Is New York unwilling to elect a gay, woman mayor? In Quinn's loss, no clear answer

Holly Bailey
Christine Quinn primary night
New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn speaks next to her wife Kim Catullo (L) during her concession speech in the New York Democratic mayoral primary elections on September 10, 2013 in New York City.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, returning to the public eye two days after a disappointing third place finish in the city’s Democratic mayoral primary, faced the inevitable question: "What happened?"

“I think what happened is that Bill de Blasio won,” Quinn told reporters Thursday, referring to the city’s public advocate, who won roughly 40 percent of the vote in the primary compared to her 15.5 percent.

But Quinn also confronted a more uncomfortable suggestion: is New York City, viewed across the U.S. as a beacon of liberal, progressive politics, simply not inclined to elect a woman mayor, particularly one who is gay?

“New York City is not incapable of electing a woman mayor. They have not yet elected a woman mayor. Those are two very different statements," Quinn insisted.

“There will be an amazing day where history gets made in this city and it will raise all of us higher. It hasn’t happened yet, but we are a city not incapable of anything,” she added. “This city is the greatest place, and that will happen, and it will happen soon."

Quinn received plenty of attention for the historic nature of her candidacy. But her campaign rarely tried to capitalize on that attention, in part because the candidate herself was reluctant to talk about her gender or sexuality. Her team didn't launch a major push to win over women voters until late in the campaign, when it was already clear de Blasio had gained a clear advantage among women.

One Quinn adviser, who declined to be named discussing the internal mechanics of the campaign, chalked up such missteps to a major misreading of the electorate by the candidate and her top advisers who had assumed that Quinn would win over female voters simply because she was a woman and that more New Yorkers would embrace her trailblazing candidacy, even if the candidate was hesitant to make that a key focus.

But New York has always been a tough place for female mayoral candidates.

Quinn is the third woman to seek the office in the last 20 years. In 1997, Ruth Messinger, then the Manhattan borough president, became the first women to win the Democratic mayoral nomination, though she ultimately lost her bid against Rudy Giuliani. In 2005, Messinger's successor, C. Virginia Fields, launched a challenge against Bloomberg--but didn't make it past the Democratic primary.

Overall, women represent just 17 percent of mayors of U.S. cities with populations over 30,000. Besides New York, other large cities like Philadelphia and Los Angeles have also never elected a woman mayor.

But it's not just citywide office where women have been outnumbered by men in New York. On the city council, where Quinn was elected the first female speaker in 2006, just 18 of the 51 members are women.

Tuesday’s exit polls suggested Quinn didn’t lose simply because of her gender. Among other things, she appeared to be hurt by her ties to outgoing the outgoing mayor, Mike Bloomberg, and the fact voters were looking to elect a change candidate. But the results also suggested that the electorate never warmed to Quinn, as more than half of those who turned out to the polls viewed her unfavorably.

While some argue that Quinn may have never been able to overcome the anti-Bloomberg sentiment, her supporters suggest her decision to avoid talking about her gender or sexuality was a serious misstep.

They argue it could have humanized her among voters skeptical of Bloomberg, who has been criticized as distant and out-of-touch of the struggles of everyday New Yorkers. It was a move long advocated by at least part of her campaign team and several outside advisers—who pointed to internal polls that suggested voters, including women, were struggling to relate to Quinn.

"None of us ever saw the Chris Quinn we know, someone who is really compassionate and funny and is really this down to earth person," said one city council member and ally of Quinn, who did not want to be quoted criticizing the candidate.

Quinn, who has been credited as a confident decision maker as head of the city council, was suddenly plagued by insecurities as a candidate. She struggled with the decision of whether talking about her gender and sexuality would be a good thing in a city that has not been kind to female candidates.

While Manhattan is undeniably liberal, Quinn and her advisers worried the message would alienate more conservative voters in other parts of the city. It was a strategy that was debated almost until the very end, one adviser said—with Quinn deciding that the best course of action was to focus on the “results” she had delivered at City Hall, not the fact that she also happened to be a woman.

Her indecision about how to talk about the breakthrough nature of her candidacy was on display on interviews. She told Yahoo News in an interview in August that she didn’t think much about it much — only to reverse herself hours later on CNN, where she emphasized that history and argued that a woman deserved a “first chance” at being mayor.

Losing badly in the polls to de Blasio in the final days of the campaign, the Quinn team tried to execute a major course correction. The campaign tapped Anita Dunn, a longtime adviser to President Barack Obama, to help coach Quinn to seem friendlier and more approachable in the debates. But it was a decision that backfired as Quinn came across as awkward and unprepared on stage—a 360-degree turn from a candidate known for being loose and at ease on the trail.

Quinn also waited until the final weekend to align herself with gay activists, headlining a rally that featured Edith Windsor, whose successful Supreme Court challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act effectively legalized gay marriage, and David Mixner, one of the early leaders of the gay rights movement. It was a move some advisers thought could have been a major help in the early part of her campaign but came off as a desperate measure coming so late.

By then de Blasio held already held several heavily-attended LGBT rallies, where he touted the endorsement of "Sex and the City" actress Cynthia Nixon, who is openly gay and became a key de Blasio surrogate to the gay rights community.

At the same time, Quinn ceded important ground to de Blasio among women, as he made issues like raising taxes on the rich to fund pre-kindergarten and after-school programs for city kids a key part of his mayoral bid. While Quinn and others argued that de Blasio's policies are unlikely to pass muster with state lawmakers in Albany--which must sign off on any city tax increase--the damage was done.

Activist Gloria Steinem, who backed Quinn in the primary, told the New York Times that de Blasio “took over the language of gender" in the race by his emphasis on issues important to women.

For her part, Quinn seems to have no appetite for debating the “what ifs” of her campaign. She said she was excited to get back to the work of the council and passing legislation in what will be her final three-and-a-half months in office.

Quinn, who has worked for the city council for the better part of 20 years as a staffer and then as an elected official, said she didn’t know what she would do after she leaves office in January. She said there would be "another chapter" but that she hasn't started to write it yet.