Considering that she’s still a few months away from turning 40, Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council, has achieved a great deal in politics and is thought of as the second most powerful figure in city government, after the mayor himself.
Quinn, a Democrat, first entered the council in 1999, and battled Brooklyn Councilman Bill de Blasio for the speaker seat. Quinn was elected speaker in January of this year by a wide margin, replacing former speaker Gifford Miller. Quinn, the first woman and first openly gay councilperson to be elected speaker, joked about the enormity if the position on the day she took office.
“It’s completely daunting and overwhelming to the verge of nausea,” Quinn joked on that day to the media. “But that’s OK, because it should be. It’s that big of a job.”
The Road to Speaker
Christine Quinn was born into a typical Irish family in Glen Cove, Long Island. Her father was an electrical engineer and a shop steward for Local 44 of the International Union of Electrical Workers. Her late mother was a social worker for Catholic Charities. Quinn has often said that growing up in her house, political discussions were commonplace around the dinner table, and serving and helping people were family priorities. Growing up, Quinn was always interested in learning about government.
“The only thing I was ever interested in was politics,” Quinn told the Daily News this past January. “I would go to the library and always take out biographies on political people.”
Quinn attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and graduated with a degree in urban studies and education. She began work as an activist directly out of college, and began leaving her mark on citywide housing issues as head of the Housing Justice Campaign for the Association of Neighborhood and Housing Development.
Before being elected to the City Council, Quinn served for five years as chief of staff to Councilman Thomas K. Duane, who became the first out gay and HIV-positive person elected to the City Council in 1991. She began as his housing organizer, then campaign manager and when Duane was elected to the state Senate in 1998, Quinn won a special election the following February to succeed him. She was just 33 at the time.
As a councilperson, Quinn represented the 3rd Council District, which encompasses Chelsea (where Quinn currently lives with her partner Kim), the West Village, Clinton/Hell’s Kitchen, and parts of Soho and Murray Hill. She also served as chairwoman of the council’s Health Committee, where she helped fight for important legislation — including the passage of the Equal Benefits Bill, which provides health care benefits to domestic partners and grocery workers.
With an eye to developing her political career, Quinn also made sure to vary her interests. She served on the council’s committees for Finance, General Welfare, Governmental Operations, Land Use, Lower Manhattan Redevelopment, Rules, Privileges & Elections, as well as the Zoning & Franchises subcommittee.
Quinn has said that before she went to work as Councilman Duane’s chief of staff, she often felt that elected officials—who get just one vote on issues—were less powerful than grassroots community organizers who can affect many legislative votes. After working in Duane’s office however, she had to reassess that view.
“When you become chair of a committee, you see how when you move up the ladder you get more influence and impact than you would think from just the title,” she said at her inaugural press conference. “That swayed me in this direction.”
Quinn also served as executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, and it was largely because of her involvement with that organization that then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani appointed her to become part of the New York City Police/Community Relations Task Force.
Speaker vs. Mayor
The differences between Quinn and current Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg are significant—though perhaps less so than the rift between the mayor and former Council Speaker Gifford Miller—but both have pledged to work together for the improvement of the city and its quality of life.
“I don’t agree with her on everything,” Mayor Bloomberg said in a press conference in Brooklyn shortly after Quinn’s election to speaker, “and I know she doesn’t agree with the administration on everything. But we’d be happy to work with whomever the City Council picks.”
Perhaps the biggest issue Quinn and Bloomberg have locked horns over (or at least the one that the public is most aware of) was Quinn’s opposition to Bloomberg’s ultimately unsuccessful West Side Stadium plan.
The mayor’s grand plan for the Hudson Rail Yards on the far West Side of Midtown Manhattan generated great controversy for the better part of a year—and was thought by many to be the linchpin in the city’s failed bid for the 2012 Olympic Games. From the start, Quinn—then representing the 3rd Council District, which included the Hudson Rail Yards and would have been home to the new football stadium complex—vigorously opposed the Bloomberg administration’s proposal. According to Quinn, the construction of a vast commercial stadium complex would have been done at the expense of the neighborhood’s housing stock (both affordable and market-rate), it’s open spaces, and its parkland.
“It is a huge opportunity,” Quinn told New York magazine at the time. “And whatever we build, that’s it. We’re not going to do it again. I just don’t think there’s been the kind of process where anyone’s tried to determine what the city really needs. The planning was done after the goal had already been decided.”
Getting Things Done
Since 1999, Quinn has been a leader on multiple fronts—she’s advocated for more comprehensive health care, equal rights for all New Yorkers, rational rezoning, better schools, and tenants’ rights, and has spearheaded the move away from term limits for city council members.
Currently, Quinn is exploring ways to compel the mayor to enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying measure for the city’s public schools. Both the benefits and the bullying measures were passed in 2004 over Bloomberg’s vetoes. Given her track record thus far, she may find success there as well.
“She’s very effective and knows how to work well with people,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) told the Daily News. Nadler worked with Quinn to oppose the West Side stadium project. “She has a good rapport with different groups in the community.”
Some of her other successes include helping to make New York City’s public spaces smoke-free, expanding access to emergency contraception to rape survivors and other New York City women, and increasing the availability of mammograms throughout the five boroughs.
Quinn has mentioned on several occasions that her proudest accomplishment as a legislator has been with helping to save the Division of AIDS Services from elimination—as a separate, one-stop shopping agency for HIV-positive New Yorkers in need of city assistance—by Rudy Giuliani when he took office in 1994. Quinn helped organize thousands of people outside City Hall on the new mayor’s first full day on the job, a show of force that convinced the administration to back off its plan to do away with the division.
Quinn has also been a vocal advocate for the improvement of public education, expanding computer labs in schools, renovating school playgrounds and buildings, rehabilitating libraries in her district, and expanding public schools’ multicultural curriculum.
“I very much support multicultural curriculum,” Quinn told representatives of the Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) during her most recent bid for re-election to her district council seat. “The schools in our diverse city have a responsibility to teach tolerance and respect for everyone.”
The Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB) is another program Quinn is proud to be associated with. “I support and would sponsor legislation that would strengthen the independence of the Civilian Complaint Review Board,” Quinn told ESPA representatives. “The city council should guarantee sufficient funding to attract qualified staff who are familiar with law enforcement practices and can conduct thorough investigations. The CCRB should be empowered to perform independent investigations and be given the power to subpoena witness and prosecute abuses…it’s much more important to have an independent disciplinary procedure set up which is outside the Police Department.”
Providing an affordable place to live has also been one of Quinn’s biggest platforms. In her own district, she negotiated the rezoning of the Hudson Yards, ensuring thousands more units of affordable housing, lower density along the waterfront, and more responsible financing.
“For too many New Yorkers, the city is simply not affordable,” said Quinn in her response to the city council’s budget for 2006. “Hardworking, taxpaying, middle-class families are being squeezed out. The unemployment rate in many communities—especially among African-American and Latino men—remains unacceptably high. And the least fortunate among us worry every day about getting the basic necessities—food, shelter, and health care.”
“We can—and we must—make City Hall work even more effectively for our constituents. We can listen harder and make government smarter. We can expand programs that work and still demand accountability and results. We can end the dysfunctional budget practices of the past and begin real oversight of city finances. And most importantly, we can learn from government’s mistakes—and from tragedies—so that we do not repeat them.”
Quinn’s approach to city government may be summed up by George Arzt, former press secretary for former Mayor Ed Koch and long-time friend of Quinn. Arzt told the New York Times in early 2006 that Quin.n “is a person who’s not afraid to stand up for what she believes in but she tries to sit down and reason with you. If not, she will go her own way.”
“Yes, we can be proud of achievements,” says Quinn, “but we must not be satisfied.”
Keith Loria is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The Cooperator. Additional research by Associate Editor Hannah Fons and Managing Editor Debra A. Estock.