If elected to succeed Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Council Speaker Christine Quinn will make a priority of addressing a homeless policy she says has at times been “cruel,” and work harder to make sure that there is “equal progress for everyone.”
Struggling to gain back her lead in the Democratic primary for mayor and buoyed by the endorsements of the three major dailies, Quinn faces the challenge of trying to appeal to voters who are happy with the direction in which the city is headed while shedding the perception that she has been too chummy with Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Traditionally the speaker’s role is seen as a political counterweight.
“The mayor and I have tried hard to get to agreement when we could, and I think that’s been good for the city,” she told The Jewish Week in an interview one day after the Council overrode two Bloomberg vetoes related to the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy.
Quinn supported the implementation of an inspector general to oversee the police department while opposing a measure to make it easier for civilians to sue in state courts for alleged racial profiling, a reflection of her nuanced view of the administration’s handling of top matters like crime.
In the 45-minute interview, the final of a Jewish Week series with the seven leading candidates for mayor, Quinn, like other Democrats, suggested on several occasions that Bloomberg has not been a mayor for all New Yorkers. But often she declined to be specific.
“I think the city in recent years has absolutely made progress, but the reality is it’s not enough progress, and it isn’t equal progress for everyone everywhere,” she said, when asked to assess the 12-year administration. “That’s going to be my job as mayor, to build off that progress to make sure we get progress for every New Yorker on every level.”
When asked whether mayoral control of the school system, a centerpiece of Bloomberg’s policies, has been a success, Quinn said only that “our schools are not where they need to be. We need to do a lot more work, but getting rid of mayoral control is not going to help cause that progress.”
Quinn stuck mainly to campaign talking points, often mentioning the city’s “progressive values” and presenting herself as their embodiment with the experience to implement them to help struggling citizens reach the middle class.
When asked which Bloomberg policies she would change, Quinn said she’d increase shelter services for the homeless and also increase participation in a program for gifted children.
“The fact that homelessness is at an all-time high is just unacceptable,” she said. “I think there are 300 or 400 homeless runaway children who sleep on the streets at night. I would immediately put money in the budget to make sure no one is without a bed.” She said she would restore a program that provided vouchers for people turned away from shelters to find housing elsewhere, as well as set aside Section 8 and public housing units for homeless people.
“The mayor has tried to implement a practice of over-screening people when they try to come to a shelter to try to push them out,” she said. “I thought that was the wrong way. I also thought that was cruel. I took him to court and I won, and now that is not the policy of New York.
“I’m also going to change the city’s Gifted and Talented program so it’s in every district not just based on one test” and individual teachers can select children for participation, she said.
Quinn has enjoyed mixed fortunes in a primary campaign she characterized as “full of surprises.” Though consistently leading in fundraising (with more than $8 million in the bank as of the last filing period) and the early frontrunner, she has twice seen her lead in the polls dissipate, first to former Congressman Anthony Weiner and then to Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, whom she trailed 36 percent to 21 percent in the Aug. 28 Quinnipiac University poll of likely Democrat voters. The findings inidcate she has yet to seal the deal with the party faithful, whom she will need to propel her past a likely runoff and into the general election. In a runoff with de Blasio, Quinn would lose handily, 59-30 percent, he poll suggests.
This is the seventh in a series of interviews with the leading New York mayoral candidates. Here are the other articles:
Primary day is Sept. 10. You can find voter information at NYC.gov.
Although she often opposes the mayor’s signature policies, such as the large-soda ban, Quinn enabled Bloomberg to seek a third term by allowing Council legislation for a one-time extension of term limits. She has also stood out from the Democratic pack by supporting the Board of Health’s controversial implementation of consent decree, currently under court challenge regarding use of oral suction during ultra-Orthodox circumcisions, bucking that community’s powerful voting bloc.
Fair or unfair, her ties to Bloomberg seem to have affected her ability to hold the lead as Democrats treat her as a proxy for the term-limited mayor.
“A lot of folks, as opposed to [voting based on] individual policies are judging the Democrat candidates on a spectrum from least likely to most likely to continue Michael Bloomberg’s policies,” said political consultant Basil Smikle, who is not involved in the mayoral race.
“She is being seen as the closest [to Bloomberg] and the [New York] Times, the Daily News have basically all said that.”
Because voters themselves have mixed feelings about Bloomberg’s policies — about half of registered voters approved of his performance in the most recent Marist poll in June — Quinn’s wobbly performance seems to reflect that ambiguity.
“The voters themselves have mixed feelings about how much of the Bloomberg legacy they want to embrace and what they want to do away with,” Smikle said.
In that environment, he adds, a controversial statement by the mayor — such as, say, his recent suggestion that public housing residents be subject to fingerprint identification to make their buildings more secure — can cause a backlash against Quinn and a spike for de Blasio, a harsh critic of Bloomberg.
In the interview, Quinn said she has stood against the administration when necessary.
“To get things done if you’re the speaker, you want to be able to work with all colleagues in government, and the mayor,” she said. “The easiest way for laws to become laws is to get the mayor to sign them and his agencies to implement them. But that doesn’t mean I’m not prepared to override his vetoes. … if a policy deprives homeless New Yorkers of a shelter bed I’m going to stop it. When the mayor wants to lay off teachers, I’m not going to let it happen.’
Quinn declined to speculate how city government might have been different in the past 12 years with a Democrat at the helm, saying the question was too hypothetical, and when asked what lesson her party should learn from five consecutive mayoral defeats simply said, “The good news is that this year that’s going to change.”
Quinn supports Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and stop-and-frisk as a procedure but believes both need more oversight and a change in tactics. She believes a new inspector general will not only reform procedure but investigate whether precincts present accurate crime statistics. She said the current NYPD anti-terrorism program of surveillance in mosques, a key concern mentioned to her by the city’s Muslim and Arab communities, is appropriate but the inspector general could further “make sure it stays within constitutional bounds. Clearly you want to be very careful.”
Quinn has taken heat for her stewardship of the Council’s member-item funding system, which allows members “pork-barrel” checks for programs in their districts. She herself was found to have created a fund to park money in the name of nonexistent agencies to be doled out later (a process she said she inherited from predecessors). And in recent months Council members were found to have defrauded the system for personal gain.
But Quinn says recent reforms in the awards process have made such malfeasance impossible. “It is night and day, a different system than what it used to be and what I inherited.” she said. “Now there is a full listing on the Internet of everyone who applied and everyone who was granted, which Council member or members request that grant: all that information is accessible on database that never existed before. Sunlight is the best disinfectant out there.”
In addition, she stressed, organizations that request funds are now screened to ensure that they are capable of efficiently implementing the service they want to provide. The current checks and reviews would have easily prevented funding of the corrupt requests, Quinn insisted: “In each case every person who was a crook [and] broke the law and went to jail wouldn’t be able to get away with that today.”
The member-item system is necessary because “the mayor doesn’t really have the ability outside of [requests for proposals] to give money to some of the smaller groups out there. That line-item power exists only in the Council.”
A chief critic of member items, de Blasio, she said, is “talking out of both sides of his mouth” in calling for abolishing the grants, while doling them out as a Council member from 2001-2009, supporting them during a bid for speaker in 2005 and also praising Quinn’s reforms in in 2010.
A de Blasio spokesman countered that the candidate supported member items only until “corruption of this process skyrocketed under Speaker Quinn’s watch and multiple council members went to jail. Since these problems have been exposed, Bill de Blasio has consistently proposed reforms and condemned the practice.”
When asked to discuss the conservative agenda of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community, which is growing in size and influence, Quinn said she would be guided as mayor by legal constraints, such as the Blaine Amendment governing what type of public aid can be given to parochial schools, a key concern of the Orthodox as yeshiva operating costs soar.
She recalled her support of a measure to require that the city provide funds to keep nurses in all city schools, public and private.
“Dialogue is critical,” she said. “Some things are over the line – vouchers I’m not going to support, but at the end of the day it’s about children. Are we going to agree on every issue? Probably not, but we are always going to stay in that conversation.”
Quinn said she supported the city Human Rights Commission’s opposition to signs requiring modest dress by women in shops in Orthodox neighborhoods because, in her view, it places a burden on women that does not apply to men. By contrast, she said, formal dress codes in restaurants are applied uniformly to both genders. “If you had a restaurant that required women to wear formal attire and men could wear shorts and T-shirts that would be a problem.”
Regarding the consent decree on the controversial circumcision procedure, Quinn believes that, while government must tread very carefully when it comes to interfering with religious practice, the standard has been met in this case.
“I am comfortable with where we are now,” she said. “When there are issues of public health, particularly with children who are not making the decision for themselves, then the government has an obligation.”
She said she would hold more discussions with opponents of the consent decree to try to settle a federal lawsuit against it, but conceded that “at the end of the day more discussions doesn’t always mean you’re going to get agreements.”
Quinn defended her support of rolling back term limits as a one-shot deal because of the hard economic times the city was facing when Bloomberg ran four years ago. “I supported the opportunity for voters to decide,” she said. “Not everybody got re-elected. At that moment in time I felt it was the right thing to do for the city. And what you want as a leader is someone who is going to stand up and do what’s right even if there are political consequences. I made a decision, and I stand by it.”
She said she would not seek a third term for herself if twice elected.
Asked to sum up her message to the Jewish community, Quinn said “In this race I am the person with progressive values who has gotten and will get results for this city.
“I also believe deeply that diversity is our greatest strength and the Jewish community, as much as any community in the city is part of that diversity and part of the leadership that has built the foundation of this city …
“If we’re going to keep our city safe and improve police community relations, then we all need to work together to get that done.”