Bad Messaging and ‘Bloomberg Fatigue’: The Decline of Christine Quinn

Christine Quinn concedes defeat at Chelsea watch party.

Christine Quinn concedes defeat at her Chelsea watch party.

After an electoral loss, it’s never hard to find pundits who, with the benefit of hindsight, can tell you exactly what went wrong.

Still, the long, brutal decline of City Council Speaker Christine Quinn’s mayoral campaign stands out. She had dominated the early polls of the race—at one point approaching the 40 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Last night, as the votes poured in, she was ultimately relegated to a distant third, holding just 15.5 percent of the primary vote.

At her somber election party, campaign staffers and surrogates acknowledged they had underestimated voters’ deep frustrations with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and demand for a change in leadership—a message seized on early by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, the decisive winner in the race. “New Yorkers have made it clear that they want a very different direction,” said Ms. Quinn’s campaign spokesman Mike Morey, referring to what he coined “Bloomberg fatigue.”

“Though a majority of New Yorkers support the mayor’s policies, it seems that after 12 years that they are looking for something very distinctly different,” he said.

But the failures spread far beyond failing to recognize shifting public sentiment, according to supporters and observers, who criticized the campaign for failing to capitalize on the historic nature of her candidacy and sending mixed messages that failed to present a clear vision for the city.

“They put her in a box. They ran her as a white centrist in a Democratic primary,” said one unaligned Democratic operative, who argued that the campaign had initially positioned their candidate for a more centrist general election than a left-leaning primary. “It was insane. It was absolutely insane.”

Ms. Quinn proudly stated her desire to keep Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, one of the most prominent supporters of the police department’s stop-and-frisk tactic, only to later tout her efforts to curtail the controversial policy, which is deeply unpopular in minority communities. She dragged her feet on pick sick day and living wage legislation, angering progressive activists and pleasing Mr. Bloomberg, only to eventually pass both bills.

“She started off with a handicap because of her relationship with Bloomberg,” said George Arzt, a spokesman to former Mayor Ed Koch, who had endorsed Ms. Quinn before he died earlier this year. “She also had difficulty in defining herself and made a lot of mistakes by embracing Ray Kelly at the beginning, just as stop-and-frisk was taking hold.”

Many supporters expressed particular frustration with the campaign’s reluctance to feature the historical nature of her candidacy–she would be the city’s first female and openly gay mayor–until the last days of the race. As Capital New York noted last night, Ms. Quinn didn’t unveil her women’s agenda until August 25.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of the retails workers’ union, which endorsed Ms. Quinn, said he thought the campaign could have better capitalized on Ms. Quinn’s gender, turning it, as others have suggested, into a national issue. “I think that the campaign did not really use that as the vehicle to gain support. They did not do identity politics. They did substantive politics. And perhaps that would have been more politically advantageous,” he said.

Her reluctance to discuss the topic was epitomized earlier this summer when Politicker sat down with Ms. Quinn for an interview specifically about the role of gender in the mayor’s race.

“Well you know, I’m—this is going to sound absurd–I’m me. I’m who I am,” she said when asked about making history. “I’m a woman and I’m a lesbian, I’m Irish. And I’m married. And all the things that I am, And I guess I don’t—I’m just doin’ my job and I’m just trying to go out there and get things done for folks. So that’s not my focus. My focus is what I’ve done.”

Pressed again, she continued to maintain her broad “focus.” But after the interview, her spokesman reached out to Politicker to see if Ms. Quinn could expound further.

“The significance of this race is not lost on me,” she said in the followup interview, sounding far less rehearsed. “It fuels one of the insurgencies of why I want to make this city a better place … I’m fueled by that, but obviously I’m running to be the mayor of all of the city’s people.”

Only towards the end of her campaign did she finally start openly running on her history-making potential. With less than a week to go before Election Day, she held gigantic rallies dedicated to each aspect of her identity, though they didn’t seem to draw as much envy as a star-studded LGBT-themed fund-raiser held early on by Mr. de Blasio.

“There is a lot of frustration, disappointment, I would even anger among LGBT folks about how badly the campaign was waged,” said the operative, who argued the campaign had missed an opportunity to spark national attention and rally the groups that had led the push for marriage equality. “There really was never any effort to mobilize or activate the LGBT community.”

Others questioned the strategy of running a race focused on a record of delivering legislative results, when that approach had been a death-knell for former City Council speaker-turned-mayoral candidate Gifford Miller. Ms. Quinn spent much of her time reciting laundry lists of policies and programs that were notable, but uninspiring. Mr. de Blasio, on the other hand, had a clear and compelling message and vision for the city, which he never stopped describing.

After 12 years, the city needed a “clean break,” Mr. de Blasio would say. Income inequality had become such a problem that the five boroughs had become “a tale of two cities,” he repeated so frequently that New York magazine covered each televised debate by noting the amount of time that elapsed before Mr. de Blasio dropped the phrase. (Two minutes and 24 seconds, in the case of the first.)

In the end, Mr. de Blasio sprinted forward, propelled by a perfect storm of lucky breaks, including the implosion of rival Anthony Weiner, the growing resentment over stop-and-frisk–and a well-timed federal court decision that legitimized his position–along with a decline in Mr. Bloomberg’s popularity among Democrats and a highly successful de Blasio commercial featuring his son Dante (and Dante’s afro)–which contrasted sharply with Ms. Quinn’s conventional ads.

The final nail in the coffin came in Mr. Bloomberg’s comments over the weekend to New York magazine, in which he described Mr. de Blasio’s campaign as “racist”—drawing outrage and galvanizing last-minute support.

“I think that really pushed de Blasio over 40,” concluded Mr. Arzt.

Still, Mr. Appelbaum defended the campaign, arguing that Ms. Quinn simply did not fit this year’s anti-Bloomberg electoral winds.

“I think that today we’re all taking a step forward to move on from Mike Bloomberg. I think the people of New York really spoke out today for doing something different,” he told Politicker on election night, noting: “It’s easy after the fact to be an armchair analyst.”