Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

Quinn's Rule

She calls it leadership - others call it power.

Whichever you choose, there is little doubt among the city's political observers that City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has positioned herself, inadvertently or not, for bigger and brighter offices.

"I don’t think the power of the speaker is necessarily the question," Quinn said recently. "The speaker's job is not necessarily about power. The speaker's job is to be a leader."

With an appetite for politics whetted by presidential biographies and political memoirs, Quinn is widely viewed as a candidate for mayor of New York City in 2009 (although she declines to say outright that that is the plan). But how has she handled the job she has now?

As she begins to round the halfway mark of her tenure – 19 months into her reign with two budget processes down and two more to go – many experts, colleagues and advocates praise Quinn for her efforts to make the council more transparent and democratic. But others say she has not gone nearly far enough.

Second to the Mayor

The City Council speaker is widely viewed as holding the second most powerful elected position in city government, following the mayor. This power has been in a state of flux throughout the years – some view it as having been depleted, while others see it growing during Quinn's tenure.

Since the speakership was established following a revision of the City Charter in the late 1980s, the position has been defined not only as the rule-maker or deal-breaker of the body, but also as somewhat of a compass. Council members choose the speaker from among their ranks and then expect him or her to set their legislative direction and lead them.

As a result, rarely is there division in the body.

Speakers have, however, clashed with the other side of City Hall: the mayor’s office. In some sense, the speaker and the rest of the City Council – like any legislative body -- are supposed to counteract the executive, in this case the mayor, in a system that gives that office enormous authority. But many see Quinn as downplaying this role and establishing herself as a partner with Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Third Speaker

Known to friends and colleagues as "Chris," the Irish Manhattanite is the first woman, the first openly gay person and only the third individual – man or woman, gay or straight -- to hold the position since the governing body was restructured in 1989. Quinn follows two leaders who took extremely different approaches to the position: Peter Vallone Sr. (whose son is among Quinn’s members) and Gifford Miller.

Vallone, the first speaker, held the position for more than a decade in that era before term limits. As he worked to manage a new legislative body struggling to define its identity, Vallone lead the council with a firm hand through unanimous decision after unanimous decision. In the council, political observers said, it was Vallone's way or the highway, and legislation usually fell by the wayside if the speaker did not support it.

"In the old days if you didn’t vote with the leadership you were subject to all sorts of retribution," said former Councilmember Ronnie Eldridge, who now hosts a talk show on CUNY TV and whose tenure overlapped Vallone. "We used to have legislation that the speaker didn’t like that was never brought up."

Far less experienced and barely over 30 when he took the position, Miller's first two years as speaker were defined by the turmoil that accompanied the September 11, 2001, attacks. As the first speaker under term limits, Miller had four years to accomplish his goals – most of which, political experts said, he spent running for the other side of City Hall.

In retrospect, Miller's legacy is seen now as having been scarred by his political duels with the then newly elected Bloomberg, who he hoped to defeat in the mayoral election. Instead, Miller ended up losing in the Democratic primary and leaving office.

With such a short history, the role of speaker is still evolving, shaped by the individual holding it and the circumstances at that given point in time.

"You see each of the three occupants using that post a little differently," said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College. "Clearly, it is a position of considerable strength, vis-Ă -vis chair appointments and distributing the functional rewards of the council."

Cooperation Not Confrontation

Despite her wide smile and down-to-earth manner, Quinn is reportedly tough as nails behind closed doors. But that toughness has not kept her from forging a close working relationship with Bloomberg, a relationship that many see as the hallmark of her tenure.

"The speaker’s power comes from the relationship with the mayor," said Steven Cohen, a professor of public administration at Columbia University. "It's a very political job and it requires consensus building skills and good communication skills. I think Quinn has those."

And unlike Miller, who hoped to unseat an incumbent mayor, Quinn wants to succeed a very popular incumbent. How much this affects the council is anyone’s guess but the contrast between the two speakers can be striking.

Under Miller, for example, the council frequently passed legislation despite the mayor's opposition and subsequently overrode his veto. Through Quinn's stint there have been only five veto overrides, including the metal bat ban and the regulation of the city's pedicabs.

"The essential difference is Gifford's entire tenure … he was a declared candidate to run for city mayor," said Assistant Majority Leader Lewis Fidler. "That affected his willingness to say no to people. ... Christine Quinn has been more willing to say no and to shape some priorities."

This relationship with Bloomberg has most likely been the most controversial aspect of Quinn’s tenure. Some, who claim she is "in the mayor's pocket,” express concern that her compliance with his agenda prevents the council from providing a vital check on executive power. Others see their cooperation as a pathway to reform, compromise and accomplishment, which has led to an overhaul of the city's campaign finance reform rules and a new, up-to-date building code.

"I decided I was going to do everything I could with the mayor," said Quinn. "I think my relationship with the mayor is effective, and I think the two of us working together is effective."

She also questions why it has become a standard to expect elected officials to feud, instead of work together.

Inside the Council

That apparently congenial attitude extends into 250 Broadway – the offices of the remaining City Council members. Well, maybe not in all of their offices.

Quinn has sparred with Councilmember Charles Barron, following a debate on renaming a street in Brooklyn after the late activist Sonny Carson. When Barron's chief of staff, Viola Plummer, threatened another councilmember with an alleged political assassination after he abstained from voting on the divisive issue, Quinn suspended and eventually fired the staff member for not signing a so-called code of conduct.

The incident has sparked a lawsuit and numerous press conferences. But Quinn has received far more praise than criticism for her handling of it. "She has shown a lot of strength," said former speaker Vallone.

On the other hand, Barron sees Quinn’s actions in the disputed move as indicative of her position's overarching power, which he defined as a "dictatorship." "The power of the speaker is so far reaching that I think it takes away from democracy," he said. "The speaker determines your chair, all the chairs (of committees). The speaker determines every committee you sit on. The speaker hires all the central staff. The speaker determines where you sit."

Opening Up the System

Despite all her power, many council members find Quinn accessible and say she is at least willing to listen to legislative proposals that she might support.

"I don’t think she is of the opinion that things need to pass unanimously," said Fidler. "I think she is happy to pass at 45 to 6." And so, he said, she will allow council members to introduce whatever bills they want. Although, he added, "clearly it is still the case that for the legislation to move the speaker has to be on board."

For years, council members had complained that speakers would stall legislation or block hearings if the intro, as City Council bills are called, did not correspond with the speaker's agenda. In response, Quinn initiated several reforms. One, she said, guarantees that proposals from individual members would be introduced by mandating the speaker's office draft legislation within 60 days of a request by an individual councilmember.

"People have the right to introduce whatever bills they want," said Quinn. "We encourage people to introduce bills that are within the power of the City Council. Every bill that gets introduced doesn’t get passed.”

Votes in City Council tend to be extremely lopsided and the speaker is always on the winning side. Nothing she does not support is likely to ever become law.

And some say she is reluctant even to give some measures a fair hearing. Councilmember Tony Avella, who is running for mayor in 2009, recently invoked an obscure rule after five pieces of his legislation idled without a committee hearing for more than a year. This included bills that would have required the Department of Transportation to replace damaged stop signs within 48 hours and mandated sprinkler systems in dormitories. After he used the rule, some of the bills finally got hearings last month.

Avella accused Quinn of freezing some of his legislation because the two have disagreed previously and are likely rivals for mayor. (So far, according to the city's Campaign Finance Board, the two, as well as a handful of other potential candidates, are already fundraising. Quinn has garnered more than $1.38 million, while Avella has approximately $103,000.)

"The speaker has way too much power, so those that are held in good favor certainly get more than others," said Avella. "Independence has been reduced to an absolute nil."

But Minority Leader James Oddo, one of only three Republicans in the council, said he still finds his caucus has good access to the speaker. In an era of term limits and endless political ambitions, striking compromises and balances can be a difficult task. But, Oddo said, the speaker manages it.

"It's almost like a Three Card Monty game. It's designed for you to lose," said Oddo. "She has not only not lost, I think she's excelled."

After 19 Months…

Quinn easily rattled off a list of accomplishments she thinks she has achieved in her short tenure as speaker. These include creating more transparency in the budget process, expanding full-day kindergarten, securing bulletproof vests for police officers and targeting the city's habitual housing code violators.

The most sprawling reform, colleagues and experts said, involved the budget process. Under Quinn's speakership, the council regularly meets to discuss budget priorities, and for the first time council members' names have been attached to items they proposed in its annual discretionary spending – an initiative meant to open up the council's spending habits and increase constituents' confidence in the governing body.

These measures create more transparency, but some say they do not go far enough.

"There have been some modest improvements when it comes to the transparency of the budget, in particular the performance measures," said Elizabeth Lynam, deputy research director at the Citizens Budget Commission. But, she added, the council needs to develop some alternative spending proposals if it hopes to gain independence from the mayor.

Quinn's largest defeat was her failure to win approval of a tax credit for New Yorkers who rent, rather than own, their homes - a key proposal in her state of the city address earlier this year. But, despite the setback, housing advocates give the speaker credit for simply proposing the idea.

Quinn came from the world of advocacy (she was the former executive director of the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project before working for former councilmember and now State Senator Thomas Duane), and activists eagerly anticipated her tenure as the council's leader. While she keeps her door open to former colleagues, advocates like Craig Gurian of the Anti-Discrimination Center of Metro New York, express disappointment in her leadership thus far.

Gurian, who lives in Quinn's Chelsea district and is a scholar-in-residence at Fordham Law School's Stein Center for Law and Ethics, said Quinn, like her predecessors, has failed to help the City Council mature. Instead, he said, she has stifled legislation and restricted hearings. For instance, a bill that would mandate co-op boards list reasons for a buyer's rejection is stalled despite widespread support for the measure, Gurian said.

"If what she is saying is, 'I'm satisfied to be another Peter Vallone,' that’s not, I think, what those of us in either the LGBT community or the civil rights community or the good government community were looking for," said Gurian. "I started 2006 with high hopes for her speakership, but I’ve been disappointed in the continuing lack of council democracy and in the speaker's failure to provide progressive leadership on civil rights issues."

Some have even said she has strayed from her progressive agenda and succumbed to the relentless special interests, like real estate developers, that come with the power of her office.

The Next Two Years

With more than two years left at the front of the council chamber, Quinn is not yet ready to define how her term will be seen. But the hardest part of her time in office could lie ahead.

With more than two thirds of the council term-limited in 2009, many will spend the next two-plus years running for other elected offices, with members vying against one another. Such an atmosphere could spark increased political posturing and make it harder for Quinn to establish consensus among her members. At the same time, Quinn will find herself in a divided role – as speaker, as partner with the mayor and as a person seeking to succeed him.

The state probably just made her job even more difficult. Under the agreement on congestion pricing reached in Albany last week (see related story here), the council will have to endorse any plan to charge motorists to drive in Manhattan. Quinn has conditionally endorsed the mayor’s controversial proposal, but many of her colleagues, like Finance Committee Chair David Weprin, staunchly oppose the idea.

For now, Quinn said, she will concentrate on bettering the city's middle schools and aim to create a more affordable New York City for the shrinking middle class. "My time is not up," Quinn said. "My time will be defined when it's done… I hope when I look back, my time will be defined as a long list of accomplishments."


Print Friendly and PDF

Editor's Choice

Gotham Gazette: New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
New York Left Hits Wall in Primaries, Points to Reasons for Optimism
Gotham Gazette: Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Rethinking Economic Development in the Post-Covid World
Gotham Gazette: The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
The Forgotten History of Latino Politics in New York
Gotham Gazette: Max Politics Podcast Max Politics Podcast