“I couldn’t describe how little interest I have in men,” Christine Quinn said. “Or I could–but I don’t think that it would be appropriate.”
It was a sunny Friday afternoon, and Ms. Quinn was heading back into City Hall. Lobbyists and City Council members trickled out of the building, seeking an early start to the weekend. But Ms. Quinn, the openly gay City Council member for Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Clinton, lingered near the City Hall steps, putting the finishing touches on a bit of much-needed damage control.
She was trying to convince a reporter that, contrary to what her political enemies have been saying lately, she is queer down to her hair follicles.
And Ms. Quinn, 32, a self-proclaimed “bitch,” has amassed a startling number of these enemies in her four-month tenure. Some say she is vindictive; she has bumped people who have crossed her from community boards in her district. Others grouse she is too sympathetic to neighborhood transvestite prostitutes; she calls them “transgender sex workers.” And while tough pols like Elizabeth Holtzman and Geraldine Ferraro took years to show their sharp edges, Ms. Quinn has been tagged from the get-go, and has already been called everything from “immature” to “disgusting” to a “professional lesbian.”
Then, of course, there is the nasty allegation that she is straight–which could amount to political death in her heavily gay district. Until now, she had left her defense to allies, who argued she was “a dyke through and through” while Ms. Quinn remained above the fray. But the rumor lived on, in the New York Post , the National Examiner , even on a radio show in Massachusetts.
So, at the Starbucks across from City Hall, Ms. Quinn had decided to squash the rumors herself.
“I’m a lesbian. Yup. Hundred percent. Hundred percent,” she said. “I remember being in college and I had fallen in love with this woman, and I remember sitting in my dorm room saying out loud to myself, like, you have enough problems. You are not gonna let this happen. You just kinda, like, stuff it away until–well, some people stuff it away forever.”
So much for that nasty rumor. But this round of attacks is only the beginning. Although she has only been on the Council since February, when she won a four-way special election for the seat vacated by Tom Duane, who is now a state senator, Ms. Quinn is the target of a whispering campaign that is bitchy even by the standards of gay politics, where no rumor is too salacious to spread and no grudge is too petty to harbor for decades.
Neighborhood anticrime crusaders, outraged by her sympathies with transgender sex workers, secretly tape-record her at public meetings, in hopes of catching her in a crazy moment. And they haven’t been disappointed–particularly when she shakes up the locals with her swaggering boasts of bureaucratic conquest. At a recent meeting of Community Board 2, she drew gasps when telling of an episode with a hapless city commissioner: “I’ll be frank: I ripped her a new asshole!”
And some complain Ms. Quinn is savoring the taste of power, punishing political foes with Tammany-in-lavender tactics that have no place in the Village and Chelsea, the heart of Democratic reform politics. One local who had crossed Ms. Quinn said he received an ominous call from a Quinn aide: He’d do well to remember he was up for reappointment to a community board under her control .
What’s more, Ms. Quinn’s campaign of last fall, as well as her subsequent antics, have unleashed a frenzy of infighting in one of the Village’s most venerable political clubs, the Village Independent Democrats. Some leaders of the club–founded 0in the 1950’s to overthrow the corrupt rulers of Manhattan clubhouse politics–are so upset that they say Ms. Quinn represents nothing less than the resurrection of old-school bossism.
“There’s a very mean and vindictive spirit in her,” said Hal Friedman, the president of V.I.D. “She’s beginning to act like a Tammany hack.”
Ms. Quinn doesn’t see herself as a hack. She prefers the term “bitch.”
“I am very clear that a part of my personality is what some people might call a bitch,” she said. “And I am very comfortable with that. I accept it both as a personality asset and as a personality defect. And I think as I’ve gotten more mature–$500,000 worth of therapy later–I know when to be a bitch and I know when not to be a bitch. I make a conscious decision about when I’m gonna, you know, open up the bitch tap and let the water run. It can be really effective when I need it to. I’ve gotten through to people who are far more important than me by being, you know, a real bitch to their staff on the telephone.” Who said the zeal has gone out of public life?
Ms. Quinn has smooth red hair, with the round face and open features of Rosie O’Donnell. She occasionally unleashes a deafening, machine-gun laugh that makes you want to dive under a table. She belongs to a new crop of young, aggressive Council members–including Margarita López of the Lower East Side and Bill Perkins of Harlem, who will outlast the 2001 term limit of many fellow Council members–who take their mandate very seriously and have helped energize the Council with their hard work.
“In the few weeks that she’s been in the Council, Christine has shown the kind of energy and courage and guts that the Council desperately needs,” said Chris Meyer, the executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Ms. Quinn has spent many years raising her profile on the West Side. From 1996 until 1998, she was executive director of the New York Gay and Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, which earned her a reputation as a warrior for gay rights. Before that, she served for five years as chief of staff to the popular Mr. Duane, who groomed Ms. Quinn as his successor. This has led some to see her as a Tom Duane clone–a tool in the latter’s efforts to expand his influence over West Side politics.
“I have a long record of activism from before I worked for Tom,” Ms. Quinn responded. “I had an independent life as an activist when I worked for him. And my service to the community continued after I left his office.”
There’s no question that Ms. Quinn has distinguished herself on her own. At the same time, by blithely calling herself a bitch, by producing new anal cavities in city commissioners, Ms. Quinn places herself in a rich West Side tradition: young pols on the make who elevate themselves by being noisy and outrageous. The young Ed Koch, for instance, spent years honing his irascible public persona by savaging opponents at community meetings. Being loud and flamboyant is a particular badge of honor in gay politics. In his 1991 Council race, for instance, Mr. Duane squeaked past the opposition in part by mailing a letter to 40,000 West Side households proclaiming he was H.I.V. positive.
For her part, however, Ms. Quinn occasionally lets her bitch tap run so hard that the basin overflows. On March 25, she miffed some colleagues at a ceremony in memory of Bella Abzug, the late and sainted former Council member from the Upper West Side. At the event, on the second floor of City Hall, members paid respects to Abzug. But Ms. Quinn distinguished herself by neglecting to mention Abzug’s name. And at one point, she startled some present by describing her new job: “I like to think of it as being a professional pain in the ass on the taxpayer’s dollar.”
“It was completely, outrageously inappropriate for a service like that,” recalled Abzug’s daughter, Liz Abzug, a lesbian activist who backed a Quinn opponent for Council. “She says the most insane things.”
“I in no way meant a slight to her mother,” Ms. Quinn responded. “I started talking and I didn’t think it through … I was really upset by that.”
Ms. Quinn, who grew up in Glen Cove, L.I., has an interesting political lineage of her own. Her mother, who died of breast cancer when Ms. Quinn was 16, was a social worker for a Catholic charity, and her father was a union shop steward and devotee of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In an early brush with City Hall, one of Ms. Quinn’s grandfathers was a Fire Department battalion chief who occasionally drove Fiorello La Guardia to fires, which the former Mayor, a Republican, enjoyed as a spectator.
Some West Side politicos said Ms. Quinn does not have proper respect for another political institution, the Village Independent Democrats. During the campaign for the February special election, a large swath of V.I.D. endorsed an opponent of Ms. Quinn, leading to a big split in the club. More recently, V.I.D. tried to make peace, offering to endorse Ms. Quinn in this fall’s formal election for her seat. But Ms. Quinn rejected the endorsement–a big “screw you” to the venerable club.
“Usually, people are more gracious winners,” observed Deborah Glick, Assembly member of the West Side and a friend of Ms. Quinn.
Ms. Quinn was unapologetic. “At this moment in time, V.I.D. just isn’t a place where I can be effective,” she said.
Then there is the strange case of Kyle Merker, who charges he was bumped from midtown’s Community Board 5 by Ms. Quinn–in retaliation for challenging a Quinn loyalist for the coveted post of Board 5’s vice chairman. Not exactly Tammany Hall, perhaps–but unpleasant nonetheless for Mr. Merker, who loves his community board hobby. (He was reappointed by Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields.) Ms. Quinn responded that she thought Mr. Merker was “overly politicizing” the board.
And then there was Ms. Quinn’s recent Board 2 appearance. Board members said they were counting on her to push for changes to the widely debated Chelsea Rezoning Plan at a Borough Board meeting. But, they said, Ms. Quinn didn’t come through. At the meeting, they angrily demanded to know why.
Her response: She had “left a message” the day before on Board 2’s answering machine, asking them for their specific demands, and they hadn’t replied. But no one on the board could recall any such message. (It was at that meeting that Ms. Quinn recounted how she had rerouted the anatomy of the city commissioner.)
Given such rough tactics, it’s not surprising that foes felt comfortable retaliating by trying to cast doubt on her sexuality. About six weeks after her election, Ms. Quinn and her girlfriend of seven years agreed to separate–suspect timing, many murmured. Then word spread that last summer she had adopted a dog– with a man –a possible sign Ms. Quinn had gone over to the other side.
But one local gay observer told The Observer that that was unlikely.
“The guy they’re trying to tie her to is the most nellie homosexual I’ve ever seen,” he said.
“Effeminate,” the observer continued. “If they tied her to a butch-er man, they might have had a chance.”
For her part, Ms. Quinn categorically denied the breakup was a sign of any waning interest in women. “Maybe the romantic part of our relationship will come back some day,” she said. “But not now.”
At the end of the interview, near the steps of City Hall, Ms. Quinn opened up her bitch faucet again. Only this time, it was all in fun. She was worried, she said, about how she would look in the little cartoon drawing on the front page of this newspaper.
“I have a thing with weight,” she said, wagging her finger. “So if they draw me all jowly, you’re in trouble.”
Additional reporting by Annia Ciezadlo.