It Turns Out New York City Doesn’t Hate Strong Women

Christine Quinn’s real problem was that she backed down. Tish James emerges.

Letitia James (right) and Christine Quinn (center). Richard Drew / AP

When Christine Quinn didn’t win the Democratic Primary for mayor, her supporters — and many others — wondered if this wasn’t simply raw sexism at play.

New York City just wasn’t ready for a strong woman leader, they said. How else could every demographic group that makes up the Democratic Party in the town — men, women, LGBT people, even voters in her own district — have not rallied behind Quinn? How could New York’s voters have not understood that the woman all three dailies endorsed should be mayor? It must have been that the city wasn’t ready for a strong, independent woman!

That argument never made much sense, but Letitia James’ sound defeat of State Senator Daniel Squadron in her runoff election for the public advocate’s office Tuesday night should put it to rest.

In becoming the next public advocate (which James doubtlessly will, as the Republicans haven’t even put up a candidate), James will be the first African American woman to win citywide office in New York.

And James did not waltz into this position. She is a woman like Quinn, but a single woman and a single black woman, which is almost unheard of in politics of any kind. Despite being a lesbian, Quinn achieved the homosexual equivalent of being a “family man” in her high-profile 2012 wedding to Kim Catullo, which was rolled out complete with accounts of her dress in Vogue, puff media pieces about her walk down the aisle, and the attendance of her R and D BFFs Mayor Bloomberg, Senator Schumer, and Governor Cuomo.

As a single woman, James is afforded none of the heteronormative cultural cache of being partnered, and her career has had none of the advantages of such social privilege. She is a woman, alone, known for her record as a politician, lawyer, and graduate of an historically black law school. She is, to anyone who has covered her, as “bossy and brash” as Lisa Miller described Quinn in New York magazine.

But here’s the important thing: Unlike Quinn, James has been bossy and brash in opposition to Mayor Bloomberg, the real estate industry, and the New York Police Department. As Saeed Jones pointed out when she came in a disappointing third place last month, Quinn was simply out of touch with the voters citywide and who the conventional wisdom assumed would make up her base (women, LGBT people, her own council district). She supported Mayor Bloomberg on reversing term limits; gave in relentlessly to the real estate industry on a host of projects, including the closure of St. Vincent’s Hospital; kept the living wage and paid sick day bills off the council floor until they effectively meant nothing; and, not only failed to reign in the NYPD’s egregious stop-and-frisk practices, but indicated she would keep Ray Kelly on the as NYPD commissioner if elected.

All of these issues were not important just to LGBT and women voters, it turns out, but to Democratic voters of all demographics in New York City, many of whom turned on the mayor in his third term and believed he’d overstayed his welcome. And Quinn was not rejected for being a strong leader on these issues, but for being so weak as the head of the opposition party.

James, by contrast, has her roots on the left, and never really moved to the center. She was, in fact, the first city council candidate ever elected on the Working Families line. And James dealt with similar issues in a diametrically opposed fashion. She was relentlessly opposed to Mayor Bloomberg throughout his tenure. She was vociferously opposed to the term-limit extension. She went against Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, the building trade unions, and Jay Z (!) to protest the eminent domain of downtown Brooklyn for the Atlantic Yards development. As a reporter for the Village Voice, I covered many protests where James was the lone public elected official standing against the closure of sites like Freddy’s bar and the last homeless shelter for families in the neighborhood. At the latter protest, James was one of the few people to show up. At one point, she started crying.

The courage it takes for a politician (black, white, gay, straight) to stand up to the real estate industry, her borough president, and her mayor on a popular project is a sign of real strength. Quinn rarely displayed such strength on substantial issues.

Quinn may have been caricatured as bossy, but her real problem was that she was weak. She was late to challenge Bloomberg and the finance industry, and largely ignored populist responses in the city for which she headed its council. Though she’d come up from the plucky LGBT activist scene of New York, by the time she was at the height of her powers, her idea of LGBT activism was to present an award to Morgan Stanley at a Human Rights Council event, just shortly before Occupy Wall Street blew up and rage at the finance industry shook the city.

“I want to be very clear: I am not somebody who is anti-Wall Street, nor do I think there’s great benefit in elected officials who represent New York City trashing Wall Street,” the Times quoted her as saying during the height of Zuccotti Park’s occupation, as a qualifier to also giving lip service to the protestor’s concerns.

Compare Quinn’s reaction to Occupy to Letitia James’, who showed up at Zuccotti in the wee hours of Oct. 14, 2011. She was there to face off with the NYPD when Mayor Bloomberg had threatened to evict everyone. I interviewed her over the phone shortly after the NYPD backed down:

Were you surprised when they backed down?

Letitia James: When I arrived and saw all of these people, I thought, there’s no way they are going to arrest all of these people. They don’t have enough handcuffs and pepper spray in their portfolios to arrest all of these folks. Such a mass arrest would have created a major disruption to the city, and I’m glad they backed down and agreed to negotiate with the leaders of this movement.

Were you prepared to get arrested?

LJ:Yes. I was prepared to stand up for, defend, live for, and die for the constitution, and for freedom. Where people are united, they will never be defeated. These young people, activists, labor leaders, and union members, and stranding together to transform our government. These people are right. Our government has been hijacked by special interests, and the 99 percent are losing. Look at the almost 700 [school teaching aides] who just lost their jobs. Look at the unemployed and the disenfranchised. These people have confirmed for me something that I’ve been concerned about my whole life: a growing inequality in our cities and in our country, that is more profound than ever.

It is hard to imagine that if Quinn had displayed that kind of strength as the face of opposition to Mayor Bloomberg, that she would have only garnered 100,000 votes by the time voters were sick of him. But she did not. Instead, she hitched her wagon to what she hoped was Bloomberg’s ever-rising star, not realizing it was already fading.

So perhaps the city is ready for a woman strong enough to make tough, hard decisions in difficult situations after all. Still, though the public advocate will fill the mayoralty if the mayor becomes incapacitated, the job itself is, alas, rather meaningless. It is so powerless that, when I wrote the Voice’s 2012 list of the 100 Most Powerless New Yorkers, I named current Public Advocate de Blasio as No. 7 (right between “the person holding the sign at the end of the Trader Joe’s line” and “carriage horses”). The public advocate’s office is so pitifully funded that, as the Times pointed out yesterday, the four-year budget James will likely inherit will actually be less than money than the cost of yesterday’s $13 million dollar runoff.

All the same, it is a citywide office and largely up to the interpretation of what its occupant wants to make of it. And, with a potential Mayor de Blasio (who was arrested by the NYPD protesting a hospital closure) and a Public Advocate James (who faced arrest standing with Occupy) in the city’s top two spots, it’s easy to imagine a very different city, NYPD, and sense of priorities than under the Bloomberg/Quinn/Giuliani administrations.

In any case, with Tish James as the public advocate-in-waiting, the primary voters seem eager to see what strength she’ll display with whatever power she has.

Quinn had her chance for a promotion too, but she wasn’t held back for displaying too much strength. She was handed her walking papers for doing so little with the power she’d already amassed, and then squandered.

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