It’s Called Leadership

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn once again finds herself in a terrible dilemma: Is she a leader, or is she simply an ambitious politician who very much wants to be mayor in 2014?

Increasingly, the answer appears to be the latter. On any number of occasions over the last two years, Ms. Quinn has made it clear that political calculation, not the common good, is at the heart of her decision-making. That’s why, for example, she supported the so-called “living wage” bills which politically powerful unions supported.

Now her calculations and ambitions once again have run smack into a test of leadership. And there is no reason to believe that the result will be anything but another unacceptable compromise or another dreadful bit of political pandering.

In Ms. Quinn’s home base of Chelsea, owners of the highly successful Chelsea Market are looking to expand their operation to include offices and a hotel. Sounds great, right? In this time of low job growth and stagnation, what could be better than investment and growth? No wonder Mayor Bloomberg is solidly behind the market’s expansion. In addition to the jobs the project would create, the developers have promised to spend $20 million on improvements to the nearby High Line Park.

A no-brainer, right?

Wrong.

If your brain is torn between leadership and the instinct to pander, well, the Chelsea Market expansion is a terrible dilemma. Yes, any investment in a community makes economic sense, which is why the real estate industry and other officials support the project. But the not-in-my-backyard crowd in Chelsea is opposed to the project because, well, in the words of one critic, “corporate interests” are behind it. Imagine that.

So Speaker Quinn has yet to take an official position on the market’s expansion. Opponents have drawn a proverbial line in the sand, arguing that Ms. Quinn’s roots in the neighborhood and her longtime advocacy of their interests oblige her to oppose the project. At the same time, her campaign’s financial supporters tend to favor the project.

Ms. Quinn has to figure out which side represents the interests of the city as a whole, and that’s actually not so difficult. The project’s supporters see the market’s expansion—and the developers’ financial commitment to the High Line Park—as something that will benefit the community at large. Critics, on the other hand, are reflexively opposed to anything that might lead to somebody or some group making a profit.

Leadership requires that elected officials think in large terms, and that they put aside the silly ideologies of self-styled political activists. Ms. Quinn’s decision ought to be obvious. And yet she hesitates.

Not a good sign.