The ‘big, pushy broad’ pushing to be mayor of New York
Christine Quinn would be the first female and openly gay mayor of New York city, if she lit the spark
Christine Callaghan Quinn, the 47-year-old speaker of the New York City Council, wants to be seen as a member of the fighting Irish. Photograph: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz
A well-dressed man at the West 72nd Street subway entrance stops to take one of the fliers Christine Quinn is handing out.
“You don’t seem quite as evil as they make you out to be,” he says, smiling at her.
Quinn looks a bit startled, then replies, “I’m really not”.
This should be the moment for Christine Callaghan Quinn, and she is back in the lead after being knocked off last month by a resurgent Anthony Weiner. The coppery 47-year-old speaker of the New York City Council wants to be seen as a member of the fighting Irish, “a big pushy broad”, as she puts it, who pushes for New York.
The slight Weiner has never achieved anything in politics but, even at this nadir, his bellicose intensity can still get him cheers from some crowds. The sturdy Quinn has accomplished a lot – herding loony council members and helping Mayor Michael Bloomberg – but she has a hard time exciting voters, even women.
“You never see Chris swaying people in church back and forth,” said one top Democrat.
In trying to be all things, to go left without losing Bloomberg and to go right without losing the Democratic base, Quinn has gotten a little lost. New Yorkers want someone who looks as if they believe in one thing, even if they’re catering to many people.
Over a yoghurt-and-berry breakfast at a Midtown hotel, Quinn talks about trying to “create that connection”.
She says it’s frustrating when people criticise her for being politically inauthentic. By trying to calibrate your authenticity, she says, “you’re gonna make yourself crazy and take up space in your brain – and I don’t have that much space in my brain”. She bursts into her lusty laugh with the snort at the end.
Quinn is bracing for her rivals to start airing ads excoriating her for helping Emperor Bloomberg get his third term. She says she has no regrets about that, or about making the decision to have a “productive” relationship with the mayor.
“This idea that the honour of all this is in the fight as opposed to in the victory for New Yorkers really gets my goat,’’ she said. “Look at Washington, where you’re either all in or you’re the devil. Who does that help?”
Bloomberg loyalists regard Quinn’s attempt to distance herself from the mayor on “stop and frisk” and other issues as awkward and offensive, like a teenage daughter rebelling against daddy. As one put it, “It shouldn’t be that hard for her to say, ‘The city’s doing well, but we can do better’.”
Quinn is still smarting over a New York Times story that described her volatile “hair-trigger eruptions”.
“Am I pushy?” she asks. “Yep. Do I like taking no for an answer when no means New Yorkers aren’t going to get something they need? No. Do I push back and crack some eggs? Absolutely.”
She also defends her decision to call the police and fire commissioners in July when an ambulance did not arrive in a timely way, after a City Council intern fainted in the heat.
“I’m going to do whatever I have to do to help a New Yorker,” she says, “whether it’s a girl on the street or a tenant in a housing development”.
Despite her Irish temper, some wonder if she has Bloomberg’s spine.
“If you can’t make it through being booed at the 92nd Street Y, you can’t be mayor,” she says.
Though she would be the first female and openly gay mayor, she knows she hasn’t sparked Hillary-style thrills yet. One of her best moments came at a school forum when some little girls chased her for autographs. “They all said I had really bad handwriting,” she grins.
She has been stressing identity politics lately, putting out a video with Gloria Steinem comparing herself to Bella Abzug.
“There’s a potential here for great firsts,” Quinn says. “This sounds a little silly. I wake up every morning and I’m a lesbian. It’s just the way it is. When I was running for speaker, people would go out of their way to point out why I wasn’t going to win: ‘You’re a woman, you’re too liberal, you’re gay, you’re from the west side of Manhattan,’ which in that context was an insult. You kind of want to go, not for nuttin’, but I knew that when I woke up, so stop pointing out the obvious.”
Always, she has the voice of her mother, who died of cancer when Christine was 16, in her head. “My mom was very clear to me and my sister that we had to figure out what we loved to do, and then do it exceptionally well. Making an excuse because you’re a woman or something else was not in her universe of possibilities.”
I ask how her wife, Kim Catullo, a corporate attorney, would feel about being the first first lady married to a lady. That sends her on a long paean to the “shy” but “fabulous” Kim. She and Kim won’t talk about whether they would live in Gracie Mansion – which Bloomberg spurned – because “it would be a jinx.”
On kids, Quinn says, “It kind of never came together for us for different timing reasons. It’s not ruled out.”
I wonder how she relieves stress, now that alcohol, overeating and bulimia are behind her.
“I haven’t given up overeating,” she says, laughing again. “I’ve just given up getting sick at the end of overeating.”
Shehas taken up spinning after a lifetime of hating exercise – “Endorphins, whatever the heck they’re called, they really exist.”
She also takes long fragrant baths, watches “bad TV,’’ like the Kardashians, though she’s bored by them now, and reads “cheesy magazines”, like Us, OK, and People. She hasn’t read the new People headlined, ‘Why Huma Stayed’, but she is up to date on Kate’s baby.
“I always feel a little guilty as an Irish person that I care what dress Kate wore but I do care,” she said. “And I’ve never even been to England.”
Her favourite film is Dirty Dancing. “No one sits Baby in a corner: one of the best lines in movie history,” she says.
I tell her she’s the first candidate I’d ever seen wearing teal toenail polish.
“It matches my campaign literature, that’s the point of it!” she says excitedly, pulling two bottles out of her bag. “It’s the colour of the blue on my posters so I’m trying to wear it all summer long.”