'Broad' tipped to be NY mayor could help us from abroad
CHRISTINE QUINN has been known to refer to herself as a “big, pushy broad”.
This fiery, red-headed Irish-American politician from New York is also an early favourite to succeed Michael Bloomberg as mayor of the city next year.
Indeed, she has been a favourite since Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner saw fit to tweet photographs of his nether regions last summer, thus putting an end to his mayoral ambitions.
Quinn is the speaker of New York city council, an elected position at the head of the city’s legislative body that, in effect, acts as a counterpoint to the mayor in managing the city’s affairs. She has held the position since
2006 – the first woman to do so, and the first openly gay politician to do so.
Such is the interest in this working-class “broad” from Long Island that in the past few months she has been profiled by publications as diverse as the New Yorker and Elle magazines, with both tipping her to be next in line for mayor.
She is also self-proclaimed “100 per cent Irish”. All four of Quinn’s grandparents came over from Ireland “on the boat”, including her maternal grandmother, Nellie Shine, who was a passenger in steerage on the Titanic 100 years ago.
Shine was one of the few who survived because she “ran when everyone else dropped to their knees to pray”.
It is a story Quinn has been telling a lot recently, perhaps because of the timing.
“I once told a priest that my grandmother knew there was a time for running and a time for praying,” she recounted to an Irish-American audience at the New York Historical Society recently. “‘No,’ said the priest, ‘your grandmother knew you could pray while running,’” she guffawed, to rapturous applause.
Quinn evokes a sort of prelapsarian Mary Coughlan (the former tánaiste from Donegal, not the singer) with her brash, folksy manner and her much commented on, slightly too loud voice. (“I’ve been a big, pushy broad my whole life,” she told the New York Times last year.)
Although she has represented Chelsea and the West Village on Manhattan’s liberal west side since 1999, Quinn grew up the daughter of a union rep and a Catholic charity worker on Long Island. It was an Irish upbringing in an Irish community that informed her Democratic Party politics from the start.
“If you ask my father why everyone was a Democrat he would say ‘because they met you at the boat’,” she explains one afternoon in her lower Manhattan office.
“I remember him getting polled on the phone once and he basically said to the woman: ‘Look, just write Democrat the whole way down the line, it doesn’t matter. Jack the Ripper could be on the Democratic line – I’m voting for the Democrat, just put it on there.’”
She also likes to talk about a “free and united Ireland” and admits to having worked most closely with Sinn Féin of all the Irish political parties over the years, and so is typically old-school Irish-American in that sense.
But her connection to Ireland does appear to run deeper than a few cliched patterns. Referring to the US’s economic difficulties while addressing the crowd at the historical society, she said that, while things were tough economically here in the US, they were “tougher back home” – home being Ireland.
Quinn has made a number of working visits to Ireland in recent years, during which she met multiple parties North and South of the Border, and she has repeatedly stated in public that she wants to do everything she can to help the Irish economy recover.
It is not clear exactly what she can do to that end (although she did turn out recently to welcome delegates to the Ireland Day conference at the New York Stock Exchange).
Should she succeed in replacing Bloomberg in 2013, however, having such a high-profile advocate for Ireland would certainly do no harm.
Few regional offices in the US command as much national clout as that of mayor of New York, which could make Quinn Ireland’s next great Kennedy- esque political figure.
“She is the kind of old- fashioned Irish politician who delivers, and she has a very bright future ahead of her,” says Niall O’Dowd, editor of the Irish Voice newspaper in New York, who believes her election would be “good for Ireland”.
“We thought the era of big-city Irish mayors was over when Richard Daley stepped down in Chicago, but Quinn may be about to revive it,” he adds.
Quinn has yet to officially declare her candidacy, and skirts around any attempt to draw her on the subject, but she has already registered $4.9 million (€3.78 million) in donations with the city’s campaign finance board – the maximum amount allowable for the Democratic primary contest.
Judging from our meeting at her office in the historic city hall, it is clear that Quinn is in demand. Her BlackBerry never leaves her hand – often commanding her attention, mid-interview – and her schedule is jam-packed.
On the day of the interview, she is working on legislation on banking and wages for city workers, and tweeting about a fatal crane collapse in the city. The following day, she plans to start early to distribute leaflets in Queens – there was a thwarted sexual assault the previous weekend and she wants to help get an image of the suspect out to the public. Beyond that, she is focused on the city’s budget (for which she does not want to raise taxes or slash spending) and job creation.
Some of it seems unnecessary – does the council speaker really need to distribute leaflets in Queens? – but there is little doubt that Quinn brings an air of celebrity to any event or issue.
Observers say she has evolved into a more polished political operator over the past decade, with a reputation for having both a detailed command of the issues and a “get it done” pragmatism.
Some of her more liberal early supporters might call her a sell-out, but there seems little doubt she has broadened her appeal over the years.
Once a political adversary, Quinn is now close to Bloomberg, having supported him – rather controversially – when he increased the term limit for elected officials from two four-year terms to three in 2008.
(Bloomberg was convinced he was the only person with the know-how to guide Wall Street and the city through the financial crisis, and was subsequently elected for a third term.)
She comes across as savvy and smart in the way politicians often are – meaning they are not always the smartest person in the room, but they are smart enough to know who is the smartest person in the room, and how to win them over.
Her witty quips had the audience at the New York Historical Society eating out of her hand, but a first-hand encounter makes it clear that she is more than just gags and congeniality.
A fit-looking 45-year-old, Quinn recently lost almost two stone and looks good for it. This could, in part, explain the constant scrutiny of her appearance by the American press – right down to when she forgets to remove the bargain-basement sticker from the sole of her shoe.
Asked how she feels about this, she simply says it is all part of the game.
“What are ya gonna do? They say people in Hell want ice-water. You don’t always get what you want,” she says, and just like that she shuts the conversation down.
Quinn knows better than to gripe.
As for the future, she also knows better than to talk up her own prospects. She is leaving that to other people.
She sticks to talking about getting New Yorkers back to work, her impending nuptials (she is marrying New York-based lawyer Kim Catullo this month), and her dream of seeing the Yankees win the World Series this year.