is and accepts it.
“Every voter in this town knows Chris Quinn is a lesbian,” Geto said.
But that awareness could also prove problematic for Quinn among some voters who could be wary of electing a woman or openly gay mayor.
While New York is heavily Democratic and its centerpiece, Manhattan, is progressive and cosmopolitan, the city is also home to a large population of blue collar and Catholic voters in the outer boroughs who tend to be more conservative. In June, Weiner was forced to apologize after he didn't strongly condemn a women he met while campaigning in Queens who used a homophobic slur to reference Quinn. Election insiders say the city has many voters who privately feel the same way, even if that sentiment doesn't show up in the polls.
Quinn says she's not worried about bias — calling New York "a beacon of forward progress for human rights." But in recent weeks, she has stepped up campaigning in the outer boroughs — suggesting she knows that she needs to win over supporters there, too, in addition to her base voters in Manhattan.
Campaigning in the Rockaways, Quinn was at one point approached by a young black mother who wanted to introduce her daughter to the mayoral candidate. “This is the woman from TV! She might be mayor,” the woman told her daughter, as Quinn leaned down and shook the young girl’s hand.
The moment seemed to speak to the historic nature of Quinn's candidacy, but she demurred when asked about it by Yahoo News.
“I sometimes hear from moms. They will bring up their daughters and say, ‘See this is the woman I told you about. She might be the first woman mayor.’ And that is of course thrilling, thrilling and humbling all at the same time,” Quinn said. “But this race is about that little girl’s future. That’s what I want to be focused on: how I can help her make history."
Just hours later, Quinn seemed to rethink that answer.
In an interview with CNN, Quinn criticized both Weiner and former Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who is running for comptroller and who is battling his own history of sexual transgressions and asking voters for a second chance.
Quinn said the race should be about first chances.
“Look, for me the question is, let's give us the first chance. If I’m elected mayor, when I'm elected mayor, I'll be the first woman and the first openly gay mayor of the city of New York,” Quinn said. “Let's not have a conversation about second chances. Let's have a conversation about the potential of first chances and history and what that could mean for the greatest city in the world.”