As Council’s Powers Expanded, So Did Chris Quinn’s

By Maurice Pinzon
On January 4 Christine C. Quinn became the first woman and gay member of the New York City Council to become its speaker. Fifty of 51 members voted in her favor, with only Council member Charles Barron abstaining from the vote.

Council member Quinn overcame formidable challenges from Brooklyn Council member Bill de Blasio — who at one point had garnered 17 members’ support — and Council member Melinda Katz, a very successful fundraiser for the Democratic Party.

After the council meeting on Wednesday, Council member Barron, speaking to reporters, indicated that even though he held Speaker Quinn in high regard, he strongly objected to the process by which she had been selected. Barron charged that, “the county of Queens is running the city council.”

He added, “I know it’s coming from the county level because Christine wouldn’t do this.”

Council member Charles Barron assessed Ms. Quinn’s politics, by saying, “I think she’s quite frankly a little more progressive than [former Speaker] Gifford [Miller] — her politics and her philosophy — but it’s the pragmatism that I’m concerned about, and I don’t think there’s any difference there.”

However, Mr. Barron was not concerned about Speaker Quinn’s courage to stand up to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Mr. Barron described Speaker Quinn as “very sharp, she’s very intelligent. She can handle herself with the mayor.”

Based on various interviews and this reporter’s contact with Ms. Quinn in the early 90’s, Speaker Quinn has navigated through the tube of power in New York City’s politics with a unique combination of skill, pragmatism, and groundbreaking vision. Ms. Quinn has had her eye on the City Council for a long time, and in some ways, her political power has grown alongside the council’s.

In the early 90’s, following the New York City Charter Revision Commission’s recommended — and voter-approved — changes to the City Charter to comply with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the City violated the one person-one vote rule, the City Council gained power over land use, zoning, and the City budget.

Accompanying the power shift, the City Council expanded by 16 districts, infusing the newly empowered legislative body with open seats. Ms. Quinn saw the opportunity to support candidates who could fill the council’s vacancies.

In 1991 Ms. Quinn was working for the Association for Neighborhood Housing and Development when, over lunch, Ms. Quinn and her friend Jeffrey Plaut formulated the idea of starting an organization of well-educated, politically active young people willing to assist progressive candidates running for City Council.

Ms. Quinn, the consummate organizer, quickly listed what she and Mr. Plaut needed to do to get their project off the ground. They formed a group called PROPAC to raise money for candidates and bring together talented and politically ambitious individuals who had the time and skills to help run credible campaigns for people whom PROPAC viewed as progressives.

Next, Ms. Quinn and Mr. Plaut obtained the contact information for Coro and Urban Fellow participants, two programs for college graduates interested in public service.

They visited and spoke to anyone who would listen to them. Among their early contacts was Council member Ronnie M. Eldridge, who many recognized as perhaps the only independent and liberal Council member. Ms. Eldridge had just been elected to the council in 1990. Ms. Quinn and Mr. Plaut spoke to Ms. Eldridge’s chief of staff, Lisa Gugenheim, who did not agree to help in any specific way but did suggest others they could contact.

One evening, Margaret Nelson and this reporter, both also working at the time for Council member Eldridge, met with Ms. Quinn and Mr. Plaut at a Blarney Stone bar located at East 59th Street. In a recent interview with New York News Network, Ms. Nelson, who is now the Director of Real Estate Programs for the Brooklyn Development Corporation, recalled the first time she met Ms. Quinn.

Ms. Nelson said, “I first met and worked with Christine back when she was an affordable housing advocate and was starting PROPAC to organize support for progressive candidates for the expanding City Council in 1991.” She remembered Ms. Quinn as “sharp, dedicated,” adding that she “had a magnetic personality.”

Although Ms. Quinn and Mr. Plaut listened to the views of a diverse group of people, they always seemed eager to keep PROPAC on practical footing, tapping into the idealism of its members but focused on accomplishing concrete results — getting people elected to the council.

Eventually a recruiting event was organized in a loft space at 736 Broadway that belonged to someone helping the group. When about 125 young people showed up to the first meeting, PROPAC’s leaders realized that they had succeeded in reaching the very people they wanted in PROPAC. One person described it as the “wow” moment for the organization.

These new members included Andrew Kimball, recently appointed by Mayor Bloomberg as President of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation. He was previously Director of Operations for NYC2012, New York City’s Olympic bid committee.

Recently, when this reporter asked him what he recalled about Ms. Quinn, Mr. Kimball said, “I remember her as being an incredibly bright strategist and just an incredibly likable person.”

Others present at PROPAC meetings included Eric T. Schneiderman, now a New York State Senator; Bill Lipton, currently Co-Deputy Director of the Working Families Party; Jennifer O’Connor, who went on to become a White House assistant during the Clinton administration; and Julia Rothwax, who later worked for both the Clinton and Bradley presidential campaigns.

But soon after the successful first meeting of PROPAC, Ms. Quinn left to run Thomas K. Duane’s campaign for City Council. Mr. Duane was running in one of the newly created council districts. Years later, Ms. Quinn would replace Mr. Duane in the council after Mr. Duane ran for State Senate. In an interview with New York News Network, State Senator Duane recalled his first encounter with Ms. Quinn. Mr. Duane said, “I was just very impressed with her organizing skills and her zeal.”

Recalling the City Council race that Ms. Quinn managed, Senator Duane said, “We thought it was going to be your basic grassroots campaign.” But soon after, he said, “It turned out to be much higher profile. But she really met the challenge in every way. Not just the organizing, which I knew she’d be great on, but also the media — the sort of higher stakes that became part of the campaign.”

After taking office, Senator Duane made Ms. Quinn his Chief of Staff. Senator Duane said, “I think that I would have started off as a very good council member, but I think she made me a great council member.”

Senator Duane also credited Ms. Quinn with defending local school boards from a political attack by what he called a “Right-wing” attempt to take over the boards. Senator Duane said Ms. Quinn “was a big organizer of something called SCHOOL PAC, which was like PROPAC, and went out and recruited and helped to elect progressive school board candidates.”

Senator Duane also said Council member Quinn had been an important catalyst in the West Side community’s successful opposition to the stadium proposal, which the Bloomberg administration vigorously supported. Mr. Duane said during the conflict, Ms. Quinn was at her best, as “a fabulous organizer, fierce fighter and also a great negotiator.”

PROPAC would go on without Ms. Quinn to support the following candidates for City Council: Una Clarke and Pete Williams in Brooklyn, and Guillermo Linares and Mr. Duane in Manhattan. All the candidates won their races except for Mr. Williams.

PROPAC had a particularly significant impact on Linares’s disorganized campaign, helping him get on the ballot and eventually win the election.

Mr. Linares got elected and served in the council until he was forced out by term limits. He now serves as commissioner of the Bloomberg administration’s Office of Immigrant Affairs.

Mr. Plaut is now a partner with Global Strategy Group, a polling, marketing and political consulting firm.

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