As City's Political Heat Rises, Quinn Treads Carefully, Confidently

Two June appearances in the LGBT community highlighted the political challenges facing Christine Quinn, an out lesbian Democrat, as she positions herself for next year’s run to succeed a mayor who some among her longtime progressive allies have worried she’s grown too close to in her six years as City Council speaker.

On June 4, Quinn appeared at a press conference at the Stonewall Inn at which dozens of queer organizations stood shoulder to shoulder with African-American civil rights leaders to discuss plans for the June 17 march protesting the city’s excessive reliance on stop and frisk as a policing approach.

Stop and frisk, the speaker said, is “a process that is simply broken and that, if not fixed, will only cause further division. The key to our safety as a city is a positive connection between the police and the community.” Then, zeroing in on the core complaint at the center of the controversy, she noted that last year’s nearly 700,000 stops are not distributed evenly across the city’s neighborhoods but rather “concentrated in particular subsets of New Yorkers” — people of color communities.

Others who spoke at the Stonewall event, which included Ben Jealous, the NAACP president, and the Reverend Al Sharpton, the head of the National Action Network, did not mince words in their critique of the NYPD. Sharon Stapel, executive director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (AVP), the group Quinn headed before her election to the Council, castigated the police for engaging in “unacceptable state-sanctioned violence” that represents “institutionalized racism, homophobia, and transphobia.”

Eight days after the Stonewall event, Quinn hosted the Council’s annual LGBT Pride celebration at Cooper Union — an event that underscored that despite having some vocal gay critics, she enjoys the enthusiastic support of a broad swath of the community, with many buoyant about the potential for an out lesbian mayor.

With police brass on hand, the speaker honored the NYPD LGBT Advisory Panel established in 2009 by Commissioner Raymond Kelly. The honor coincided with a joint announcement by Quinn and Kelly of a new Patrol Guide for police officers that spells out policies and procedures aimed at ensuring better NYPD treatment of transgender New Yorkers.

“I applaud Commissioner Kelly for working closely with the City Council and the LGBT community to create respectful, inclusive guidelines that are appropriate for transgender New Yorkers,” the speaker said in a release spelling out the reforms.

In a June 8 interview with Gay City News, Quinn shrugged off the suggestion that her recent advocacy on the stop and frisk issue represented a shift toward a more “outsider” posture than her role near the center of power at City Hall has occasioned in recent years.

“I think in almost every issue we’ve had success on since being speaker, almost, we’ve played insider and outsider roles — this office — depending on the issue. One might be at 80 percent, one might be at 20 percent. One might be at 50, one might be at 50. It depends. On all issues, I think, we’ve done that. And nothing I said on Monday or Tuesday — whenever that was — is different from the other statements that we’ve released. Not every statement has gotten the attention it warrants.”

In fact, letters and press releases forwarded to Gay City News after the interview with the speaker showed a mix of private and public steps she has taken on the stop and frisk question and other police matters dating back to February. That month, she wrote to Kelly raising concerns that what she, in police parlance, regularly refers to as stop, question, and frisk (SQF) “has sown distrust in communities of color.” She specifically spoke of complaints of “excessive force or abuse of authority,” “insufficient” training regarding the department’s “racial profiling policy,” inadequate supervision of officers, and “the alleged existence of productivity measures for SQF” — in other words, quotas.

In late March, Quinn’s office released a statement lauding an agreement among the NYPD, the Council, and the Bloomberg administration giving the Civil Complaint Review Board (CCRB) prosecutorial authority regarding substantiated cases against police.

Still, on May 15, the speaker issued a statement crediting Jealous, Sharpton, and other leaders for having “effectively raised concerns about the practice of stop and frisk and launched this important public discussion.”

The following day, Kelly sent Quinn a letter “to provide you with an update regarding the various steps we have taken to increase public confidence in Police Department stop, question, and frisk procedures.” The commissioner reported that the department had “republished” its policy barring racial profiling, established procedures for “local command level” audits regarding the quality of SQFs, undertaken a review of training related to SQF, and increased its vulnerable youth outreach efforts.

On May 17, Quinn acknowledged Kelly’s letter with a statement praising him for his responsiveness.

The speaker’s pattern of maintaining dialogue with both senior administration officials and their most prominent critics is a shift from her earlier days on the Council, when she was far more often on the outs, first with Mayor Rudy Giuliani and then Michael Bloomberg. During Bloomberg’s first term, Quinn was a top lieutenant to Speaker Gifford Miller, who scrambled, with limited success, to challenge the mayor’s authority.

As speaker, Quinn quickly adopted a different tack. In 2007, a year and a half into her tenure, she told Gay City News, “He’s the mayor. I’m the speaker of the City Council. We have an obligation to get as much done as we can to help New Yorkers, right? Nobody wants to hear from us in 2009 that, ‘Oh, he was difficult,” and ‘She was a bitch.’”

As a partner with the mayor and his senior team, Quinn has been cautious about making systemic critiques of city policies.

As a partner with the mayor and his senior team, Quinn has been cautious about making systemic critiques of city policies. In discussing the stop and frisk issue, she said, “There’s legislation around whether we need to tighten up the racial profiling prohibition in this city and whether we also need to create greater latitude in people’s ability to bring lawsuits,” she said. “That’s something I’d like us to move on quickly.”

The legislation the speaker referred to, the Community Safety Act, is a package of measures aimed at enforcing accountability in the NYPD and specifically barring profiling based on categories including race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Introduced by Brooklyn Councilmen Brad Lander and Jumaane Williams, the reforms have the support of many stop and frisk critics, including AVP’s Stapel.

Quinn explained that individual pieces of legislation within the package of proposed reforms were introduced at different times and that it is not yet clear when its advocates would like to have a Council hearing. She said she was committed to moving “promptly” once that question is clarified. On the specific measure that aims to expand the definition of what prohibited categories the term “profiling” covers and to strengthen the ability of individuals subjected to profiling to file suit, Quinn “can see a path through to a piece of legislation” that would be workable. “Exactly what the language” of those provisions would be remains to be worked out, she said.

To be sure, the speaker has won praise within the LGBT community for her work behind the scenes to address social justice questions. In 2009, when evidence emerged of a pattern of arrests of gay men in video stores widely seen as false arrests, Quinn brokered a meeting among some of the arrestees and their advocates and top police and administration officials.

Other LGBT elected officials, such as Lower East Side Councilwoman Rosie Mendez, were more visible in criticizing the arrests, showing up at several protest rallies, and one gay critic of the speaker faulted her for essentially being AWOL on the issue.

In response, however, the leader in the effort to fight back against the arrests, Robert Pinter, the original whistleblower on the issue, strongly pushed back against that critique.

“Christine Quinn’s leadership provided a forum for this rare admission [of errors] by the NYPD and the genesis for the positive changes that followed,” said Robert Pinter.

“Christine Quinn’s leadership provided a forum for this rare admission [of errors] by the NYPD and the genesis for the positive changes that followed,” he told Gay City News in June 2009.

Three years later, there is no evidence that the false arrests have continued, but investigations by the NYPD Internal Affairs Bureau and both District Attorney Robert Morgenthau and his successor, Cyrus Vance, Jr., failed to identify wrongdoing by any specific individual in a web of arrests that snared at least 30 men.

“The question we really don’t know about is why it started,” Quinn said. “Maybe those questions can’t always be answered, but it is frustrating, and it must be extraordinarily frustrating to people to whom it happened that we don’t have answers to those questions.”

The city and the police department initiated civil lawsuits against the establishment where the arrests took place, seeking their closure, but Quinn voiced doubts that those were motivation for the police action.

“The Blue Store, for example, we’ve been complaining about the Blue Store out of my office for years,” she said of one Chelsea video store where arrests took place. “So if they had just opened or there had just been a big round of complaints from elected officials and the community and this happened, then you’d go, ‘Okay, cause and effect. The community complained, and the police responded badly.’ But that’s not a good reason. There wasn’t something significant that changed or developed around the Blue Store… So no, that doesn’t really work for me.”

The Advisory Panel that the speaker honored was established by Commissioner Kelly, she acknowledged, after months of community criticism of the police over the video store arrests. That was not, however, a major focus of the group’s efforts, according to Quinn.

“I think that was kind of the entre — do you know what I mean?,” she said. “I think it had largely been addressed, put to bed when their work began.”

The Advisory Council’s major accomplishment to date has been the revised Patrol Guide regarding the NYPD’s relationship with the transgender community, a reform widely hailed by advocates .

Quinn has adopted a similarly middle ground position in her approach toward the public schools. During Bloomberg’s first term, she fought hard to achieve a Council override of a veto of her Dignity for All Schools Act, which aimed to curb bullying and harassment of students based on categories including sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The mayor responded by saying he would not implement the law, and Quinn vowed a court challenge.

In the first month of her speakership, however, the state’s highest bench handed the Council a stinging defeat on a similar question of its prerogatives relative to the mayor. The idea of going to court was no longer viable.

Since 2007, the speaker has worked with the Department of Education on an alternative “Respect for All” program, which she has said achieves many of the same goals of her legislation.

“We’re doing okay,” she said of the program’s progress to date. “We’re not doing good enough. You know, the recent suicide of a young boy clearly shows we’re not doing good enough. We’re doing much better than we’d ever be doing if it were not for the Respect program.”

She wasn’t prepared to offer the same positive assessment of the schools’ progress on meaningful sex education to protect the health of students. Asked about that, she laughed and said, “We have a longer way to go. You know, for all intents and purposes, we don’t significantly have, we don’t have a robust sex or health education program.”

Quinn offered no clear perspective on why a mayor so touted for his commitment to public health issues could fall down on that critical measure.

“I don’t have a good answer to that,” she said. “Is that because we have a shortage of resources financially? Maybe. Is that because maybe we need a longer school day to get to everything? Maybe. Is that because we’ve not figured out a way to take these things and hook them into the things kids get tested on?”

Quinn does not think the gaps in sex education reflect a lingering hangover from the fierce backlash that two decades ago blocked the Children of the Rainbow curriculum, which aimed to teach tolerance and diversity on issues including gay families and to provide frank sex education.

“I don’t think so,” she said when asked if that were a factor. “I don’t know. I hope not. I don’t think so.”

The speaker was most outspoken in her disagreements with the current health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley.

The speaker was most outspoken in her disagreements with the current health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley. Asked about proposed administration cuts to HIV spending, she said, “These are extraordinarily high priorities for us, extraordinarily high priorities for us. I don’t understand why Commissioner Farley has proposed these cuts. I think that they speak to the insanity of the budget dance.”

Farley, she said, has a “different focus” than one that engages local community-based organizations (CBO) in the prevention effort. She specifically disputed a recent health department statement that of $19 million eliminated in CBO funding, the Council was responsible for $11 million of that.

Farley’s original budget proposal, she said, also threatened Local Law 49, enacted more than 15 years ago — when she was then-Councilman Tom Duane’s chief of staff — to ensure quality control over what is now known as the HIV/ AIDS Services Administration (HASA). Describing a recent hearing at which Farley appeared, Quinn said, “I told the commissioner that one of the things I am most proud of in my entire career is Local Law 49 and that he would erode Local Law 49 over my dead body. Now, that was a pretty strong way for me to talk at a public hearing, but I had told him this privately and he had ignored it.”

The HASA cuts she complained of did not make it into the mayor’s executive budget, Quinn said.

If the years since 2006 saw a growing political bond between the mayor and erstwhile critic Quinn, an equally striking alliance has emerged over the past two years between the speaker and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

When Cuomo appeared at an Empire State Pride Agenda (ESPA) dinner in 2010 just weeks before his election, it was Quinn with whom he was inseparable as they walked around the cocktail reception. In victory lap appearances at ESPA and at a New York Times panel after the enactment of marriage equality, the governor was once again accompanied by Quinn, rather than the two out gay legislators — Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell and Senator Tom Duane — who pushed the bill through in Albany.

Quinn voiced sympathy for the budget crisis that faced the new governor when he came into office last year. Advocates for homeless LGBT youth have, on numerous occasions, faulted Cuomo for pulling back on state funding for beds that would serve a street population estimated at 3,800 nightly, up to 40 percent of them queer.

“I think that the state had a terrible situation over the past couple of years because, unlike the city, where we made tough choices and tried to make tough choices with a framework of priorities, the state had just for years, for decades just kicked the can down the road, so the budget needed to be addressed,” she said. “And I don’t… would I have liked more money for homeless youth? Yes. Would I have liked more money for other things? Yes. But I think they had extraordinarily difficult, difficult, difficult choices to make. A situation I’m glad I wasn’t in.”

To a meaningful degree, however, Quinn has found herself in that situation. In the past few budget cycles, it has been the Council that stepped in to fill gaps left by reduced homeless youth funding from both the state and the Bloomberg budgets — a point made repeatedly by advocates frustrated with the lack of leadership from other elected officials.

Among the most challenging public relationships for the speaker to navigate is the one with Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York’s archbishop, who is emerging as the spokesman for the nation’s Catholic prelates. Like other members of the Church hierarchy, Dolan is hostile to gay rights, having spoken out repeatedly against the new marriage equality law, and he is now leading the charge in a lawsuit opposing the Obama administration’s requirement that employers, including religious-affiliated hospitals and schools, offer insurance coverage for contraceptives. Like LGBT rights, choice is an issue dear to Quinn’s heart.

Her political differences with Dolan and the Church are complicated by her own Catholic upbringing. Though she said she does not accompany her father, Lawrence, to Mass “as much as [he] would like,” she did go to Yankee Stadium for a 2008 service led by Pope Benedict XVI, who in 1987, as Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, declared a homosexual orientation to be “intrinsically disordered.”

“To get to take my father to the pope was an extraordinarily special thing,” she said. “For any Catholic, regardless of whether you’re practicing your faith, angry at your church, agnostic about your church, the pope is still the pope, so there is some level of, some impact that he has notwithstanding all the disagreements I have with him.” Then, with a laugh, she added, “But for my father, he’s really the pope.”

Regarding Dolan, she said, “He is a leading religious, but more significantly a leading civic and public figure who has a lot of influence in this city in a lot of ways. The way he uses that influence around immigration issues, around poverty issues are ones that I often agree with, and often will ask for his help with. How he uses that influence around choice and women’s issues and LGBT issues are not ones that I agree with. And he knows that. And we’ve had those conversations. But I don’t think it’s useful for me to shut down communication with anybody ever.”

The speaker noted that when Republican gubernatorial candidate Carl Paladino made inflammatory remarks about the LGBT community in the final weeks of the 2010 campaign, Dolan spoke about the need for people to be “respectful of each other.”

“I called and thanked him,” she recalled. “And he said he very much appreciated that call.”

Putting a finer point on her political disagreements with the cardinal, however, Quinn added, “We’re not the ones in the wrong here, so why should we have to remove ourselves? To say that we’re the ones who should decide not to be someplace makes it look like we’re saying we’re the ones in the wrong. And I am just never going to do that.”

There is no hint of apology in Quinn’s attitude toward engaging political opponents in dialogue and shows of public comity. As the interview wound up, she pulled down from a shelf a picture of her with Dolan as they were handing out turkeys together last Thanksgiving in Harlem. The speaker said upon leaving the event to get back to City Hall for a hearing on the living wage bill, on which she had not yet staked out a public position, she asked the cardinal to pray for her. The picture shows Dolan with his hands on Quinn’s shoulders and his head bowed.

Asked if Dolan had congratulated her on her recent wedding, the speaker said they hadn’t had occasion to speak since then.

“I’d be surprised it he didn’t say something,” Quinn said. “I mean, I don’t think he’ll send a gift.”