Politics

In Frenzied Final Campaign Push, Christine Quinn Fights For Her Political Life

With days to go before the New York City mayoral primary, Quinn is anxious but resolute. “You know, you don’t end up the first openly gay and woman speaker of the City Council ‘cause you’re the frontrunner.”

Richard Drew / AP

Christine Quinn’s hope lies in a place where boiled beef tongue sandwich is a lunch special.

There, in a pocket of Northeast Queens near the banks of Lake Success, rise the edifices of the North Shore Towers co-op apartment complex. It is a gated community with its own power plant. Wattage here must nosedive at first frost when a stooped conga line of snowbirds flock back to Boca and Boynton Beach. But now, on this last day of August, the mercury hovers at 80, the grandkids are at the pool, the halvah is stocked at the grocery store, and a stumping Christine Quinn is chirping to everyone — the with-it and the not-so-with-it — “How are yooooouuuuuu?” She says it with perhaps even more volume than the council speaker normally wields, and not because she’s unsure which ear is the good ear of the person whose hand she is shaking.

Quinn, a big-time player in New York City government for the past decade, is having a political near-death experience. For months, polls had her winning the Sept. 10 Democratic mayoral primary. But the cover of free tabloid amNew York that morning is screaming “Quinn’s Big Drop.” Its new survey has her in third.

“The Bills” — Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and 2009 nominee Bill Thompson — are ahead, though not with the 40% needed to avoid a runoff. So you could forgive Quinn if she puts a little more oomph into her pitch to the ladies stooped over their platters.

“I welcome the opportunity to be the fighter that I am,” Quinn tells me in an interview as she tries to spin her numbers. “You know, you don’t end up the first openly gay and woman speaker of the City Council ‘cause you’re the frontrunner. I got that position — won it — as the underdog. And I’m going to fight over the next 10 days and get into the runoff because New Yorkers deserve a fighter as mayor.”

I followed Quinn around for hours that day, riding with her and her wife, Kim Catullo. I couldn’t help noticing the anxiety etched into Quinn’s face — a sentiment other reporters have noticed as well. I’ve pondered whether Quinn will end up another Bella Abzug — a female New York politician who climbed to historic heights, but not quite as far as she aimed. The track record of City Council speakers winning as mayor isn’t good. Both Quinn’s predecessors tried, and failed.

At North Shore Towers, Quinn has plenty of support — if she didn’t, she could really kiss Gracie Mansion good-bye. During the last election, the Towers’ district voted more than two-to-one for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many pro-Bloomberg Democrats like to imagine Mayor Quinn as Bloomberg’s fourth term, give or take a few tweaks. The problem is that in the Democratic primary, most people are turned off by what New York has become, with its obscene cost of living and a police force some say harasses black and Hispanic men only to instill fear. In fact, 65% of likely Democratic voters say the city needs to go in a new direction, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.

Quinn now has a tough mission: She needs to convince disillusioned Democrats that the city needs an overhaul, even as she winkingly reminds Bloomberg’s fans that she’s been a loyal partner of his in government. She needs to get people to forget her complicity in overturning two voter referenda that barred politicians from serving more than two consecutive terms (thus allowing Bloomberg to serve a third term). She has to tout her record to those who like New York now. And she has to get those people like the ones eating lunch in North Shore Towers not to forget to vote.

***

A day later, Bill de Blasio’s family sits in the front pew of a Brooklyn Baptist church, rocking to gospel music. The candidate is shuffling along, all 6 feet 5 inches of him, in a gray suit with a double-vented blazer trendier than anything I’d seen him wear before. The polls have boosted de Blasio’s swagger. As for style, though, dad has nothing on his son, who turns 16 this week. Dante de Blasio is in the church, and so is his famous Afro — a mass of hair that many believe will launch 100,000 votes.

Those hankering for something new and authentic may have found it in Bill de Blasio. It’s odd, considering he’s been around New York politics for decades. He ran Hillary Clinton’s U.S. Senate campaign 13 years ago (before he was marginalized at the end). Then he served as a councilman representing Park Slope for eight years. Four years ago, he nabbed the office of public advocate, a touchy-feely-sounding job that basically has no power, but is first in line in succession should the mayor drop dead or resign.

Now, people are talking about de Blasio like he’s Obama and Quinn is Hillary. For that, de Blasio may want to mail two Starbucks gift cards as thank-yous: one to Sydney Leathers and another to his son’s hairdresser.

A little refresher: For months, de Blasio languished in the also-rans column. Then, on July 30, Leathers emerged from Indiana in the appropriately named website TheDirty.com, famously revealing transcriptions of her little online sex chats with Anthony Weiner. Crucially, their chats happened after Weiner resigned from Congress, and later told everyone things were better.

Polls show de Blasio picked up the votes Weiner lost: outer-borough working guys, Manhattan liberals. Around the same time, de Blasio, who is married to a black woman, cast Dante in the best television spot this election cycle, in which he tells the camera why his dad is so great. Not since Shirley Temple have curls been so telegenic.

Back at the church in Brooklyn, even the preacher is a fan.

“Brother Dante!” he calls from the pulpit at the teenager, Chris Smith of New York magazine told me (I was schlepping my camera and couldn’t write it down). “Keep wearing that Afro, man!” After the laughter abated, the clergyman rubbed his own bald pate and told the congregation, “I’m gonna grow mine on the inside.”

No polls have been done, but there seems to be a racial divide as to whether de Blasio is exploiting his son, with white people I talk with in the affirmative camp, and African-Americans saying he isn’t. It is indisputable that de Blasio is taking advantage of Dante’s fame — and his family’s post-racial modern look. As they emerged from church, I asked de Blasio for a quick interview for NY1. His family moved aside, to apparently let the candidate do the talking.

Now, de Blasio may have been calling them over to keep him company. But before I hit record, he motioned for the trio to stand by him. As it turned out, Dante’s head ended up not mistakenly in the frame.

Quinn has been knocking de Blasio’s experience, so I asked him for a response. He rattled off his government-and-politics-only résumé, then turned to his rival.

“But what Speaker Quinn did was she worked as Mayor Bloomberg’s chief ally to implement a series of policies — many of which added to the inequalities of this city,” he said. “And Speaker Quinn served Mayor Bloomberg’s interest, she served the real estate industry’s interest, she served the big business community’s interest, but not the people’s interest. And I think in the end, the people of the city are looking for fundamental progressive change.”

Leaving aside that de Blasio had been plenty helpful to real estate and big business while in the council, it’s a concise message where Quinn’s is more nuanced, and more tied to people’s ambivalence about the Bloomberg years. Leading a legislative body through compromise and wheeling and dealing is also less sexy than taking strong stands in a bully pulpit.

“It’s zeitgeist versus zeitgeist, and people are looking to make a move,” said David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College’s School of Public Affairs. Of those considering de Blasio, he added: “It’s the vibe, it’s the feeling. It’s ‘Do I want to move past the Bloomberg years and embrace the promise of a new tomorrow?’”

***

Rounding out the trio is Bill Thompson, who doesn’t ooze zeitgeists and new tomorrows. A bit more pizazz four years ago, and Thompson could have denied Bloomberg a third term. (To be fair, inaccurate polls showing more of a Bloomberg blowout also seemed to depress turnout). Thompson declared himself a contender shortly after losing, but another four years doesn’t seem to have imbued him with pep. There are some exceptions — like when Thompson has talked about African-Americans as victims of criminals, and not just the police.

Still, Thompson is in the mix. His crack demographics unit targets growing constituencies, like modern Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn. The teachers union is endorsing him. Some voters also reward him for fighting the good fight against the Bloomberg piggy bank. Thompson is also the only African-American candidate, and black voters could account for about a third of voters.

“I am confident in the end, that black voters are going to support my candidacy and do that strongly, not based on the fact that I’m black — based on the fact that I’ve been there on the issues,” he told me, after his own turn addressing a church in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. “Issues of employment, issues of job creation, issues of safety, issues of education, and I’ve been there and out there on those issues not for a few years, but for decades.”

Polls were dodgy four years ago, so you’ll find no predictions here, even as everyone thinks de Blasio, Quinn, and Thompson are really the only contenders as of now. To cover myself, I should note that City Comptroller John Liu is still the darling of the far left and his polling among Asian-Americans seems low. And then there’s Weiner. What can I say? His absence would make life dull indeed for those who treasure tabloid headlines. (A recent kerfuffle about cats on the subway was a gimme.)

Despite their competing goals, Quinn and Thompson are pretty civil to each other on the stump. I think de Blasio has appalled them both. Thompson is particularly galled that de Blasio calls himself the only candidate with a plan to rid the city of the stop-and-frisk police technique. Quinn thinks de Blasio’s is an empty (extra-tall) suit. Should de Blasio make the runoff, I am interested to see if Quinn and Thompson link up, endorsing the winner among them.

***

Back in Northeast Queens, Quinn completed her rounds with voters. She’s been doing pool tours, and after North Shore Towers we headed to two others off Bell Boulevard. Oddly enough, the swimmers and sunbathers don’t seem to mind Quinn showing up to talk politics as they gallivant in their bathing suits, although they didn’t exactly appreciate me with my video camera.

Outside one pool before my time with her ended, Quinn and I stopped to chat, joined by her wife, Catullo, who has played an increasingly prominent role on the campaign trail now that the race is tight. I thought Catullo would be scripted and leery, but she charmed me with her calm and dry humor.

I showed both the amNew York cover, the one with “Quinn’s Big Dip,” talking about the poll. Quinn and I listened as Catullo opined.

“You know, when we started out on this whole path, I remember we sat down with the family and Chris gave us a talk about the fact that polls are going to go up and down. And we all looked at each other like — and she said, ‘No, I’m telling you in this business, that’s what happens,’” Catullo said. “So I actually am ready for it, and knew it was going to happen, and I also — I know when I am out with her and I see people just wanting pictures and just wanting to talk about the excitement of her campaign.”

A moment later, they were back in the black SUV, destination unknown, at least to me.

Josh Robin is a political reporter and anchor for NY1, New York City’s all-news station. You can follow him on Twitter @joshrobin.

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