Chris Quinn: Secret Establishment Favorite

One of the first times Christine Quinn was ever mentioned in a newspaper, it was for promising to take her shirt off in front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral while marching in the Gay Pride Parade. “I have never gone topless in my life, and I and my friends plan to do it.” That was 1995.

This month, when Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Chicago on his fancy private plane this month to lobby the Democratic National Committee to bring their convention here, Ms. Quinn–now the second-most powerful elected official in New York City–was the only elected Democrat he brought along for the ride.

Redder-haired, better-dressed and less inclined to disrobe publicly, Ms. Quinn has transformed herself from a bombastic activist into a darling of the establishment. From her perch as Speaker of the New York City Council, and with rapidly growing support in the business and real-estate community, she has quietly become an insider-y contender for Mayor when Mr. Bloomberg leaves in 2009.

“The universal opinion of the C.E.O.’s is that she has a bright political future,” said Kathryn Wylde of the Partnership for New York City, referring specifically to Ms. Quinn’s reception from a high-powered audience of business leaders at a recent luncheon at Rockefeller Center that included developer Jerry Speyer, Goldman Sachs president and C.O.O. Lloyd Blankfein, and Hearst Corporation president and C.E.O. Victor Ganzi.

“Running for Mayor might not be the best option by the time she gets there,” said political consultant Joseph Mercurio, who actually seems to think that the job of Mayor might just be one of several options for Ms. Quinn by the time 2009 rolls around. With Eliot Spitzer heading to Albany and Hillary Clinton looking to move back into the White House, Ms. Quinn could “run a state agency; run a sub-cabinet post in a new Democratic administration; run a regional administration in the federal government.”

For Ms. Quinn–the woman who sponsored an employer-mandated health-insurance bill, protested building a West Side Stadium, and who once worked a Congressional race on the West Side dubbed “The Clash of the Super Liberals”–the comfortably close relationship with the city’s entrenched institutional power brokers is something new.

Not that she sees anything particularly surprising in it.

Tucked into the corner of her City Hall office, practically swallowed by the giant leather brown chair as she plopped down into it, she said, “I think they have forgotten that we’re supposed to get along, pull the oars together,” she said. “I think sometimes when that happens, they just aren’t used to it.”

Ms. Quinn affects the same casual attitude to her easy relationship with the Mayor, who clashed frequently with the previous Council Speaker, Gifford Miller.

“We’re supposed to leave partisan politics on the curb when you come into this building,” she added, barely waving her arms.

The city’s captains of industry and civic leaders could hardly be more delighted.

“I give her an A-plus in doing a great job,” William Rudin, the president of Rudin Management and chairman of the Association for a Better New York.

So how has a classic outsider become a favorite of the power elite?

Part of it, say Ms. Quinn’s new admirers, is style.

“Most people in the business community don’t want to make enemies,” Ms. Wylde said. “They do make enemies, but only as a last resort.”

But her transformation from activist bomb-thrower to smooth-operating insider isn’t just a matter of politeness.

Ms. Quinn was an implacable opponent of building a football stadium on the West Side of Manhattan, a project that aroused fierce opposition on the community level but was supported by the Mayor and much of the real-estate, construction and tourism industries.

But to the delight of the business community–and the disappointment of some of her erstwhile allies in the activist community–Ms. Quinn has also demonstrated a willingness to make compromises and offer support on a variety of other projects.

“After her opposition to the West Side Stadium,” said Richard Anderson, president of the New York Building Trade Congress, “the concern was, will she become speaker of the City Council” and “will she be an obstructionist?”

Mr. Anderson no longer has those concerns.

“After the West Side Stadium, she has not been against any large infrastructure project,” he said.

Some of the projects Ms. Quinn has supported include the expansion of the Javits Center, a rezoning of the West Side and a citywide garbage plan that includes putting a recycle plant in her own Chelsea district.

The political director of the New York City District Council Carpenters, Stephen McInnis, says he sees officials as advocates of one of three worldviews: “build everything, platform over the Hudson River and build 60-story high-rises”; “let’s burn it all down, Atlantic Yards is the worst thing ever, and I’m going to get my name in the paper by saying it’s the worst thing ever”; and, finally, “the middle ground.”

Ms. Quinn, he said, is the latter category, skewing toward “build everything.”

“She gets it. She understands that these projects are important to the future of New York City,” he said. “Its refreshing to know that somebody coming out of a social, progressive kind of entity can understand that pragmatically, the city does need to grow and redevelop itself.”

But opposing NIMBYism and making friends with the Mayor and business leaders hasn’t made everybody happy. Some liberal activists wonder, not so subtly, what has become of their onetime ally.

Councilman Charles Barron, a former Black Panther with a penchant for early-Quinn-like outspokenness, longs for that younger Quinn.

“There’s too much of a lovey-dovey relationship with the Mayor,” Mr. Barron said of Quinn. “I think she needs to distinguish herself as willing to deal with the Mayor on the budget.”

For the record, Ms. Quinn signaled that she opposes the Mayor’s plan to ban cell phones in public schools. And the two have agreed to disagree on term limits: The Mayor wants voters to make any changes in the cap that limits officials to two four-year terms, a proposition on which Ms. Quinn said she’s still weighing her options.

In dealing with the always controversial issue of lifting term limits for Council members–something Ms. Quinn strongly favors, despite the law being approved twice by city voters–she has so far dampened some of the inevitable howls of protest by taking a soft approach to her advocacy.

“We have a job here of serving people’s immediate problems and planning for the future,” she said. “Planning for the future can be more challenging when time is more limited in office, but, you know, tough nugs. You got to do both. That’s the job, whether or not term limits remain on the books.”

But in the end, the best sign of Ms. Quinn’s new alignment in the universe is her conspicuously close relationship with the billionaire Republican Mayor who took her along with him to Chicago.

“I never was in a private plane before, so it was fun,” said Ms. Quinn, who was accompanied on the trip by the Mayor’s political adviser, Kevin Sheekey, Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler and, somewhat randomly, Lorraine Bracco.

“What people should take from that trip is that I want the D.N.C. to come here.” Then, as if reading from Mr. Bloomberg’s script, she added, “I am going to fight hard to get more events in this city to come to this city, which will help us support the important services of this city.”

Told that she was actually beginning to sound a little like the Mayor, she laughed.

“Now that is odd, because they usually don’t say the guy with the Boston accent and the girl with the Long Island accent sound that much alike,” she said. ‘But you know, that’s what makes New York great.” Chris Quinn: Secret Establishment Favorite