Tammany 2006: Greasy Wheels, New Machine

Not since the days when George Washington Plunkitt represented the West Side in the State Senate has that politically active

Not since the days when George Washington Plunkitt represented the West Side in the State Senate has that politically active neighborhood been associated with establishment Democratic politics. For decades, the West Side seemed to pride itself on its absolute political purity—and its utter lack of political muscle.

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That was the old West Side. Welcome to the new, where a new generation of power brokers has put together, of all things, a political machine based on the West Side.

With the swearing in of new Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and new City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, the West Side has the kind of political juice it could only envy years ago.

It all started, more or less, last February, when Mr. Stringer and Ms. Quinn met quietly in a diner and formed an alliance that transformed the schismatic lefty politics of the West Side into an unlikely power base. As they left, Mr. Stringer introduced Ms. Quinn to a group of local women. He identified Ms. Quinn as “the next Speaker of the New York City Council.”

Also at the table with Mr. Stringer and Ms. Quinn was Emily Giske, a lesbian activist and lobbyist who has emerged as an unlikely fixer in a borough not known for its political unity.

“It was like, ‘I’m crazy about you, you’re crazy about me—good luck!’” she recalled recently in her local dive, the eccentric meatpacking-district bistro Florent.

Eight months later, the coalition of downtown gay politicians and Upper West Side liberals scored its first major success, electing Mr. Stringer as Manhattan Borough President. Two months later, Ms. Quinn became the first lesbian to win the city’s second-highest elected office—Speaker of the City Council. Though deals were cut along the way with some old-fashioned outer-borough machines, the new power of Manhattan’s West Side has turned the neighborhood into something more than a pure and powerless political footnote.

“We’ve been working for a while to develop and nurture and amplify the idea that you could unite Manhattan,” said Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the West Side. “If you did that, you could get some good, progressive political things done.”

Somewhere in every good political alliance is a fixer, and she was there with Ms. Quinn and Mr. Stringer at the Utopia Diner (where else?) in February.

Ms. Giske, described by State Senator Tom Duane as a “fixer and translator,” isn’t exactly the picture of a backroom dealer. She turned up at Florent one recent morning with a lime-green leather jacket, red cheeks on a round face, her lipstick blotted on a napkin. Ms. Giske, 45, has been close to Mr. Stringer since the Dukakis Presidential campaign in 1988. (“He’s like a brother,” she said of the new Borough President). As for the 39-year-old Ms. Quinn, “she’s like my best friend.” Ms. Giske and her partner introduced Ms. Quinn to her partner, Kim Catullo.

“We were getting our nails done one August weekend on Christopher Street, and Chris was getting her nails done too, and I said, ‘That’s it!’” she said of the inspiration for setting up Ms. Quinn and Ms. Catullo.

Ms. Giske is at the heart of a new, professionalized Manhattan politics unburdened by the turmoil of the 1960’s. Mr. Nadler, for example, came of age raging against an earlier generation of West Side politicians regarded by Mr. Nadler and others as too cozy with the political establishment.

Mr. Stringer, by contrast, is the child of a new establishment. He grew up in a political family and started working in professional politics—for Mr. Nadler—when he was 20 (he is now 45). Ms. Quinn’s predecessors in gay politics fought for acceptance; she rose in politics as an aide to an established gay politician, Mr. Duane.

But Mr. Duane challenged Mr. Nadler for the Congressional seat in 1994, and the two headed distinct factions until this year, when Ms. Quinn and Mr. Stringer took their new offices.

Ms. Giske bridged that gap, and now finds herself in the unlikely position of being a power broker—something that she’s working to reconcile with a job at one of the state’s most lucrative lobbying firms, Bolton St. John. Her clients include nonprofit groups like Gay Men’s Health Crisis that have relationships with city government.

Ms. Quinn’s predecessor as Speaker, Gifford Miller, was dogged by the fact that he leaned heavily on lobbyists to raise money for his bid for Mayor last year, as well as a perception that some lobbyists had special access to him. Ms. Giske, who has not advertised her role in Ms. Quinn’s campaign, said she wouldn’t abuse her access.

“I just turn red just thinking about it, that I could embarrass a friend in public office,” she said.

Ms. Giske said her real passion is for politics, not lobbying, and she spent much of the last three years throwing herself into Ms. Quinn’s campaign. While Ms. Quinn’s main rival, Bill de Blasio of Brooklyn, tried to assemble a “progressive” coalition across the boroughs, Ms. Quinn focused on creating a solid base in Manhattan. Crucially, she threw herself into a campaign on behalf of the favorite daughter of Harlem’s aging political leaders, Inez Dickens, who won the central Harlem Council seat and became a Quinn supporter, along with Representative Charles Rangel and other key players.

“The road to Queens [and its crucial voting bloc] came through Harlem,” said one Harlem political insider.

The result was that eight out of Manhattan’s 10 Council members backed Ms. Quinn, posing a fatal obstacle to Mr. de Blasio’s ambitions.

“It’s very rare to see Manhattan as unified as it was behind Chris,” said Mark Guma, a political consultant to Ms. Quinn.

Deal Cutting?

The deals that brought Mr. Stringer and Ms. Quinn to office have their critics. Mr. Stringer’s labor-union allies launched bitter attacks on his main rival for the borough presidency, former City Councilwoman Eva Moskowitz, which she claimed were outside the rules of city elections. Ms. Quinn cut a deal with county political leaders, notably Tom Manton of Queens, that some believe will allow Mr. Manton to retain a good deal of power over City Council patronage.

“Quinn will not be independent from Queens, just like Miller wasn’t, and to me that’s disgusting,” said City Council member Charles Barron, a Brooklyn maverick.

But the central question will be how the new Manhattan axis of power relates to the real Manhattan power center, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who lives across the park from Mr. Stringer. (Mr. Stringer’s apartment on West 75th Street is not rent-stabilized, leaving him, he muttered one recent morning, “fucked.”) Mr. Bloomberg quietly favored Ms. Quinn in the Speaker’s race, and his Council allies supported her, as did one of his political consultants.

Ms. Quinn opened her term with the statement that “our job, first and foremost, is to work with the Mayor”—words that Mr. Stringer echoed in an interview.

“I’m very excited about working with” Mr. Bloomberg, he said.

Still, the two new officials—both of whom fought Mr. Bloomberg’s plan for a West Side stadium—are expected to serve as checks on development in Manhattan under an energetically pro-development Mayor. Ms. Quinn, whose elevation has added a layer of caution to her speech, said she would take land-use proposals one at a time. But their allies sense a change.

“I don’t expect any more proposals for West Side stadiums,” chuckled Mr. Nadler.

Tammany 2006:  Greasy Wheels,  New Machine