The Female Candidate’s Dilemma: Christine Quinn Softens Image in Tight Mayor’s Race

Dale Stephanos

(Illustration: Dale Stephanos)

Standing alongside her rivals at the first broadcast debate of the mayor’s race, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the contest’s former front-runner, seemed like a candy-coated version of herself.

Suited up to stand out in a bright pink dress and powder-pink jacket, the famously brash Ms. Quinn spoke slowly and softly, her head cocked slightly to the side, seemingly coached to dig into her opponents and deliver repeated talking points with a frozen smile.

“Quinn trapped in consultant Saran Wrap,” remarked one noted columnist of the wooden performance. One stunned Democratic operative described “a Stepford wife version of Chris Quinn.” A writer, pegging Ms. Quinn “the grinning assassin,” suggested she was “smiling and speaking slowly, as if trying not to alarm the audience.”

Christine Quinn and her Democratic rivals.

Christine Quinn and her rivals on stage.

In an interview with Politicker after the forum, Ms. Quinn ascribed the observations to nerves ahead of the biggest primary debate yet.

But in a round of recent cable television appearances, Ms. Quinn has also seemed increasingly coached. Gone are the flashes of anger, the subtle curl of her lower lip. In its place is a smile that appears, from the outside, an attempt by Ms. Quinn and her team to soften the self-described “pushy broad” as she tries to counter slipping poll numbers—and alarmingly high negatives—weeks before the primary.

It’s a curious strategy for a candidate who has long been accused of having an authenticity problem and one that speaks to the challenges of running as a female candidate in a city in which the ruling class still remains mostly white and overwhelmingly male. Ms. Quinn is vying to lead a city whose DNA is equal parts brass and toughness, qualities voters may like in a mayor but may still have trouble accepting in a woman. A double standard in politics may be unfashionable to acknowledge, but operatives and female politicians told Politicker that gender bias colors the campaign trail in a variety of ways.

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Not that bias alone can explain Ms. Quinn’s current troubles. “It seems like there’s just a fundamental dislike for this particular female candidate,” Fordham University political science professor Christina Greer, who has been closely following the race, said. “She is not warm and fuzzy, if you will.”

Yet up close, on the campaign trail, Ms. Quinn certainly seems that way. She is engaging and funny, despite occasionally startling voters with her ear-splitting laugh. As her opponents greet voters with handshakes, Ms. Quinn hugs them and kibitzes in her Long Island twang.

Ms Quinn campaigning this weekend in the Bronx.

Ms Quinn campaigning in the Bronx.

She quickly tries to establish personal connections by finding shared acquaintances from a seemingly endless mental Rolodex. And again and again, she instructs her staff to take voters’ contact information so she can use her position as the city’s second-in-command to offer assistance: finding a culinary program for a trainee chef at a Midtown senior center or directing an eager college student who wants to be a journalist to the reporter trailing her through the Bronx. Those who walk away from first-time interactions seem genuinely charmed.

“People come up to me, and just say, ‘Wow.’ ‘Wow, like she’s super-smart, like scary smart … but she cares,'” Ms. Quinn’s wife, Kim Catullo, said in an interview, describing Ms. Quinn’s typical reception at meet-and-greet events.

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But despite her schmoozing acumen, high name recognition and tailor-made résumé, Ms. Quinn has been struggling. Once the undisputed front-runner in an historic bid to become the city’s first female and openly gay mayor, Ms. Quinn has been reduced to one of the pack in a three-way race to the runoff.

With three weeks left to the primary, she is hovering around 25 percent in the polls, and her negatives remain far higher than her (non-Weiner) rivals—with nearly one in three voters holding an unfavorable opinion, giving her less room than her rivals to grow. Politicker’s conversations with dozens of voters around the city show the feeling is often deeply visceral, especially among women, who describe her with words like “abrasive,” “conniving,” power-hungry and too close to current Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Indeed, Ms. Quinn is the only candidate in memory to have inspired a multimillion-dollar campaign whose sole purpose is convincing voters to elect “anybody but Quinn.”

Early in the campaign, Ms. Quinn seemed far more open to embracing her long-admitted pushy side. At Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women dinner in May, Ms. Quinn, responding to a New York Times story that painted her as a hothead whose staff needed to soundproof her office, jokingly told the audience that she wasn’t a “raving, lunatic bitch all the time.”

Her comments echoed a 1999 interview with the The Observer when Ms. Quinn was new to the City Council. “I am very clear that a part of my personality is what some people might call a bitch. … 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.” That persona was key to Ms. Quinn’s work on the City Council, where her accomplishments often resulted from merciless negotiating.

Quinn during a recent appearance on MSNBC.

Ms. Quinn during an interview on MSNBC.

In an interview at a coffee shop on a rainy afternoon not far from City Hall, Ms. Quinn insisted that there had been no conscious effort to blunt her edges.

“No!” she blurted loudly, quickly breaking into her signature, booming laugh—a tactic she often uses to, well, laugh off claims. “Look, I once had a picture taken, and they told me to smile with my eyes, and I nearly like busted a gut laughing. I was like, ‘Whaaat?’”

Balancing aggressiveness and likability is a particular challenge for female candidates, said Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice, who ran unsuccessfully to become state attorney general in 2010. That race closely paralleled Ms. Quinn’s: a lone female contender up against four men in a competitive, unpredictable primary.

During her race, Ms. Rice’s team struggled, first pushing to establish that she was tough enough for the job and later working to soften her image. Ms. Rice said she quickly learned that attacks she lodged against her opponents would be read more negatively than if had they come from a man.

“I think women have a tougher time attacking or even responding to criticism about them without being seen as combustible or melting down,” she said. (In fact, when Ms. Quinn first shot back at her opponents, she was accused by one of having a “meltdown”—an attack that activist Liz Abzug touted as proof that sexism is “still prevalent and glaring!”) Ms. Rice said these perceptions were often magnified on the debate stage, where women are more likely to be depicted as “robotic and rehearsed … men often only have to be serious, while women must always be serious and likable,” she said, adding, “It can feel like you’re dancing on the head of a pin.”

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Ruth Messinger, who in 1997 became the first and only woman to win the Democratic nomination for mayor but ultimately lost to Rudy Giuliani, said she, too, was keenly aware of what she described as the “additional challenges to doing this a woman.”

“People respond differently, because we’re still at the cusp where a woman running for office isn’t as common as a man running for office,” explained Ms. Messinger, who said she and Ms. Quinn have discussed the topic over breakfast several times in recent months.

“I just think you’re gonna have a different perspective and people are going to react to you differently because you are a woman,” Ms. Catullo added.

Christine Quinn during her campaign kick-off event.

During her campaign kick-off day.

What may also be playing a role is the fact that Ms. Quinn is also the only candidate in the race who is not a parent, which sets her apart from pioneering female politicians whose motherhood has been central to their personas, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, “Mama Grizzly” Sarah Palin or even Ms. Messinger.

That sometimes makes her the odd one out at candidates’ forums, where her rivals share personal anecdotes about their kids, who have been playing growing roles on the campaign trail. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio has taken this to the extreme, featuring his son in his first campaign commercials and making his experiences as a public school parent one of the driving forces of his campaign. Ms. Quinn, meanwhile, is left touting her legislative record, which doesn’t have the same power to connect.

As if to compensate, Ms. Quinn’s campaign literature is filled with images of her surrounded by children, as was her launch event. Her team corralled extended relatives, kids of staff members and one little girl Ms. Quinn seemed surprised to learn was from out of state.

In the interview, Ms. Quinn at first dismissed the question of whether female candidates were perceived differently. “Who knows?” she asked with a laugh. But later, she explained that where she once obsessed over how her appearance, sexuality and personality were landing with the public, she has since abandoned the effort.

“I think a lot of people growing up, and particularly young women growing up, you spend time thinking about kind of how you present yourself and who you are. … How do you look? How do you seem? How do you want to be perceived? How do you fit into those boxes? And it can be exhausting.”

“And look, your brain is only as big as your brain is. If you’re taking part of it and thinking about all of this stuff, then there’s less room there to engage and succeed. So at some point, you just get too tired.”

She struck a similar note at the Fortune dinner but also added a caveat. “I’m tough, I’m pushy, I’m really loud,” she told those gathered in a banquet room above the Time Warner Center. “And if you don’t like me, life goes on, you know what I mean? But I hope you do like me, because I think that, in addition to being pushy, I’m nice.”

But more important than niceness to city voters this year is empathy. A recent New York Times/Siena College poll found that, after 12 years of a mayor perceived by some as cold and technocratic, the No. 1 quality voters are looking for in their next mayor is not management experience or temperament, but empathy.

(Photo: Newseum)

(Photo: Newseum)

Ms. Quinn’s compassionate side became front-page news in mid-June, when, at the height of this summer’s heat wave, a fellow councilwoman’s intern fainted at a press conference in Williamsburg. It took more than a half hour for an ambulance to arrive, even with Ms. Quinn’s personal calls to Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. And as they waited, the assembled cameras captured Ms. Quinn, curled up on the pavement telling the young girl she would be O.K.

It was a quality of Ms. Quinn’s rarely on display—and was splashed across both tabloids the next day. The attention surprised even Ms. Quinn.

Since then, she appears to be doubling down on the message. Her latest television spot is a testimonial from a mother whose 24-year-old son, Manny, died waiting for health insurance. Ms. Quinn, the woman says sincerely, “refused to let another family suffer. And because of Christine Quinn, Manny didn’t die in vain.”

All this is not to ignore that her gender offers a potential edge as well. She is often stopped by mothers eager to introduce their little girls to the woman who could be the city’s first female mayor. And over the past few weeks, especially as the candidacies of Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer have come under attack, Ms. Quinn has increasingly been touting the historicism of her campaign, rolling out endorsements from female officials and women’s rights icons including Gloria Steinem and Sandra Fluke.

“As a woman, I think she relates better to voters and I think she is the candidate who can bring people together, and that is a quality that we see in women leaders throughout history,” said another close Quinn ally, State Senator Brad Hoylman.

There’s also the basic fact that, on a stage lined with black suits, the redhead wearing a pink dress is going to stand out, even if she’s speaking a little more quietly lately.

Additional reporting by Elaina Plott and Dorothy Newman