The Speaker's Calibrated Voice

Christine Callaghan Quinn has served as speaker of the City Council for less than 18 months, but that is not to suggest that her political posture in New York and in Democratic politics, at home and nationwide, has not been altered dramatically.

As the most visible and powerful LGBT elected official in the state, Quinn alone shared the stage, as it were, with Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton at a meeting with three-dozen community leaders at an Upper East Side townhouse last October and she can potentially play, along with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a decisive role in delivering the votes in Albany that could, later or sooner, make marriage equality for gay and lesbian New York couples a reality.

As the top aide to then-Councilman Tom Duane, as head of the Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project (AVP), and as a key ally of former Speaker Gifford Miller, Quinn was universally known as a fierce advocate for services for New Yorkers living with AIDS, for an aggressive police response to hate crimes, and for Council measures to push the frontier of the LGBT political agenda.

To be sure, the issues that animated her early career remain indelibly linked to her public persona, and her role as the first out lesbian or gay Council speaker will never stray far from the center of her political biography. Yet, as speaker her role is not to uncompromisingly demand action at a remove from power, but rather to work with other major players to enact what can get done. At some junctures political realities have intruded, and on several issues she has found herself at odds with former allies.

And of course the very real possibility that Quinn will mount a serious, likely spirited run for mayor in 2009, when both she and the incumbent reach their term limits under the law, colors any discussion of her moves.

On May 24, Quinn, who has represented Chelsea and Hell's Kitchen since 1999, sat down with Gay City News for a wide-ranging interview that covered the battle for gay marriage, persistent challenges in the effort to curb New York's HIV epidemic, the city's nightlife, her relations with Bloomberg, and her thoughts about succeeding him.

As the Democratic-controlled Assembly in Albany is poised on the verge of taking action on the marriage equality bill introduced at the end of April by Governor Eliot Spitzer (see related story, p. 3), Quinn described her role as that of a soldier waiting for her “orders.”

“We're working very closely with Danny O'Donnell and the Pride Agenda,” she said, referring to the out gay Upper West Side Assembly marriage sponsor and the statewide gay lobbying group, “and are looking to Danny and ESPA for work marching orders.”

Quinn suggested that she and Bloomberg can play important roles in working with a Council member to help lobby an undecided legislator who represents the same neighborhoods.

“The degree to which getting a Council member to say, 'I'm for this' helps move an Assembly member or senator, then the mayor and I should try to go get those Council members,” she said. “And I would be shocked if we were unable to.”

Quinn emphasized that such targeted lobbying was a better use of resources than trying to get a Council vote on a pro-marriage resolution, first promised by former Speaker Miller at a 2004 City Hall press conference at which he joined Quinn and other leading advocates.

She was unequivocal in stating that Bloomberg was ready to join her in the marriage push.

“The mayor almost always… frequently when I meet with him says, 'Tell me when I need to go to Albany,'” Quinn said.

With little time left to get an Assembly vote prior to the recess in late June – everyone acknowledges that action in the GOP-controlled Senate will not happen this year – Quinn said her efforts will be rapid-fire this spring, snapping her fingers several times quickly.

Even as she talked about the mayor's commitment to work with her on marriage, Quinn acknowledged that Bloomberg had trumped her on several key initiatives she spearheaded prior to becoming speaker. Within weeks of assuming the post in early 2006, the Court of Appeals, New York's highest, ruled that the Council had overstepped its bounds in passing legislation over Bloomberg's veto requiring that all contractors doing business with the city offer their gay and lesbian employees domestic partner benefits equal to those given married employees for their spouses.

Another Council victory for Quinn during the mayor's first term was overriding his veto of a measure that would provide protection for students bullied and assaulted in public schools because of their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression or identity, or disability, among a variety of categories. Bloomberg supports a virtually identical measure being debated in Albany, but refuses to implement the city law passed by the Council.

Quinn has concluded that fighting City Hall further on this or on the contractor measure will come to naught. Speaking of the Court of Appeals ruling, she said, “It made clear that we don't have the ability to force the mayor to implement laws that he doesn't want to implement and that just stinks.” However, she does not plan any further legal challenges nor will she take any more stabs at Council efforts on those issues, saying instead that change can only come from gaining greater authority relative to the mayor from the state Legislature's renewal of “mayoral control.”

The speaker voiced disappointment with another recent administration decision – the 11th hour move by the city health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Frieden, withdrawing a proposal his department had put on the table to allow transgendered New Yorkers who provide medical certification of having gone through gender transitioning (whether it involved sexual reassignment surgery or less invasive hormonal or other drug treatments) to have their birth certificates changed to reflect the new gender in which they are living.

“Right after it happened, I had conversations with the health commissioner to express my disappointment and surprise actually because I don't think that anyone thought that that was going to happen,” Quinn said.

At the request of trans activists, she said, she spoke to Frieden to facilitate follow-up meetings that would hopefully “lead us to a place where we can do what we originally thought was going to happen.”

According to advocates close to the issue, however, a meeting has taken place at which senior health department staff, though not including Frieden, indicated that the proposal as originally contemplated would not be revisited.

Those advocates are currently working to set up a meeting with Quinn's office.

One issue on which Quinn has parted company with activists with whom she has previously worked closely is the demand that full access to the city's HIV/ AIDS Services Administration, or HASA, and particularly to housing assistance, be provided to all New Yorkers who have tested positive for HIV, rather than only those with an AIDS diagnosis. “HASA For All” was a key rallying cry in the 20th anniversary march commemorating the founding of ACT UP held March 29 in Lower Manhattan.

Advocates, most vocally the AIDS services group Housing Works, argue that housing is a critical tool both in HIV prevention and health maintenance. People living without stable housing are more likely to engage in unsafe sex, the argument goes, and some HIV-positive homeless people are so desperate for housing that they would prefer to let their health deteriorate to the point where they get an AIDS diagnosis rather than continue living on the streets.

“It's a very radical shift to decide that housing is the best prevention tool possible,” Quinn said, underscoring a point her office has made that HASA For All is not sufficiently tailored to the problem at hand. “And it's a large allocation of resources and the question becomes. 'Is there a better way?'”

The most controversial point the speaker made, however, was that Housing Works, after one meeting, had walked away from the table, while she continues to caucus with other advocates.

“That's so dishonest,” responded Charles King, Housing Works' president, who charged Quinn had avoided a meeting for the better part of last year until he button-holed her at a World AIDS Day event in December. When he and other advocates met with her early this year, King said she did not state her opposition but was told they would wait only so long for her to decide until they began to agitate publicly on the issue. Since that time, he maintained, Quinn on at least one occasion dodged him at a public gathering.

Jennifer Flynn, who heads up the New York City AIDS Housing Network, confirmed King's account of how the meetings played out, saying a series of detailed meetings with Council staff preceded the sit-down with Quinn. Ginny Shubert, a policy consultant engaged by the housing advocates, worked closely with Council staff on developing budget projections of the annual cost of the HASA For All initiative, which ranged, under what she said were very conservative estimates, from $30 to $60 million, that number not taking into account offsets from state contributions and from rental payments required of certain of the tenants involved.

Shubert said that a systemic analysis of the net savings in government expenditures, comparing health care savings and improved productivity to the outlays for housing, demonstrate a clear cost effectiveness for the proposal.

Flynn, who recalled Quinn standing in the snow outside welfare offices to demand city action on emergency housing for people with AIDS, said she could “not fathom” any reason the speaker opposed the HASA For All proposal other than for its cost.

According to Flynn, a broad coalition that includes her group and Housing Works among many participants, is moving forward with a legislative proposal to enact the initiative, to be introduced by Bronx Councilwoman Annabel Palma at the end of June. She added that the coalition has requested another meeting with Quinn.

The speaker also parted company with some customary progressive allies, most prominently the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), over the package of nightlife security laws enacted earlier this year, largely in response to several high profile 2006 murders of young women who just hours before their deaths had been out in Manhattan clubs. The measures involved provisions for clubs to electronically scan and store, at least temporarily, personal identification information and to install video surveillance equipment.

Asked whether the new laws posed privacy threats, Quinn responded, “I have a pretty firm position that one murder is one too many.” Acknowledging the need to balance public safety and privacy rights, and making a clear distinction between her measures and the abuses in the federal Patriot Act, which she said “throw[s] away civil liberties,” the speaker said her office had talked with the NYCLU “constantly.”

“The NYCLU in the end didn't support the bill but I think they would say that it was significantly better than the one that was initially introduced,” she asserted.

In fact, according to Maggie Gram, an NYCLU spokeswoman, the group “vigorously opposed the final bill.”

“We suggested a number of changes to protect life and liberties and public safety,” Gram said this week. “None were taken.” The potential privacy abuses, she said, included the stigma some club-goers could face in their lives if it were known they had entered a gay or lesbian nightclub.

Regarding what appears to be a fairly sunny relationship she enjoys with the mayor, Quinn pointed to two issues that preceded her speakership, noting they'd shared “some pretty high-profile disagreements, the West Side Stadium being the biggest, and we had some pretty high-profile agreements, the smoking law being one of them.”

At the end of the day, she said, “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.'”

“I gotta get things done and that doesn't mean changing my core set of beliefs,” the speaker added, “but it does mean finding points of commonality.”

Asked whether she was willing to give Gay City News a “Yep, I'm Running” headline, Quinn said she had recently been at a reception hosted by another newspaper in town, where reporters kept asking about whether she would seek the mayor's job in 2009. When it was time to leave the gathering, she told one of the hosts, “I'm going to run,” which elicited a nearly hysterical response. “No, no,” Quinn told the man. “I gotta leave. I gotta run.”

With that, she stood up, bag in hand, and told Gay City News, “I gotta run.”