The Speaker’s Pier Pressure

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn has been a breath of fresh air since taking over the Council a couple of years ago. So it is all the more disappointing when she acts like an old-fashioned hack rather than a capable civic leader.

Ms. Quinn recently accepted campaign contributions from the owner of a shipping company, American Stevedoring International, which is fighting a Port Authority plan to sell several piers on the Brooklyn waterfront to the city. The company’s owner, Sabato Catucci, and several family members sent $17,500 to Ms. Quinn’s coffers as she prepares for an expected mayoral campaign when her term in the Council expires in 2009.

The Bloomberg administration wants to convert the piers, located in Red Hook, so that they can be used by cruise ships and private yachts. ASI currently leases the piers from the Port Authority.

Not long after Mr. Catucci and his kin sent their checks to Ms. Quinn, the speaker announced her support for the company’s position in its fight with City Hall. Coincidence? Perhaps—Ms. Quinn is hardly the only New York politician who is supporting ASI. The company has the backing of U.S. Senator Charles Schumer, City Comptroller William Thompson and Congressmen Jerrold Nadler and Anthony Weiner. They are urging the Port Authority to grant ASI a 10-year lease rather than sell the piers to the city.

Ms. Quinn’s position is perfectly defensible. There may well be a case for allowing ASI to continue to operate in Red Hook rather than move its shipping operations south to Sunset Park, as the city would like. And there’s no denying that the port is an important source of good blue-collar jobs.

But here’s the point: Ms. Quinn’s arguments in favor of ASI are tainted by the contributions. She simply shouldn’t be taking money from companies that have a stake in these kinds of policy decisions.

Ms. Quinn is hardly the only beneficiary of largesse from people connected to ASI. The company dispatched $50,000 to the Democratic State Committee earlier this year; both Mr. Nadler and City Councilman David Yassky have received thousands of dollars from Mr. Catucci and others associated with ASI.

But as the Council speaker and a possible mayoral candidate, Ms. Quinn has more clout in city affairs than a congressman or a Council colleague. What’s more, during her time as speaker she has demonstrated a welcome skepticism for politics as usual.

There’s no reason to believe that the contribution from ASI influenced her position. But the appearance is lousy. Ms. Quinn ought to return the contributions. In the long run, that will help her reputation as well as the company’s position. She will be able to advocate for ASI from a position of strength, rather than have to answer questions about connections between her position and the well-timed contributions.

Best of all, she’ll look like a leader. Not a bad image for a promising politician who wants to be mayor some day.