NEW YORK — Christine Quinn could make history as the first woman and openly gay mayor of New York City.
The self-described aggressive City Council speaker has long been a front-runner to replace Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Even so, she will need to overcome powerful headwinds to get Democratic voters to turn out for her in the September primary.
Quinn became speaker of the New York City Council in 2006; her first strike of the gavel in Council chambers came at the cusp of Bloomberg's second term. Despite a long legislative record after 14 year on the Council, Quinn's reputation has been dogged by her largely unpopular decision to support Bloomberg's push to change the law so that he could run for a third term.
Since then, her stewardship of the legislative branch has been marked by her willingness to work with the mayor. As a result, her loudest critics say her cooperation with the current administration would make hers a de facto fourth term for Bloomberg.
That's not to say that Quinn has not stepped outside of Bloomberg's shadow on occasion, even leading on issues that rankle the Bloomberg administration. Especially over the past year, she's been at the helm as the Council asserted a degree of independence by overriding mayoral vetoes of the living wage, paid sick leave and vendor fine bills. The Council is positioned to do the same over Bloomberg's opposition to the police inspector general bill.
Quinn talked about that bill, her relationship to the mayor, how she’d work with her successor and more in an exclusive interview with the Gotham Gazette.
GOTHAM GAZETTE: Let's start with one of the big things that the Council did last year: open data.
CHRISTINE QUINN: Yes, we love open data. And I love that the Council was a big part of that, though I want to give (Councilwoman) Gale Brewer credit where credit is due because she certainly was a driving force behind that. But, you know, it's interesting that something like open data can seem like it's wonky, silly or just numbers, but when we had the situation with the ambulance — we now have really good data on response rate. That's not the kind of thing they always had.
That matters, because knowing if what happened in Williamsburg was an outlier — doesn't make it okay — but it's a different situation if it's an outlier versus what was happening everywhere. So open data is really important in helping us figure out what needs to be responded to, how it needs to be responded to, but also hopefully more efficiently involving workers, advocates and others in the process of developing solutions to problems.
GG: Obviously we're still technically in the early days of the law, but so far the city agencies subject to it haven't met their first deadlines.
CQ: Not in total, but I think — I don't know if others would disagree — I don't think we see a lot of lawless response. I don't think we see agencies flipping the bird off to open data. I think we see more of it being a little more complicated, which underscores the need of it.
GG: On the topic of transparency, one of the chief complaints lobbed at your record is transparency in terms of budgets and member items.
CQ: Oh my God, are you crazy — it's the total opposite. No. You're going to want to rewrite the whole question. My office, my office and the entire City Council under my leadership has brought more transparency to the budget process than ever before. If folks want to say more is needed, I'm open to that constructive criticism.
But, look: when I got elected speaker, you had a long, chunky Schedule C. It was largely impossible to figure out what Council members got what amount of money, what groups got what amount of money. You can now go to a database and get all of that information with a few strokes of a key. Grants given from the speaker's office never before had names associated with them. That's all changed.
One of the areas I've struggled with — and maybe data folks can help the next speaker on this — I'd love there to be more information on what the grant is funding. Because these two or three sentence descriptions are accurate but they're not particularly illuminating. I would also love — and this is challenging — but let's say a group is supposed to run after school programs and take care of 30 children a month. I'd love to be able to put online who met their goals, who didn't meet their goals. Who exceeded their goals. I'd like to be able to merge Council data with agency data so you know who got unsatisfactory, you know who got unsatisfactory. And that getting unsatisfactory puts those groups' funding in jeopardy.
GG: But people are starting to throw the words "slush fund" around and pointing to members items being allocated towards former Assemblyman Vito Lopez's nonprofit, or the investigation into Councilman Dan Halloran.
CQ: Well, look, there is a totally different, night-and-day difference from the system I inherited. I inherited an honor system where the assumption was that any group that a Council member requested to fund was a quality group. I found out fairly quickly that was a broken system. I asked for help from law enforcement, the Department of Investigation, and we've changed that system completely.
And what Dan Halloran was allegedly trying to do would not have been doable. So I took the problems we had very seriously. And we've completely changed the system with the Council's verification process, the Mayor's Office of Contracts verification process and a lengthy list of additional rules. It's important because we know there are bad people who are trying to steal money in the budget, and it's outrageous that anyone is trying to misuse that money.
But when you're an elected official you're going to have problems come across your desk. I believe you're judged by if you admit the problem, do you ask for help? Do you fix it and come up with a solution? Those are the things I did and I'm extremely proud of it.
GG: The budget dance — you've said before it's not something that you engage in, that it's something you're forced into.
CQ: It's going to end when I'm mayor. Because I'm going to put out budget that are a reflection of my priorities and a reflection of the actual state of the finances of the city. There have been many years that I've been speaker working with Mike Bloomberg where he had no choice but to propose cutting the budget because we were in deficit. But there were other years where Mayor Bloomberg proposed to cut everything out of the budget that the Council put in. That's not based on the economic reality, because those cuts weren't necessary.
A budget is the most significant statement of your priorities, and we need a budget put out by a mayor that reflects those priorities.
GG: To that end, how would you deal with some of the larger ticket, long-term times like pension and healthcare costs?
CQ: Those are going to be some of the things that are squarely on the table with the union negotiations. They need to be addressed between the mayor and the unions, but that doesn't mean that the larger expenses by city agencies, the larger capital parts of the budget shouldn't be looked at more globally in the budget process.
GG: You've had a couple of dances yourself with the mayor. What qualities do you want in whoever succeeds you as speaker?
CQ: I want for the next speaker to be someone who really believes in and respects the institution. I hope the next speaker shares my belief that you get more done working with the mayor than being constantly in disagreement with the mayor just for the sake of disagreement. But I know whoever the next speaker will be, they'll be someone who when we can't agree, we'll disagree agreeably.
We had days when all the Council did was disagree with the mayor just to get in the papers. I hope we don't go back to that, but I also recognize we're not always going to agree.
GG: One of the issues that you've agreed with the mayor on is your opposition to the expansion of the racial profiling ban. As mayor, is it something that you'd try to fight?
CQ: Obviously as mayor, I'd have to respect the laws that get legally established, even if you disagree with them. I'm very excited, actually, about the inspector general and potential it has to get more good information about how to run the police department better.
GG: The debate over the Upper East Side waste transfer station has really become one of the standout issues in the race.
GG: You've said before that you wouldn't want something in another neighborhood that you wouldn't have in your own district. There's a difference, though between what's going on in the Upper East Side and at the Gansevoort station: the Upper East site would be a waste transfer whereas the other is a recycling station.
CQ: Yes, but in essence it is the same thing. There will be a facility that garbage trucks will come in and out of and tip garbage-related elements onto barges. In the Upper East Side it will be garbage; in the West Village, it'll be recycling. But the issues is the same: a facility, trucks, using the river in a park. They're probably two of the facilities in the entire plan that are the most similar because of their relationship to park spaces — different kinds of park spaces.
GG: If that's the case, though, would you entertain the idea of switching the two stations?
CQ: The plan needs to move forward. The plan needs to move forward as is. And that's what I'm going to do. There's not value in changing the plan. This plan took decades to implement, and people who don't want something in their neighborhoods, throwing in red herrings and lawsuits, switch this for that, or go put another facility on the west side of Manhattan — that would cost another $300 million give or take. They're just throwing out red herrings because they don't want to do their fair share. Period. End of conversation.
This plan is going to be implemented when I'm mayor.
GG: On public transportation, you've come out in support of expanding almost every form of mass transit: buses, bikes, ferries. And you've come out in support of taking mayoral control over the MTA. How exactly can the city under a Quinn administration handle that kind of responsibility?
CQ: Right now, we're taking more than our fair share of the burden because we don't have the right share of our voice on the board. We are the economic engine of the MTA, paying for more than our fair share and we have the voice of a piston. Those days need to end.
Bus rapid transit, select bus service — it doesn't cost anywhere near what it costs to build a subway. Ferries do take a subsidy — there's no way around that. And mass transit takes subsidies. But the effectiveness of those subsidies are done right in a multimodal, inter- and intra-borough way, we're seeing how effective it is. And as usage grows, the subsidies will obviously decrease.
GG: One of the big collaborative projects that's already happening between the state and the city is Sandy reconstruction. What's your take on waterfront development given that the state isn't a fan but Mayor Bloomberg is?
CQ: We're a city of islands. So we need to develop responsibly in a post-climate change environment. But we can't retreat from our waterfront. Now that doesn't mean you develop everywhere and every way. There are neighborhoods in Staten Island that want to be bought out, and we have an obligation to respect that. But we also have an obligation to respect the voices in Breezy Point and other places that say "we want to rebuild."
It's about not doing it where it's irresponsible, and where you do do it, doing it with requirements, materials and standards that make it as safe as possible.
GG: Along the same lines of development, one of Mayor Bloomberg's legacies really is going to be zoning policy. So what's your vision on zoning post-Bloomberg?
CQ: I think that's very true. One of the things that the mayor is known for is big rezoning projects. In some places, those have had great positives. In others, folks would argue some of the promise was not fulfilled. I'm probably going to start with a more neighborhood-based focus.
I really want to seize the potential of our neighborhoods to build 40,000 new middle-income housing units. I want us to seize the potential of our neighborhoods through my Keeping Opportunity Close to Home plan — KOCH, in case you didn't get that — to incentivize neighborhood economic development.
So I think you're going to see a bit more of a neighborhood opp versus big zoning down vision.
GG: Finally, as speaker, your Council's had a significant record on immigration, whether it be dealing with the city's deportation policy or naturalization programs. How would your immigration policy carry over if you're elected mayor?
CQ: Well, this is an immigrant town. My grandparents came here from Ireland 100 years ago, give or take — all four of them. If you had met them, they literally talked about this city as magical, that it had mythical powers. You gotta put yourself back in time — they left Ireland with no belief they would ever go home. But this was not just America — it was New York, a place you went to where you have the potential to be free and get out of poverty.
And that happened for all four of them. And I want to keep New York that place so that other Quinns and Callaghans and Lancers and Shines of the 21st Century and come here and have that same potential. One of my grandparents had an eighth grade education, most had second or third. But all of their children went to college. Now, it's different than it was then, but I want to keep that potential.