NEW YORK — Christine Quinn sat atop the polls for so long that she once seemed almost invincible and a clear successor to outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
But with less than a week before voters head to the polls in the Sept. 10 Democratic primary, Quinn, the City Council speaker who is vying to be the city’s first female and first openly gay mayor, is in the fight of her political life.
In a race that has become increasingly unpredictable in recent weeks, polls now suggest she’s trailing newly christened front-runner Bill de Blasio by a wide-enough margin that there’s the risk she might not even make a runoff election — if there is one.
A Quinnipiac poll released on Tuesday found Quinn trailing de Blasio by 25 points — 18 to 43 percent. She was statistically tied for second place with former Comptroller Bill Thompson, who had 20 percent support in the poll.
Quinn has dismissed the polls in recent days — insisting to reporters her campaign has been stymied by false attacks and that “the wind is now at our back.” But the dilemma she faces in coming days was on full display at a campaign stop in East Harlem on Tuesday, where she held an event to trash de Blasio for accepting campaign contributions from individuals who were included on a list of New York’s worst landlords that he created as city’s public advocate.
Standing on a gritty city block outside one of the reported landlord’s buildings, Quinn was at several points heckled by passers-by, including one man who yelled “Promises! Promises!” before chanting de Blasio’s name. The man was referring to what has become one of her rivals’ main talking points in the campaign: Her support for a 2008 effort that overturned a voter-approved term-limits law, allowing Bloomberg to seek a third term as mayor.
The move, which also allowed Quinn to successfully seek another term, has dogged her campaign since she officially launched her bid for mayor last spring. Her rivals have sought to paint her as a Bloomberg crony who has compromised with the mayor too much.
Quinn has defended her decision to help overturn term limits as something she felt was right for a city on the brink of a major financial crisis. But her ties to Bloomberg have become almost a kiss of death in the Democratic primary — even as most polls suggest that most voters are happy with how he’s led the city.
She also has been hampered by her stance on the city’s controversial "stop and frisk" measure that allowed the police officers to randomly search individuals. A federal judge threw out the measure last month, arguing that it unfairly targeted minorities — a move that was cheered by Quinn and her rivals.
But de Blasio has sought to link Quinn to the law, suggesting she didn’t do enough as City Council speaker to rein in the law. She’s also come under fire for saying, if elected mayor, she would retain Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who implemented the measure — an unpopular stance among minority voters who want to see him gone.
The subject came up during Quinn’s campaign stop in Harlem on Tuesday, when a woman came up and thanked her for leading a City Council effort last month to overturn Bloomberg’s veto of measures that would install an inspector general over the police department and allow state courts to hear bias complaints against the police.
“What are you going to do about getting Ray Kelly out of office?” the woman asked, calling Kelly’s support of "stop and frisk" tactics “outrageous” and “ridiculous.”
Quinn usually qualifies her support for Kelly by pointing out the city’s historically low crime statistics — while at the same time pledging to fire him if he doesn’t curb the department’s use of controversial police tactics. It’s a complicated answer that has prompted ridicule from de Blasio and others, who argue that Quinn can’t be both against "stop and frisk" but for Kelly.
But in Harlem, Quinn changed her answer, instead emphasizing her efforts to promote transparency about police tactics without her usual defense of the police commissioner’s tenure. When the women continued to press her about Kelly, Quinn finally replied, “Let me get the job first, and we’ll talk then.”
Within the Quinn campaign, there is concern about the polls, but not panic — as one senior aide, who declined to be named, talked about campaign strategy and pointed to numbers that suggest the race is extremely fluid. While the Quinnipiac poll found that 8 percent of likely voters say they are undecided, 24 percent of those polled said there was a “good chance” that might change their mind about whom they are supporting before Election Day.
In that figure, the Quinn campaign sees an opening — and in coming days, an aide says the candidate will intensify her efforts to paint de Blasio as an opportunistic “say anything candidate” who has changed his positions on issues such as term limits to benefit his campaign for mayor. It’s an argument that also is being pushed by Thompson as both he and Quinn seek to make inroads with black voters and women, two voting blocs that have fueled de Blasio’s surge in the race.
In recent weeks, Quinn has also sought to mock de Blasio’s proposed campaign policies, including a pledge to raise taxes on the rich to fund prekindergarten school programs, as unattainable.
Playing off de Blasio’s campaign slogan of being the “true progressive” in the race, Quinn has described herself as the “real progressive” who can and has delivered “real results.” It’s an argument her campaign believes will ultimately win over undecided and wavering voters who are just now paying close attention in the race — even in spite of her ties to Bloomberg.
Plus, the campaign is counting on what it believes are two major strengths heading into Election Day: Quinn’s strong support among Latino voters, a constituency the campaign argues has been undercounted in public polls, and Quinn's extensive field operation, which has contacted more than 1 million voters since April. Her ground operation, along with those of the unions and her political allies that have endorsed her, will at least land her in a runoff election, according to her campaign.
“This race is far from over,” a Quinn aide insisted.
On Tuesday, Quinn found some signs of hope for her candidacy. During her stop in East Harlem, several people approached her to tell her they were voting for her — including one woman who argued it was time for a woman to have the city’s top job.
“I just wanna say one thing: Let’s vote for a woman!” the woman shouted. “Let the woman have a chance because the men are doing (an expletive) job!”
Quinn burst out laughing and gave the woman a hug.