Power’s Promises and Limits

Christine Quinn talks her about her hopes as Council speaker and how she got there

A little more than a week into her four-year term as speaker of the City Council, Christine Quinn, a lesbian Democrat from Chelsea, expounded on why she embarked on her path to the second most powerful post in New York, what she is most proud of having accomplished, and the distance her colleagues still have to travel before embracing full civil rights for gays and lesbians.

“It’s completely daunting and overwhelming to the verge of nausea,” Quinn said half in jest about the tasks ahead, “but that’s OK because it should be. It’s that big of a job.”

Quinn was interviewed for the “Gay USA” MNN cable TV show that this reporter co-hosts with Ann Northrop, scheduled to air in Manhattan on Thursday January 19 at 11 p.m. on Time-Warner 34 and RCN 110, and simulcast at mnn.org channel 34. It is also seen throughout the week on the Dish Network through Free Speech TV.

Christine Quinn grew up in Glen Cove, Long Island and moved to the city after going to Hartford’s Trinity College where she was a “team mascot”—a rooster that “bopped cheerleaders over the head.” She was a housing organizer, then campaign manager for Tom Duane who became the first out gay and HIV-positive person elected to the City Council in 1991. When Duane was elected to the State Senate in 1998, Quinn blew away the competition in the special election the following February to succeed him.

Quinn said that she began to think about the possibility of running for speaker about a year after serving as Gifford Miller’s “de facto campaign manager” when he successfully ran for the post four years ago and made her Health Committee chair. She said she used to think that elective office which came with only one vote was less powerful than community organizing that could affect many legislative votes, but started to feel differently after she went to work as Duane’s chief of staff.

“When you become chair of a committee,” she said, “you see how when you move up the ladder you get more influence and impact than you would think from just the title.”

Asked about her proudest accomplishment in as an organizer and legislator, Quinn said “bar none” it was as Duane’s chief of staff helping to save the Division of AIDS Services from elimination—as a separate, one-stop shopping agency for HIV-positive New Yorkers in need of city assistance—by Rudy Giuliani when he took office in 1994. Quinn helped organize “thousands of people outside City Hall” on the new mayor’s first full day on the job, a show of force that convinced the administration to back off its plan.

She now is making it a priority to see to it that the HIV/AIDS Services Administration, the new name for the division, does not place its clients in “substandard, slumlord housing.” Quinn voiced the same concern about all city residents eligible for and in need of city housing assistance.

Quinn said she would be meeting with Schools Chancellor Joel Klein soon and among the issues she intends to raise is the dearth of AIDS education in the schools. A new curriculum was just introduced, but it makes scant mention of gay concerns regarding the virus, despite the disproportionate risk of HIV infection faced by LGBT youth.

While Quinn has said repeatedly since winning her new post that she wants to work closely with Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she intends to take him on where they disagree, including on LGBT issues. He is in court challenging the validity of the Equal Benefits Law, a measure shepherded by Quinn on the Council, requiring city contractors to provide domestic partner benefits to gay and lesbian employees if they are offered to workers’ spouses. Quinn added that the Council is “exploring” ways to compel the mayor to enforce the Dignity in All Schools Act, an anti-bullying measure for the schools. Both the benefits and the bullying measures were passed in 2004 over Bloomberg’s vetoes.

A resolution supporting the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry has been pending in the Council for a couple of years, but has yet to move.

“Honestly, I don’t know tomorrow if we tried to vote on that resolution we would pass it,” Quinn said. “I don’t want to pretend we’re further along than we are. I think we have a lot of education we need to do with my colleagues in the Council about marriage,” noting that almost everyone is “fine” with domestic partner benefits and voted for her Equal Benefits Bill. “But there is a huge drop-off when you go from domestic partnership to gay marriage,” she added.

Quinn said that to contribute to a more positive atmosphere around same-sex marriage as it is considered by the courts in New York, it is critical that the Council pass its marriage resolution by a wide margin. Otherwise, it will not have the desired impact.

Asked if she were willing to serve as a “personal example” in this fight, Quinn said, “If you’re not willing to do that as an LGBT person, then you can’t run for these offices.” She hopes her contribution of “an additional human face” for gay people will help move the agenda forward. “People like to see someone who is a fighter and a risk taker—people who are comfortable with themselves,” she said.

Much has been made about the fact that Quinn is the first woman and first out gay or lesbian person to be speaker, but she is also the first to have been arrested in civil disobedience actions—“probably about a dozen times,” she said—including protests against the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that excludes Irish gay groups from participating. Quinn conceded that she “hates” getting arrested.

Asked about restrictions placed on the civil liberties of protesters in recent years by the police department, Quinn said she was unsure of what the Council could do beyond oversight but said she would explore the role it could play, citing the hearings that were held in response to mistreatment of protesters at the 2004 Republican National Convention.

Quinn’s father, Lawrence, surprised some when he, one of her biggest boosters and assets, told The New York Times last week when asked about her sexuality, “Denial is a good mechanism. I’m not OK with it. It’s more you’re resigned to it. She’s a good daughter.” Yet the elder Quinn, 79, has worked for many candidates and issues.

“Issues of sexual orientation for families are not always easy or black and white,” Christine Quinn said in our interview.

The new speaker will be celebrated at the LGBT Community Center, 208 West 13th Street, on Wednesday, January 25 at 5:30 p.m.

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