The Education of a Council Speaker

It was roughly a decade ago when I first met Christine Quinn, though I only learned this morning that her Irish-American bona fides are impressively enhanced by the middle name Callaghan, her late mother Mary’s last name at birth.

She was very young at the time—not yet 30—and though I am older than the new City Council speaker, I was young as a reporter, while she had five years experience as chief of staff to then-City Councilman Tom Duane, now in the State Senate. In asking her assistance in noodling through a particularly thorny political issue, I finally came to a bottom-line question I often settled on in my reporting at that time—was this issue related to mayoral politics and the potential re-election of Rudy Giuliani two years hence? Without skipping a beat, Quinn responded, thankfully without a hint of condescension, “Everything always has to do with everything else.”

It was at that moment that I first became cognizant that Quinn, despite her laser focus on the details of numerous policy questions, also has the instinctive feel for the bigger picture that enables one to become a leader among peers. It was clear that she would one day enter elective politics on her own.

I got to know her during her last year serving Duane, before she left to assume the helm at the New York City Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project. It was abundantly apparent that she had the complete trust of her boss Duane and in turn was faithful in carrying out his mission on the City Council—particularly with respect to decent treatment of New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.

I was not aware of the intensely close personal bond between the two until the going-away party Duane threw for Quinn when she departed for AVP. In a bittersweet toast, the councilman said that in another era, he and Quinn might have married, before he lightened the mood by adding that today “that would ruin both our careers.”

At that party, I first came across another of Quinn’s major political assets—the love and unflagging support of her doting and plain-spoken father, Lawrence. I have run into him at numerous political events since then, and I was not surprised to read in Andy Humm’s front page story that she credited her father’s campaigning for Harlem’s new City Councilwoman Inez Dickens this past fall as tipping the balance in her fight for the speakership.

At AVP, Quinn confronted a whole new world of challenges. That organization has consistently had strong leadership—beginning with Matt Foreman, who now heads the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and following Quinn, with Richard Haymes and now Clarence Patton. Quinn’s tenure came at a key pivotal moment for AVP. During Foreman’s years, the community was often still on the outside in terms of pressuring the police and the city to take seriously the reality of anti-gay violence in New York.

The need to play the activist role continued under Quinn (and still does), but the organization was also growing dramatically in terms of its position as a critical social service provider. The transition involved growing pains and the need for new approaches to leadership. Quinn did not prevail without a fair degree of criticism, including some from staff frustrated by the organization’s changing nature, but in my experience she proved willing to confront questions—at least from the press—with openness and candor.

On the Council, Quinn early showed signs of becoming a leader, and Andy Humm and many other journalists this week have chronicled her efforts at City Hall. My recollection of her early years there involves her efforts to assume the mantle of advocacy on HIV/AIDS issues. In partnership with former Councilman Stephen DiBrienza, then chair of the General Welfare Committee, Quinn pressed Giuliani administration officials repeatedly over their failure to provide adequate social services and housing to New Yorkers living with the virus. She also worked effectively with former Speaker Peter Vallone to secure significant and needed levels of funding for the renovation of the LGBT Community Center.

In the past four years, Quinn forged an alliance with former Speaker Gifford Miller that in many ways was reminiscent of her bond with Duane. It would be unfair to Miller to say that he required any special education on LGBT issues—he had spoken out on them since his first days in public life—but it would also be a disservice to Quinn not to credit her with substantial influence over the focus that the Council brought to our community’s concerns. On transgender rights, domestic partnership, and school bullying, Miller’s Council was a stand-up player in city politics, often in defiance of a reluctant, even obstructionist Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Christine Quinn does the LGBT community proud. As the mayor, the Council, and the city prepare to roll up our collective sleeves and get back to work, post-election and post-holidays, it is appropriate for us to celebrate the new speaker’s victory.

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