Why Christine Quinn Lost

She tried to pass off her temper as genuine conviction.

Quinn finished last, when she could have finished lsat.
Christine Quinn, one-time shoo-in, concedes defeat.

Why did Christine Quinn lose, when she was supposed to win? Here’s a proposition: It was not because she helped Bloomberg to a third term, not because she was too politically moderate and not because Bill de Blasio’s kid cut an effective television ad. It was not because New York hates women either.

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Ms. Quinn lost because she won’t take a real risk. People with vision take risks. And New Yorkers knew they’d never find her swimming beside Diana Nyad toward a vision. Ever.

I met Ms. Quinn in April 2012 when she decided I should be the ghostwriter for her memoir. Within weeks, she changed her mind.

The whole business began when I got a call from my longtime agent. He’d signed a new client, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and they’d signed a deal with Harper Collins for a memoir. She was looking for a writer, and he suggested me. He thought we’d get along—I’d been editor in chief of Ms. magazine and a staff writer for Time magazine, I’ve covered a few wars, I’m deeply Irish, and, perhaps most importantly, I way too often have an attraction for the fun, even over the lucrative.

“She’s interviewing two other writers. It’s not a lot of money … but, hey, she’s going to be the next mayor of New York! Want to meet her?” he said.

Oh, what the hell, I thought. So we met for breakfast one morning at Plein Sud, a Tribeca brasserie in the Smyth Hotel. Ms. Quinn and her consultant, SKDKnickerbocker honcho Josh Isay, arrived together, BlackBerries buzzing, phones ringing, important people doing important things. My agent, David, arrived as well, he on his Razor scooter or some similar contraption, looking more like a bike messenger than a top literary agent.

We did a stilted version of the mutual getting-to-know-you stuff. Ms. Quinn had already read my résumé and some bios. Yeah, I knew New York City political history pretty well, having worked for former New York Senate Democratic Minority Leader Manfred Ohrenstein when I was a kid. We kicked around old names like Bella Abzug and Carol Bellamy and newer names like Hillary Clinton.

Then we got to the memoir. I asked her what she wanted to say, why she wanted to write this book. I cannot remember what she said. All I can remember is that it was instantly unmemorable, and I couldn’t get a handle on what she actually might want to say. So I went into some kind of equally unmemorable spiel of my own, things about memoirs in general, which I actually do believe: You have to be honest and unafraid, and, if you can’t be unafraid, you have to at least be brave. You have to talk about the things that scare you, the things you may not want to talk about. You have to be vulnerable, and you have to risk offending someone.

She nodded and agreed with everything I said. Surprisingly, this did not produce the warmly satisfying experience that one normally has when someone is agreeing with you. She was distracted, not terribly present, and she generally seemed uninterested in the topic.

After 90 minutes or so, Josh noted she had an appointment coming up. So we all shook hands and said how great it was to meet, and off they went. David and I sat and looked at each other.

“Jesus. Well, that didn’t go well did it?” I asked. It felt like an awkward first date with zero chemistry.

“I’m surprised,” David said, shaking his head. “I thought you guys would get along much better. Wow.”

I assumed that was the end of it.

About two weeks later, David called. “Guess what? She wants you. She’s comfortable with you. And she feels you guys will have a great time working on this.”

I was surprised but agreed on the same basis I had gone to breakfast. It would be a quick project, as the book needed to come out before the election. And it might be interesting to get to know the sure-thing next mayor of New York.

David conveyed my agreement to Josh and Christine, and I soon got a “Yaaaay!” text from her. From there, we began trying to plan a schedule, which soon became challenging. Ms. Quinn and her partner, Kim Catullo, were planning their wedding. But then the day we were first set to meet, they got terrible news: Kim’s brother, Anthony, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, and Christine headed immediately over to Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Of course, things had to be postponed.

And then I got a very upset call from David. Ms. Quinn would not work with me.

“They googled you, “ he said. O.K., I said. Of course, I assumed they’d done that from day one. “They saw your stuff about Sarah Palin on The Daily Beast. She can’t risk someone finding out that her ghostwriter supported Sarah Palin.”

We were both, as the Irish say, gobsmacked. I’d written a piece in 2008 for The Daily Beast saying that Sarah Palin wasn’t stupid and suggesting that she had been treated to sexist treatment in the media back then, just as Hillary Clinton had been. I’d made my views and choices clear in the article and had subsequently referred to my own brief, three-month-long 2008 political participation as “Pee Wee’s Big Political Adventure.” As Cindy Adams might write, a political staffer I’m not. Pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, I am.

That was the day I knew Ms. Quinn would lose, and I told close friends so. Not because she didn’t want me as a ghostwriter—that was actually a wise decision on her part, but for the wrong reasons. It was because she lacked courage, and she also lacked the conviction to write a serious political book. Bad combo platter. New Yorkers are quirky, whatever their political leanings. My God, up until a few weeks ago when he made it completely impossible, this damn city was ready to hand Gracie Mansion over to a penis-waving disgraced Congressman, just because he seemed outspoken, passionate and direct.

This city wants its politicians to have, at a minimum—yes, I struggle now to avoid the obvious crass anatomical metaphors and instead say—true toughness, courage and attitude. Ms. Quinn demonstrated too many times that she possessed none of this. She was cautious and unwilling to risk  failure, and New Yorkers knew the touted “Irish temper” was no substitute for real conviction. Mr. de Blasio, on the other hand, never choked. His politics and personal life showed that.

I never heard from Ms. Quinn again, or Josh. Unfortunately for all, the book, like her campaign, tanked.

Somewhere in Ms. Quinn, there may be a courageous leader willing to speak her convictions. If so, she might yet become a winning politician. And a best-selling author.

Why Christine Quinn Lost