The not-so-mighty Quinn
Isn't is strange how political pundits say that New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has to "distance" herself from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as opposed to saying that Speaker Quinn needs to "return to her roots" ?
From The New York Daily News : The City Council speaker is ahead in the polls, but she needs distance from Mayor Bloomberg if she wants to occupy City Hall
It didn’t take a political mastermind to know Mayor Bloomberg’s one-man “Hillary for Mayor” crusade would never amount to anything. If you had a leading shot at the presidency, would you ditch it to hit the Brooklyn political clubhouse circuit for nine months, for the honor of maybe debating Joe Lhota in October?
Yet as ill-fated as his failed recruitment of Secretary of State Clinton may have been, Hizzoner's gambit was notable for its momentary snub to his loyal ally and wanna-be mayor, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn.
Indeed, sensing that his leaked entreaty to Clinton might damage the bid of his favorite city official not named Ray Kelly, Bloomberg hastily reaffirmed his respect for the Speaker the day the story broke, telling reporters, “This woman has made an enormous difference in this city ... If you want to start a fight between me and Chris Quinn, you’re not going to do it.”
A fight or not, the episode put front and center the political relationship between Bloomberg and Quinn, and highlighted the complicated role the departing three-term mayor will have on the race to succeed him. Specifically, while his support would help Quinn’s candidacy in many ways — particularly, in a general election — it could ultimately stop her from getting there.
This is a reality with which the onetime housing activist must reckon — freeing herself to articulate an independent vision for New Yorkers without constant fear of crossing him.
If early surveys are to be believed, the Speaker enters the race as the clear front-runner in the primary, with a recent Quinnipiac poll showing her leading the Democratic pack by more than 20 points. Clearly, she starts the race as the candidate to beat.
In addition to the historic nature of her candidacy as potentially the city’s first female and gay mayor, much of the Speaker’s early lead — for now — owes to the trappings that come from a mutual arrangement with the man whose job she covets.
Rather than serve as a counterpoint to Bloomberg’s agenda, Quinn has largely used the speakership as a partnership with City Hall — something she and the mayor depict as effective governance, and which her opponents will relentlessly attempt to paint as a lack of independence and commitment to progressive principles.
Most famously, when the mayor sought to overturn a public vote and suspend term limits so he could stay in office, Quinn reversed her vocal opposition and led the Council to pass it. And when the mayor opposed a paid sick leave bill that could help working New Yorkers better care for their children, the former activist blocked it from coming to a vote — even as it was supported by more than 80% of New Yorkers and the vast majority of the City Council.
In return for her loyalty, Quinn has reaped some benefits from the still-potent third-termer.
She has inherited much of his political apparatus, including some of the most skilled operatives in the city. And she gets equal billing in many mayoral announcements — whether it’s sharing headlines in press releases or getting to stand with the mayor during press conferences.
And Bloomberg, for all his warts, still has a sizable number of Democrats who like him. According to another recent Quinnipiac poll (possibly inflated because it was conducted post-Sandy, when most elected officials got boosts), 6 of 10 Democrats approved of the mayor’s performance.
Two subgroups of the Bloomberg Democratic base are moderate voters in boroughs like Queens and Staten Island, and those who might identify as the “pro-business” community.
The former is a key swath of voters who may well view an alliance with Bloomberg as an appealing attribute in Quinn. The latter may be a smaller voting bloc, but is useful for locking down elite opinion and reaping their financial, political and media support. And while New York’s diverse labor community might split its loyalties between different candidates (i.e., Bill Thompson, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Controller John Liu and Quinn herself), Quinn’s supporters believe the Bloomberg Democrats will tend to be more united.
For all these strengths the friendship brings, however, come a seemingly endless track of hurdles that threaten to obstruct Quinn’s path to November.
From a messaging standpoint, her role as Bloomberg’s partner will be castigated by opponents as something very different: an enabler more akin to a deputy mayor than a needed check on a famously imperial chief executive. At a time when progressive leadership was needed to curb a business-minded mayor’s ambitions, her opponents will argue, Christine Quinn was instead a rubber stamp.
Anger over these facts was expressed in its rawest form by liberal stalwart Alec Baldwin Thursday night. On CNN, the actor told Piers Morgan that Quinn is “untrustworthy.” He called her “Bloomberg’s hand-picked successor,” saying she has “blood on her hands” for her role in the term-limit turnabout.
In less histrionic terms, this is Quinn’s day-to-day problem: As a result of the Bloomberg alliance, Quinn is constrained from challenging the incumbent to the degree a typical candidate might. While her opponents wake up each morning looking for ways to criticize and differentiate themselves from the current mayor, the Speaker has to engage in a much more careful and, at times, awkward balance.
Most recently, when the mayor was receiving criticism for wanting to hold the marathon in the middle of the post-Sandy recovery, Quinn could only watch while her opponents ripped him to shreds.
On policy issues, this self-imposed balance may prove even more excruciating. In the same recent poll that shows Bloomberg winning approval of 6 in 10 Democrats, a still higher percentage opposes the Police Department's stop-question-and-frisk practice.
A series of bills proposing reforms to the police and its practices has been submitted for consideration in the Council, but Quinn has prevented them from coming to the floor.
To be fair, the Council has recently held hearings on the issue, so the jury is still out on whether action will be taken. But given the mayor’s sensitivity to the issue, you can be sure that Quinn’s high-wire balancing act will imbue the process with an abundance of caution — for which her Democratic opponents will feel no such compulsion. And they’ll do everything they can to make her pay for it with Democratic primary voters.
On the issue of providing workers with a living wage to earn enough to survive in New York, Quinn tried to split the difference between the wishes of the Democratic primary electorate, who strongly supported it, and her pro-business political patron, who did not.
As a result, she comically spent months nipping and nibbling on the bill to the point where just 400 to 500 low-wage workers in the city annually will be affected, by her own estimate. You can bet voters will be reminded of this in the months to come.
Then there’s Bloomberg’s mixed educational record. While Quinn has joined her Democratic rivals in articulating a critical posture towards the schools’ status quo, it won’t be easy to position herself as the most credible reformer on one of the race’s central issues if she’s viewed as Bloomberg Lite.
The fact is, voters do not want a fourth Bloomberg term. In a poll taken two years ago during a particularly high point in the mayor’s term, city voters gave him a very impressive 61-27 approval rating. Yet this same pro-Bloomberg electorate still said by a 3-1 ratio that it would not vote for him if he sought a fourth term.
So while the mayor’s relative popularity will be a boon for Quinn with some segments of the city, opponents may benefit if they can convince voters that her mayoralty would just be the latest effort by Bloomberg to impose his will.
And there’s a limit to what a Bloomberg endorsement can actually deliver. Barring the use of a super PAC, which brings its own headaches, this race will be a rare occasion in which the mayor’s money will be essentially irrelevant, as Quinn will easily reach the spending cap imposed on candidates participating in the city’s campaign finance system regardless.
Furthermore, Bloomberg is not a mayor in the vein of an Ed Rendell, whose endorsement brings you his undivided attention, political expertise and bodies on the street. While Bloomberg essentially hand-picked Staten Island District Attorney Dan Donovan to run on the Republican line for attorney general in 2010, he stayed relatively hands-off during the race and his candidate failed to connect in the city or anywhere else.
So, for all of the benefits that come with a close Bloomberg partnership, Quinn will also have to navigate real challenges. It’s a unique set of circumstances whereby a mayor who himself never appeared in a Democratic primary will cast a large shadow on the one held to succeed him.
In the end, if you’re Christine Quinn, the key takeaway from the mayor’s diss this week should not be that it was an embarrassing betrayal (though, on some level, it was). It’s that for all the benefits his alliance brings, having some proof that you’re not necessarily his hand-picked heir might not be such a bad thing after all.
Blake Zeff is a former presidential campaign aide to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer and Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.