Lesbian Chelsea Democrat makes history at City Hall after six years in office
City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, 39, an out lesbian from Chelsea, was elected speaker of the City Council on Tuesday in an emotional ceremony in the ornate chamber of City Hall where it took a 15-year struggle—from 1971 to ’86—just to get basic civil rights protections for gay and lesbian New Yorkers. She is the first woman to lead the Council, no less the first out gay person, and now the second most powerful political leader in the city.
“I am incredibly proud
that in the most diverse city in the world, that diversity is seen as a strength—not an impediment,” Quinn said toward the end of a heartfelt acceptance speech. Her colleagues gave her a standing ovation for that line.
While Quinn was always seen as one of the two leading candidates to succeed her close ally, Gifford Miller who is gone due to term limits, she outmaneuvered Brooklyn’s Bill de Blasio and the other contenders through a combination of political savvy, coalition building, and likeability, according to her colleagues and political observers.
The day before the Council vote, Quinn met the press at a senior center at Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Greenwich Village, accompanied by her father, Lawrence Quinn, 79. Asked what tipped the election for her, she said, “When my father was on the West Side for Inez Dickens,” referring to the newly elected councilwoman from Harlem and Morningside Heights and one of the votes Quinn needed to line up to become speaker.
During her City Hall maiden address as speaker, Quinn teared up while paying tribute to her dad and to her partner, Kim Catullo, saying, “I love you both more than words can say.”
“Her colleagues picked her because she was the most qualified,” said Emily Giske, a political consultant and member of the Democratic National Committee. “As a lesbian and as a Democrat, I’ve never been more proud of anything in my life.”
Manhattan’s new borough president, Scott Stringer, said Quinn’s election “shows you can be politically skilled and be progressive.”
Ken Sherrill, a political science professor at Hunter College who was the first out gay elected official in city history when he became a Democratic district leader in 1977, said Quinn’s ascendancy is in large part the result of term limits, public financing of campaigns, and the expansion of the Council from 35 to 51 seats.
“These forced out the old guard and the old ways,” he said. “A City Council seat is no longer a lifelong sinecure for political hacks. One has eight years to accomplish enough to have respect for yourself and/or move on to higher office.”
The goal of councilmembers, Sherrill said, is to pass legislation and conduct oversight.
“She ran great oversight hearings as head of the Health Committee and she knows how to get bills passed and how to enable her colleagues to get bills passed,” Sherrill continued. “They know if the City Council goes down the tubes, they all go down” and so the members turned to Quinn for her strength, determination, and media savvy.
There was much comment on how Quinn’s election marks how far the LGBT community has come in New York. Philip Reed, the out gay representative from Manhattan Valley who just left the Council, said by phone, “I’m looking up at my wall at a poster for Phil Zwickler’s film about the passage of the gay rights bill in 1986, ‘Rights and Reactions.’ It’s got a picture of a big guy at a rally against it that says, ‘If You Pass the Gay Bill We’ll Vote You Out.’” Reed noted that Peter Vallone, the leader of the Council at the time, was at that rally. Now an out lesbian is speaker and she paid tribute to Vallone who attended her election out of respect for her.
Reed said that Quinn “was in the war room with Gifford four years ago,” helping to engineer his election as speaker.
With Reed and Margarita Lopez gone from the Council, the LGBT caucus is down to two lesbians, Quinn and Lopez’s successor, Rosie Mendez of the Lower East Side.
“Some young people need to get involved with community politics,” Reed said, if gay representation is not to wane further.
Laura Morrison, a longtime member of the Gay and Lesbian Independent Democrats and a former partner of Quinn’s, said, “So much of the LGBT agenda in the Council was enacted in the past four years that we’re in a place where a strong, progressive lesbian leader can work on a whole range of issues.”
Quinn took the lead in passing the Equal Benefits Bill, requiring businesses that contract with the city to provide domestic partner benefits if they provide spousal benefits. While the Council overrode Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s veto of the bill, he has challenged its implementation successfully so far in court, a decision the Council has appealed to the state’s high court. Bloomberg also refuses to implement a gay and trans-inclusive school anti-bullying law, calling it “silly” and “illegal.”
Quinn said, “We will continue our aggressive legal advocacy” of these measures, which have consequences not just for the LGBT community but for the powers of the City Council to make all kinds of social policy.
Bill Dobbs, an independent gay activist, criticized Quinn’s selection as a sign of “politics as usual for party bosses and backroom wheeler dealers,” a sentiment echoed by Brooklyn’s Charles Barron, the only councilmember to abstain on her elevation. He called the process “flawed.”
But councilmembers voluntarily align themselves in county blocks to gain power on choice committees for themselves.
The party leaders and high elected officials were out in force for this occasion, including queenmaker Tom Manton, the Queens Democratic leader. In 1974, Manton had pledged to support the gay rights bill but reneged when opponents brought his father to the Council chamber on the day of the vote to tell him not to. As a member of Congress, Manton eventually became a sponsor of the federal gay rights bill.
Also on hand were Congressmen Charles Rangel and Jerry Nadler, Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, former Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman, and former Public Advocate Mark Green.
Especially moved was State Senator Thomas K. Duane of the West Side. He gave housing advocate Christine Quinn her start in politics as his campaign manager in 1991 in his race for City Council, later making her his chief of staff. She succeeded him in 1999 when he went to Albany, giving her seniority over most other councilmembers by giving her the bulk of a partial term plus the two four-year terms to which all members are limited. Duane said, “She’s the best. I’m lucky I get to work with her and be her friend. Our own community is lucky to have her as a leader.”
Between working for Duane and winning his seat, Quinn served as executive director of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project of New York.
The Council meeting electing Quinn was a lovefest, with hugs and kisses all around. Her colleagues praised her for her work on banning smoking and making sure that funds to fight infant mortality were spread around the city.
“I am committed to being a five-borough speaker,” she said.
She also won praise from the leader of the Council’s three Republicans, James Oddo, who noted that they started together as staffers in 1992. He pledged the support of the Republican delegation to her leadership.
Should Quinn have the right to marry her partner?
“I’m not a proponent of gay marriage,” Oddo said, “but my position has evolved somewhat and I believe certain rights should be protected.”
But the Staten Island representative would not specify what rights he would deny to Quinn and Catullo.
Nevertheless, Oddo told Newsday, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh from the belly and she laughs from the belly,” a sound that could be heard from Quinn several times as she was mobbed by well-wishers at City Hall.
As far as the Council has gone in supporting LGBT rights, including a transgender rights law, resolutions supporting same-sex marriage have yet to be taken up despite strong support for the issue from Miller.
Florent Morellet, owner of Restaurant Florent in Quinn’s district, repeated praise heard from many about her qualities.
“She really listens to the community,” he said. “There is a clarity to Chris.”
“This is a huge victory,” said Dirk McCall, president of Stonewall Democrats. “She’s broken the glass ceiling. It says we can elect people citywide who can be out.” He added that the gay agenda is far from fulfilled in New York, citing the need for more attention to LGBT homeless youth, seniors, and people with HIV/AIDS, all of whom Quinn has expertise on.
Alan Van Capelle of the Empire State Pride Agenda said in a statement, “The fact that she has personally experienced the challenges faced by lesbian and gay New Yorkers and our families and can share those experiences with her colleagues from a place of leadership is good for our community.”
Quinn pledged to work cooperatively with Bloomberg, but said, “We will oppose the mayor when we believe we must. I have done so in the past and I will do so in the future.” She added that she hoped for “a renewed sense of trust and teamwork.”
Quinn has been particularly critical of Bloomberg for his thus far successful appeal of a court ruling ordering him to open marriage to same-sex couples in the city. Lambda Legal is appealing Bloomberg’s victory to the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest, and Bloomberg recently told Gay City News—perversely—that he “hopes” the city loses the constitutional arguments he had his attorneys make.
Last week, Quinn gained the support of Orthodox Jewish Councilman Simcha Felder of Brooklyn, the body’s most conservative Democrat, a development that perhaps more than any other foreshadowed her victory.
“Her colleagues genuinely like her,” said Alan Fleishman, a gay Democratic district leader from Park Slope. “Her sexual orientation wasn’t an issue at all with her colleagues. We’ve come a long way.”
A Catholic priest, Father Francis Shannon of Blessed Sacrament Church in Brooklyn, gave the City Hall invocation, saying “you can feel the friendship and the love” for Quinn. In the balcony, Hasidic leaders and gay leaders, once arch-enemies, applauded her election enthusiastically and respectfully. It was all quite surreal, but the embodiment of everything we’ve worked for.
Christine Quinn, at a press conference on Tuesday at Our Lady of Pompeii Church in Greenwich Village, discussed her winning the Council speaker race.