The Quinning Strategy

After Haitian immigrant Abner Louima was sodomized with a broomstick by NYPD officers at Brooklyn’s 70th Precinct in the summer of 1997, the public outrage at police brutality reached such decibels that Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed a task force aimed at reform. The panel included not only Giuliani loyalists, but also then-NYCLU head Norman Siegel, his colleague Michael Meyers, and civil rights activist Margaret Fung. Starting that September, the three were able to convince several City Hall insiders that mere tweaks in police procedure weren’t going to cut it. There needed to be major changes in police culture, with a specific focus on the issues of systemic racism and homophobia.

Quinn on her five-borough tour (3-10-13). Azi Paybarah / Capital New York.

In their effort, Siegel, Meyers, and Fung enlisted the help of a fellow panelist, a young Chelsea activist named Christine Quinn, who ran the city’s Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. According to Siegel, as soon as Giuliani caught wind that the bloc was gaining influence on the panel, the mayor promptly cut short the committee’s work, demanding that language about systemic prejudice be gutted from any final report.

Siegel, Meyers, and Fung went on to write their dissenting opinion, “Deflecting Blame.” But they were very surprised when Quinn opted not to join them and instead put her name on the Giuliani-approved majority report. “It dealt with homophobia,” Siegel said of his report. “Her group was all about fighting homophobia.”

But things changed when the NYCLU published “Deflecting Blame” in March of 1998, and the report began getting attention in the press and from other progressive groups. As Siegel tells it, Quinn now reached out, wanting to stand with him publicly in support of his findings, despite her previous support for the administration’s watered-down version. For Siegel, this was an early sign that Quinn was motivated not so much by core convictions, but by political calculations.

“It made me kind of question what her values and principles were,” says Siegel. “My feeling is that the way you govern says something about your character and I don’t think you have to compromise on principles in order to get things done.”

Over her three terms in the city council, including two as speaker, Christine Quinn—a former housing rights organizer, and an out lesbian—has cultivated a reputation as a street-level progressive who also respects the demands of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the city’s business elite. But others believe that ever since she stepped on to the scene, Quinn has put her ambitions first, always eyeing a path to a higher office. The current front-runner in the race for mayor, Quinn over the past decade has maintained dual relationships with tenants’ rights groups and the real estate lobby, labor unions and business interests, and police reformers and One Police Plaza, in order to keep her progressive cred while also currying favor with the city elite.

Greenwich Village resident and animal rights activist Donny Moss has made it his mission to inform residents, especially fellow members of the LGBT community, of Quinn’s dealings with the city’s powerful real estate interests and law enforcement. In his regular protests outside Quinn fundraising events, as well as in his short film, “Behind the Smile,” Moss claims that Quinn retains her popularity through touting her open lesbianism, while at the same time betraying her constituents and gay people. He often points out that she received a 12 percent rating from the Urban Justice Center on human rights (which includes worker, disability, and housing rights). Moss says it’s common for people to rebut his criticism by pointing out that she recently married her partner. “Like gay people can’t be corrupt,” he says.

Moss, also openly gay, became intrigued with Quinn’s record when he discovered that she approved a new measure to limit unpermitted protests to 50 people, which he saw as a slap in the face to gay groups, especially since Quinn regularly invokes the Stonewall uprising of 1969 in her public speeches. Moss believes that glorifying spontaneous, unsanctioned mass protests of the past like Stonewall in order to woo gay support while helping the NYPD limit and regulate future protests is emblematic. “It’s not a departure from the way she acts in general,” he notes.

Moss also mentions that when the NYPD’s vice squad rounded up gay males in video stores in the fall of 1998 and charged them with prostitution arrests, Speaker Quinn was slow to react. Moreover, he says that Quinn’s office tried to dissuade gay activists from protesting against the arrests outside the mayor’s office. Nonetheless, the possibility that a lesbian may take charge of the biggest city in America appeals to many in the LGBT community. Quinn has received the backing of the Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, and the Victory Fund.

Moss, however, dismisses the views of such powerful players. “Their job is to get gays and lesbians elected,” Moss states regarding the Victory Fund. “They get donations based on performance. Quinn’s record appears to be irrelevant.”

When it comes to policing in general, Quinn has paid lip service to critiques of the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk. But her stated desire to retain Police Commissioner Ray Kelly could alienate two groups in the Democratic camp she may need in the general election: communities of color and the activist left. The NYPD has stirred distrust among Muslims through its wide-reaching surveillance program, and it has used excessive force against non-violent Occupy Wall Street demonstrators. And, of course, black and Latino males have overwhelmingly been the target of the NYPD’s five million stop-and-frisk encounters over the past decade.

The hostility between various communities and the police is just the social cost. As Bloomberg Businessweek reported last September, the city “plans to spend $735 million [in 2012] on settlements or awards in lawsuits claiming negligence, police abuse, and property damage, the most in its history and almost six times what Los Angeles pays per capita.” Her recent embrace of the creation of an inspector general for the police department notwithstanding, Quinn has done nothing as speaker to place pressure on the mayor or police commissioner to change the NYPD’s policies.

Greenwich Village resident Moss claims that Quinn retains her popularity through touting her open lesbianism, while at the same time betraying her constituents and gay people.

Quinn’s stance towards the NYPD is an interesting political calculation. Standing by the police rather than the department’s critics gets her closer to endorsements from police unions, and it helps her in the general election. “Kelly has a 75 percent popularity rating among New Yorkers,” said Leonard Levitt, the veteran police reporter who writes the online column, NYPD Confidential. “Promising to keep him makes her sound like a law-and-order mayor, which is especially important if Joe Lhota is the Republican candidate.” Many see Lhota, the former MTA chairman and a deputy mayor under Giuliani, as the candidate that Quinn (or one of her four opponents) will face in November.

Trying to please both affordable housing advocates and real estate developers is no easy task, either. Former Queens city councilmember Tony Avella, now a state senator, recalled that in Quinn’s first term she signed onto housing rights legislation that he sponsored, which included crackdowns on illegal construction. After Quinn became speaker, she then blocked those very same bills from advancing. For Avella, the shift resulted from pressure from the real estate industry. “The real estate agenda controls the agenda in this city,” Avella explains. “The enormity of the money that the real estate industry donates [to election campaigns] dwarfs the small individual contributor in this city.”

Over the past decade, there have been several high-profile deals in Quinn’s district. She supported Bill Rudin’s development plans that led to the closing of St. Vincent’s Hospital; that deal included allowing the site to be up-zoned for high-rise residential space, a plan opposed by Community Board 2. Chelsea residents also lambasted the speaker last year when she supported a deal for Jamestown Properties to build an additional five floors on top of the Chelsea Market. Quinn heralded the fact that the developer would funnel money into 150 units of affordable housing, but critics said a 2005 up-zoning deal in the area that promised 100 units never came to fruition. As one activist told Chelsea Now last year, “They are asking us to pay a second time for what was owed us seven years ago.”

And then there’s the Hudson Yards project, the Bloomberg-backed high-rise development plan on the West Side that one community group called “Dubai on the Hudson.” Not only did Quinn help usher in the deal—she also surprised labor advocates when she allowed the firm in charge of the development, the Related Companies (a key ally of Mayor Bloomberg), to be exempt from the living wage bill. Some critics saw this as a pure payoff; employees of Related have given more than $40,000 to Quinn since 2009.

Real estate looms large in city politics not just because of mere campaign donations, explains Tom Angotti, a professor of urban affairs and planning at Hunter College. He points out that groups like the Real Estate Board of New York and the Association for a Better New York are big advertisers in the daily newspapers and are active in so-called “good government” associations. As a result, Angotti explains, real estate developers “have an influence over the narratives” found in the daily papers about development projects.

The developers also greatly influence the demands of organized labor, an important component of the Democratic base that is often assumed to be the political counterbalance to business interests. But building trades workers benefit from constant, large-scale construction—which means more jobs and more hours. New commercial high-rises and hotels also mean more potential members for Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ and the Hotel Trades Council. In this sense, the labor lobby augments the pressure from the real estate industry.

And as Moss points out, Quinn fuses her image as a queer crusader with her allegiance to real estate developers. After all, one of her biggest campaign bundlers is the past president of the board of the LGBT Community Center, Mario Palumbo of Millennium Partners, whose website boasts of having an “unparalleled portfolio of mixed-use properties that includes five-star hotels, luxury residences, state-of-the-art entertainment complexes, world-class spa and fitness facilities and class-A office space.” She also received hefty donations from Ian Reisner, the chief developer of OUT NYC, a hotel marketed toward gays in Times Square.

Despite her closeness with real estate barons, Quinn has also worked on behalf of tenants.

According to Jaron Benjamin, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Housing, Quinn “has been the best of the candidates on rent regulation—she testifies on behalf of tenants every year at the Rent Guidelines Board and she’s gone to Albany with folks multiple times to ask for stronger rent laws.” At the same time, Benjamin adds, among the candidates, Quinn is “the worst on overdevelopment and tax breaks for landlords.” Nonetheless, Benjamin cautions that since leading contenders like Bill Thompson, Bill de Blasio, and John Liu have never enjoyed the legislative power that Quinn has enjoyed as speaker, it’s not clear whether any would act differently.

Quinn is trying to be a dealmaker between tenant groups and the industry, a stance that surfaced most visibly in February when in her state of the city address she advocated a 30-year extension of a tax cap for landlords and developers to continue setting aside 20 percent of a building’s units as “below-market rent.” Even Mayor Bloomberg had rejected the basic outlines of such a proposal as too generous to developers. But in her address, Quinn stated, “If you are a housing organizer not willing to talk to landlords and developers, in addition to tenants, what are you getting done?” In response, Benjamin told the New York Times that “We think it’s a big mistake to give wealthy developers subsidies,” and de Blasio criticized the idea as well.

By effectively subsidizing big developers, such a proposal also takes tax money away from the city budget. And that’s money that could be used for maintaining public housing or other infrastructure. Nicole Gelinas, a fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute, notes that tax breaks for developers who build 80-percent expensive housing in Manhattan may result in higher taxes for everyone else. According to Gelinas, “To improve housing, the city would do well to improve transit to far-flung neighborhoods in the outer boroughs to improve life for the millions of people who already live there in apartments they are by definition affording, and loosen rent restrictions so that landlords have an incentive to keep up older properties.”

Moreover, Quinn’s “let’s help each other” approach to development may insult those who have to live with the affordable housing crunch. Year after year, neighborhoods become gentrified and rents rise as big landlords squeeze out tenants and developers press on with the help of their allies in government. To say that tenants, fearing an end to working and middle class life in New York, are obligated to help the industry is a little like waving a finger at David because he didn’t offer any concessions to Goliath before reaching for his sling-shot.

Then again, such patronizing of the less fortunate is kind of Quinn’s style. Recall the April 2012 press conference in support of the living wage bill, in which Quinn publicly shamed a rally participant by demanding that he apologize for castigating “Pharaoh Bloomberg” for opposing the legislation. Quinn declared to the gathering that “in a democracy people have the right to have different views” and that “we do not have the right to then call them names.” (U.S. Constitution 101: Americans explicitly do have that right.) Because she didn’t get the apology, Quinn stormed out, creating an embarrassing scene for the assembled labor and community leaders.

How much blowback did she get for this? None. Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union President Stuart Appelbaum, who had to endure the awkward moment standing next to Quinn before the cameras, committed his union’s support even while she single-handedly stalled the paid sick leave bill. At the end of March, Quinn helped draft a compromise version of the bill, but some labor advocates think the new bill is still weak—especially since it will take at least a year before it goes into effect for many businesses, and exempts manufacturing workers. According to the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York, the bill contains a provision that would allow employers to offer “shift swapping” instead of actual paid sick days. “It really singled out shift workers, and treats them differently than other workers,” says Daisy Chung, the group’s executive director.

Quinn’s most recent poll numbers showed her with a strong lead over her Democratic challengers—she’s favored by 37% of likely voters, with de Blasio at only 14%, and Thompson and Liu slightly below de Blasio. But things may be slipping for her, especially since the Times dramatic (and hostile) front-page story in late March documenting Quinn’s violent temper and vindictiveness toward colleagues. The story seemed to help Thompson most, especially since its lead anecdote came from former Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum—more than just the “fundraiser” for Thompson identified in the story, Gotbaum is a key member of the Thompson’s main campaign consulting firm. Meanwhile, as Quinn has tried to regain her appeal among progressives, Thompson has moved rightward in order to gain business support on a host of issues, including vowing not to raise taxes (and he also  recently staked out an NYPD-friendly version of an inspector general).

All of her Democratic challengers (the roster also includes former Brooklyn city councilman Sal Albanese) will continue to hammer Quinn for the term-limits deal she made with Bloomberg. But it’s also possible that another scandal—concerning the council’s use of slush funds—could resurface if not in the primary, then certainly if Quinn moves on to the general election. During her first term as speaker, it was revealed that the council had been creating fictitious non-profits in order to funnel money toward them, ostensibly for the purpose of having cash reserves to fill holes in the annual budget.

For her part, Quinn maintained that the practice had begun under her predecessor (Gifford Miller) and that when she became aware of it in 2007, she alerted investigators. Donny Moss alleges that the end to the Department of Investigation’s inquiry into the scandal coincided with part of the term limits deal between Quinn and Bloomberg. The Department of Investigation (DOI), however, points out that since 2007 its non-profit division’s work has led to more than 40 arrests, many of which resulted in the federal convictions of council members and their staffers.

In 2010, DOI Commissioner Rose Gill Hearn stated that the investigations helped spur real reform, saying, “Safeguards have been implemented in the past two years by the administration and the council in connection with the process that have effectively vetted out conflicts and companies not worthy of city funds.” Such measures include the database of discretionary fund expenditures that is available on the council’s website. Any further revelations about Quinn’s role in the scandal would likely focus on what she knew about it after taking over as speaker in early 2006.

In any event, Angotti doesn’t think the race is over. Quinn, catering to Bloomberg, is close to the Manhattan business elite, something that doesn’t play well in the outer boroughs, and while she’s been on the city council for three-and-a-half terms she has no experience campaigning in the “other” New York. Bloomberg, one of the city’s richest residents, was able to win over those populations by building strategic alliances with the wide reach of his philanthropy. “Even if she had a lot of money like Bloomberg, can Quinn do that?” Angotti asks, skeptically. “I don’t know.”

Moss believes that what he calls a “fourth term for Bloomberg” is avoidable if Quinn’s critics aggressively get their message out, noting that more people in her district are willing to speak out against her (she won the 2009 primary there with just 52 percent of the vote). How she will recover from the Times assault remains to be seen, and it seems increasingly possible that Thompson may emerge as the new Bloomberg-approved candidate. The two have always been on good terms, with the mayor famously stating (in 2007) that the non-adversarial Thompson “will go down in history as maybe the best comptroller the city has ever had.” Thus, despite all of her best efforts on behalf of Bloomberg, in the end it may not be Christine Quinn who gets to carry out his “fourth term.”

Contributor

Ari Paul

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