NEW YORK — Mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn was at the microphone unveiling a plan to make neighborhoods safer from sexual harassment and assault. But nearly every camera at Quinn’s press conference Monday on a gritty Brooklyn block was aimed behind her — focusing on a woman who stood quietly in the background.
It was Kim Catullo, Quinn’s notoriously press-shy wife, who was making a rare appearance on the campaign trail only three weeks before next month’s Democratic mayoral primary.
Ultimately coaxed to the microphone, Catullo was a shy sidekick to Quinn, whose boisterous laugh and blunt talk have become a defining part of her political persona. But when pressed, Catullo offered a highly personal answer for how she was looking to sway New Yorkers to support her wife.
“She’s the smartest person that I know, she’s the most qualified and she has a heart of gold, and people need to know that. And if they know her the way that I know her, as I’ve told her every morning, she’ll win by a landslide,” Catullo said, giving Quinn an affectionate squeeze.
Catullo, a lawyer who was Quinn’s partner for 11 years before marrying her in a lavish Manhattan ceremony last year, hasn’t been a total stranger to the campaign trail. She joined Quinn earlier this spring when the City Council speaker officially declared her bid to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and she’s occasionally popped up at some political events, including in the audience at last week’s Democratic mayoral debate.
Yet Catullo has made clear she doesn’t relish the spotlight, and until now, she had limited her public role in her wife’s mayoral campaign. She had repeatedly declined interviews and refused a speaking role at her wife’s events. But this week she changed course, sitting for a round of media interviews and holding her own solo event Monday night to drum up support for her wife's mayoral bid.
With polls showing Quinn in a tight race with Public Advocate Bill de Blasio ahead of the Sept. 10 primary, Catullo has stepped forward to publicly support her wife at a time when family has suddenly become a major part of the campaign.
Yet in a city that has long been more multicultural and progressive than most other places in the country, the mayoral candidates are redefining the traditional notion of family in their quest to win control of City Hall.
If elected, Quinn would not only be the first female mayor of New York City but also its first openly gay mayor — which, in turn, would make Catullo the first lesbian first lady.
At the same time, de Blasio has put his multiracial family at the center of his mayoral bid. De Blasio, who is Italian-American, campaigns almost daily with his wife, Chirlane McCray, who is black and has been open about the fact that she was a lesbian before she met her husband. His kids — Chiara, 18, and Dante, 15 — also have been prominent advocates for their dad, starring in television ads and speaking at campaign events.
Earlier this week, the campaign sent out a video where Chiara de Blasio argued that her dad wasn’t “just some boring white guy.”
Meanwhile, Dante, whose bushy Afro has become an obsession among local journalists, has appeared in two campaign ads for his dad. Both have focused on the city’s controversial “stop and frisk” measure that allowed police officers to randomly search people but was thrown out after a federal judge found it unfairly targeted minorities.
In the first campaign ad, Dante spoke directly into the camera and argued that his father would be the “only one who will end an era of stop-and-frisk that unfairly targets people of color.”
“He’s the only Democrat with the guts to really break from the Bloomberg years,” Dante says in the spot, adding, his father would be “a mayor for every New Yorker, no matter where they live or what they look like.”
In the second ad, de Blasio tells voters that he’s talked to his son “about the fact that some day he will be stopped” because of the color of his skin. It’s an appeal clearly aimed at contrasting him with other rivals in the race and appealing to minority and multiethnic voters who still haven’t fully settled on a candidate ahead of next month’s primary.
Quinn and de Blasio aren’t alone in campaigning with their spouses. Former Comptroller Bill Thompson’s wife, Elsie McCabe, has taken a highly visible role in her husband’s campaign — so much so that the campaign has started sending out a separate schedule for her in recent days.
And prior to his latest sexting scandal, former Rep. Anthony Weiner had made appearances with his wife, Huma Abedin — though she’s been absent since appearing with him at a press conference where he admitted that he had continued to send sexual messages to women he met online through last year.
But it’s the groundbreaking nature of the different kind of family that Quinn or de Blasio would bring to Gracie Mansion that has gotten the most attention — especially in contrast to Bloomberg, a famous bachelor, who did not emphasize family during his tenure at City Hall.
“What it shows is the really tremendous strides socially (and) politically we’ve taken that you can have two front-runners in the Democratic primary having nontraditional families,” says Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College.
De Blasio, he said, is almost “a one-man balanced ticket” — citing the fact that he is Italian-American; represents Brooklyn, an influential borough in the campaign; is in a biracial marriage; and is the father of the “next generation of New Yorkers.” He exhibits, Muzzio said, “the acceptance of difference.”
Quinn, meanwhile, is “another breakthrough” who personifies the “evolution of thinking” when it comes to how the public regards gay candidates and same-sex marriage, Muzzio said.
The unknown is how it will all play with voters.
While Catullo has insisted she always planned to play some public role in her wife’s campaign, it comes as Quinn is struggling to make inroads with two voting blocs that were once considered hers to lose: women and gay and lesbian voters. While there has been no public polling among gay voters, Quinn has lost her advantage among women to de Blasio, who leads 31 percent to Quinn’s 26 percent, according to a recent Quinnipiac poll.
Catullo’s presence not only could help remind those voting blocs of the historic nature of Quinn’s candidacy, but could also serve to soften her image as a hard-charging, take-no-prisoners politician — which has alienated some voters.
Meanwhile, de Blasio is looking to boost his support among black voters — who strongly back Thompson, the only black candidate in the race, 39 percent to de Blasio’s 22 percent, according to Quinnipiac.
But just as there are many New Yorkers who want to see diversity in their candidates, there also are voters in some parts of the city, especially the outer boroughs, who aren’t as progressive in their social and political views.
In an interview with the New York Daily News, Catullo said she had not wanted Quinn to run for mayor, in part because she feared for her wife’s safety. Quinn, she said, had received death threats because she is gay.
Asked about her comments, Quinn and Catullo declined to elaborate, saying it was a police matter.
But Catullo said it has been hard to stand by and watch her wife get attacked throughout the campaign — though she acknowledged it’s probably a universal feeling among family members of the candidates.
"It's tough, I suppose it's tough for all spouses in this race," Catullo said. "It's been a really tough campaign when you love someone, and I really do love my wife. It's not an easy thing to watch but it comes with the territory."