The Unmighty Quinn: City Council Members Sense New Opportunities in Mayoral Politics

Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera was ready to defy established order. He sensed that Speaker Christine Quinn was losing her

Christine Quinn. (Photo: Getty)
Christine Quinn. (Photo: Getty)

Bronx City Councilman Fernando Cabrera was ready to defy established order.

He sensed that Speaker Christine Quinn was losing her grip on the legislative body.

“I’m scared,” he told Politicker at the time. He kept the petitions he gathered at home–just to be safe.

Mr. Cabrera, a pastor, quietly went from colleague to colleague to rally support for two bills that the speaker had stalled, one that would let churches rent school property and another codifying a Tenants’ Bill of Rights. He said he gathered the dozen signatures necessary to give him the power to force a vote—a tactic, called a motion to discharge, that has not been deployed during Ms. Quinn’s tenure.

“I just walked up to them and said, ‘Listen, this is what I’m trying to do. Are you in?’” he later reflected. “Ninety-nine percent of them said yes.”

Mr. Cabrera’s school initiative will be among the first bills opposed by Ms. Quinn to come up for a vote in the Council. With Ms. Quinn’s leadership style coming under scrutiny by the press and political opponents as she campaigns for mayor, her famously tight control over the legislative body appears to be buckling.

Discussions with a wide range of council members, labor leaders and lobbyists—almost all of whom asked for anonymity in order to speak candidly—suggest a new sense of freedom in the Council, as well as the potential for chaos after the budget is passed in June.

According to Mr. Cabrera and others, council members have responded to Ms. Quinn’s lighter touch—whether real or perceived—by pushing their own proposals more aggressively, as well as by being bolder in their dissent.

Some challenges to Ms. Quinn’s rule are already visible. Councilman Peter Vallone Jr., who is running for Queens borough president, recently gathered the media on the City Hall steps to demand that Ms. Quinn restore a scholarship named after his father, which he claims was cut after he publicly denounced her plan to rename the Queensboro Bridge. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley has gone on national television to say that she believes Ms. Quinn slashed her budget three years ago as punishment for not giving the speaker enough credit in a press release.

Legislation mandating that most employers provide paid sick leave—which Ms. Quinn had bottled up for years—emerged for a vote so suddenly a few weeks ago that it was almost surreal. Like Mr. Cabrera, members had quietly threatened to force a vote using the motion to discharge.

And then, facing pressure from critics of stop and frisk, Ms. Quinn announced that she would allow a vote on a bill that would make it easier to sue the city’s police department for racial profiling—even though she warned the bill would create chaos for officers and compromise public safety. Never in her tenure has she allowed a vote on a bill she opposes.

Suddenly, some felt a new precedent had been set. If that bill was entitled to move forward, argued Mr. Vallone, why not everyone else’s? Since then, he has threatened to push three of his own stalled bills to the floor. One, which would create an animal abuse registry, will get a hearing next month.

While none of the Council insurgents have had to go so far as to use signatures to force a vote—thus far, they’ve merely threatened—the threats themselves suggest a new fearlessness among some members.

In the past, Ms. Quinn has silenced dissenters by defunding their district projects, known in the Council as member items. A much-cited front-page New York Times story on Ms. Quinn’s temper turned a spotlight on her use of the budget to maintain control by rewarding her allies with extra cash and doing the opposite to those who crossed her.

Although Ms. Quinn is currently the race’s front-runner, council members like Mr. Cabrera are making a calculation that her ability to push back is hampered by her mayoral ambitions. Her support could take a hit, for instance, if voters perceive her as willing to aggressively defund senior centers and other community programs.

“This year I imagine the speaker has to be very conscious that all eyes are on her,” he said. “If I do get punished, you guys are going to tell the story. And I’m going to hold a press conference.”

Ms. Quinn, who first won her Chelsea Council seat in 1999 and became speaker in 2006, has walked a fine line as she tries to manage the 51-member Council—a job that’s often likened to herding wild cats. While the tenure of her predecessor, Gifford Miller, was marked by constant squabbling with Mayor Bloomberg, Ms. Quinn, a former housing advocate, has chosen a different approach, working more closely with the mayor while keeping most of her members in line–thus far, at least. But that also puts her on precipitous footing as she seeks to balance business and labor and law-and-order types and police reform advocates, and other opposing groups as she tries to build a coalition for City Hall’s top job.

Although Ms. Quinn’s ability to wield the budget as a weapon is weakened by the media focus on her mayoral campaign, many sources predicted that greater unrest will unfold once the budget is finalized in June and the risk of funding cuts no longer weighs on lawmakers. “The budget is in a month and a half, then it’s open season,” one member mused.

Mr. Cabrera’s resolutions, relatively modest in their scope, aren’t likely to shake up the city. Neither will Councilman Oliver Koppell’s bill to require more handicap-accessible taxis, or Mr. Vallone’s proposed animal abuse registry.

But there is some concern among business leaders that their interests are no longer as protected as they have been in the last eight years of Quinn-Bloomberg collaboration.

Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the pro-business lobbying group Partnership for New York City, pointed to several pieces of legislation already winding their way through the Council, including one that would require projects that receive economic development money to complete community impact reports and another that bans employers from running credit checks on job applicants.

“We’re worried,” said Ms. Wylde about the potential push for additional business regulations. “That would be frightening to anyone that has concerns about thoughtful and responsible management of the city.”

In an interview, Ms. Quinn denied that the flurry of legislative activity indicated a fundamental shift.

“From my perspective, nothing has changed,” she told Politicker. “What’s happening now, at the end of the term, is exactly what I expected—that there would be a lot of interest from council members, especially those who might be term-limited out, in getting a lot of legislation passed,” she said, arguing that similar pushes were seen at the end of her predecessors’ terms.

“I hope and I have to believe that everyone who is running for office in this city will keep politics out of government,” she added. “We want to get as much good legislation passed into law as we possibly can.”

For their part, Quinn supporters pointed to media reports about slipping power at the end of past speakers’ terms, lapses that, they said, never actually emerged. A rebellious piece of legislation still needs to pass a chamber stocked with Quinn loyalists—the Council elected her speaker, after all, and she’s still the leading candidate for mayor. Furthermore, building support takes time. Advocates of paid sick leave worked for four years to get their vote, for example, holding countless press conferences, widening their coalition and running issue ads to build momentum.

Councilman Domenic Recchia, a close Quinn ally, argued that the legislative pushes were merely a “product of the calendar” as term-limited members try to cement their legacies, dismissing any threats as saber rattling. Councilman Mark Weprin generally agreed with Mr. Recchia’s take, as did Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the retail workers union, which has endorsed Ms. Quinn. Bronx Councilman Jimmy Vacca, who’s eyeing his own speakership bid, similarly said predictions of “chaos on the Council” were overblown, but said mayoral politics would undeniably play a role.

“To think that the Council will not be impacted by that political reality, I think, would be foolish,” he said. “Are we in a real political season, and is the politics going to be more profound going forward? Oh yeah.”

For council members as well as New York City’s government as a whole, the largest question in the days ahead could be the mayoral campaign, the outcome of which will have a significant impact on Ms. Quinn’s ability control the chamber. The September 10 Democratic primary looms large. A council member put Ms. Quinn’s situation bluntly: she’ll either be her party’s standard-bearer or a lame duck on her way out of office.

Either way, it’s going to get interesting.

“You know, there’s a fine line between mutiny and democracy,” Mr. Vallone said. “I think we’ll see a lot more of both.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said Ms. Quinn first won her Council seat in 2001. It was in 1999.

The Unmighty Quinn: City Council Members Sense New Opportunities in Mayoral Politics