Quinn and Bloomberg’s Roller-Coaster Relationship

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, right, greets City Council Speaker Christine Quinn after delivering his State of the City address on Jan. 12, 2012. In an about-face, in recent months the speaker and presumptive 2013 mayoral candidate has opposed several of the mayor's policies. AP/Mary Altaffer.

Like the clenched hands of a young couple ascending a roller coaster incline of love, the relationship between Mayor Michael Bloomberg and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn seemed to be growing ever tighter over the past dozen or so years. Since 2005, the speaker has backed the majority of the mayor’s policies and the mayor has been lavish in his praise for Quinn.

But lately, the presumptive 2013 mayoral candidate has publicly disagreed with Bloomberg on several issues, which some political insiders say suggests her attempts to distance herself from the mayor as election season nears.

Just in time for Valentine’s Day (which happens to be Bloomberg’s 70th birthday), MetroFocus looks at the ups and downs of the political romance between these two power players.

After a mostly happy courtship since Quinn became City Council speaker in 2005, Quinn seems to have done an about-face of late — since around November — and has opposed several of the mayor’s policies in quick succession. She sued the city over a new requirement for homeless shelter residents, disagreed with Bloomberg’s insistence that food stamp recipients should be fingerprinted and allowed the Council to pass a version of the living wage bill — legislation Bloomberg and the business community have long opposed, and that in 2010 Quinn herself refused to allow to come to the floor.

In her State of the City speech last Thursday, the speaker further asserted her independence from the mayor. She called for a new rental assistance program for the homeless, mandatory kindergarten classes, the establishment of health care clinics for freelancers based on a union model, permanent affordable housing and an increase in city funding for both public universities and the Housing Authority. None of these are exactly the Bloomberg administration’s top priorities.

Some political observers think her recent detachment from Bloomberg’s agenda might have more to do with strategizing for her likely 2013 mayoral campaign than actually really cutting ties with hizzoner, who is expected to endorse her should she run.

“There are people in Council and outside who feel Chris was too accommodating to the mayor,” said Doug Muzzio, professor of public affairs at Baruch College/CUNY, of Quinn’s relationship with the mayor over the years.

“There have been a number of areas where she is distancing herself a bit from that relationship. I don’t know how real that distancing is,” Muzzio said.

Paul Newell (D), a Democratic district leader who once worked for Quinn’s opponent in the 2009 City Council race, was also skeptical about the legitimacy of the speaker’s seeming movement away from the mayor’s agenda.

“I think it’s clear that she is trying to express distance at this point. Obviously she has moved on the wage bill recently and you might see the same thing with paid sick,” said Newell, referring to a Council bill that would require businesses to provide paid sick days for their employees.

But Newell cautioned that appearances aren’t everything. He said he believes Quinn’s policies are still very similar to the mayor’s. “In terms of her core policies, she still takes a very pro-real estate stance — one of the mayor’s primary concerns. I don’t see her truly distancing herself from the mayor,” said Newell.

When asked for comment on Quinn’s evolving relationship with Bloomberg, the speaker’s spokesman, Jamie McShane, said in a written statement, “Chris agrees with the mayor when he’s right and she fights him when he’s wrong.”

When folks want to get things done they often work together. One example is the extension of term limits that got shepharded through.

State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, whose district overlaps Quinn’s, doesn’t see Quinn distancing herself from the mayor. Rather, she thinks it’s the mayor who has become less cooperative.

“I don’t think necessarily that she’s changed. I think the third term has been a cranky time for the mayor. I would say the mayor has changed,” said Glick.

Whether Quinn’s recent opposition to the mayor’s policies are motivated by a third term funk on Bloomberg’s part or political maneuvering on account of her mayoral ambitions, the speaker’s recent decisions appear to be moving her relationship with the mayor back to where it began when Bloomberg took office in 2002.

When Quinn was elected to City Council in 1999, the prominent gay rights activist and former chief of staff to then-Councilman Thomas Duane was widely considered a staunch progressive.

Shortly after Bloomberg took office in 2001, things were rocky between Quinn and the mayor. There was a back and forth struggle over the Equal Benefits Bill, legislation Quinn championed that would have forced contractors doing business with the city to offer the same benefits to the partners of gay employees that they gave to those of straight employees.

2005 began with a notorious headbutt over the crown gem in Bloomberg’s ultimately failed bid for a New York City Olympics — a stadium that would have been built on Quinn’s turf. But the period between 2005 and 2006 proved to be a transformative one.

In 2005, Bloomberg was re-elected, and in 2006, Quinn was elected speaker. The relationship changed.

“It seems that when she became speaker she wanted to have a more constructive relationship with the mayor than her predecessor [Gifford Miller], who used a very different model,”said Brad Hoylman, chair of Community Board 2, which overlaps Quinn’s district. “From what I can tell, the speaker has a gift for bringing people to the table, and as far as I know, that’s how government works best.”

During Quinn’s years as speaker, she’s backed most of the mayor’s initiatives, including his congestion pricing bill, opposition to earlier versions of both the living wage and paid sick bills and his appointment of Cathie Black as chancellor of schools. Under Quinn, the Council approved some of Bloomberg’s major development projects, including a new stadium for the Yankees and the redevelopment of the sprawling Bronx Terminal Market. In 2007, Quinn and Bloomberg backed a controversial waste management station in the West Village, in opposition to Quinn’s former boss, State Sen. Thomas Duane (D).

In the same year, 2007, Quinn was widely expected to run for mayor in the 2009 election. But Bloomberg decided he wasn’t done being mayor just yet.

Quinn’s support for a bill that allowed Bloomberg to be re-elected to a third term in 2009 was perhaps the most crucial, and most criticized, point in their working relationship. In the same year, she won re-election against the attorney Yetta Kurland.

“When folks want to get things done they work together. One example is the extension of term limits that got shepherded through,” said Kurland, who added, “Some people feel she [Quinn] is too strongly subjugated to the mayor.”

What Kurland calls subjugation, some say is just being an adroit City Council speaker.

“When you’re representing a district that’s centered in Chelsea, you’re going to have a core constituency that is somewhere on the left of New York City politics. And when you’re a majority leader or speaker of the City Council, you have as your constituency every Democrat in the City Council, and that’s a much more centrist group of people,” Kenneth Sherrill, a professor emeritus at Hunter College, told Capital New York about Quinn’s political shift.

Some politicians applauded Quinn’s working relationship with the mayor.

“They’ve had a close collaboration when it was in the interest of the city, and budget items in particular,” said Glick.

But others, like Newell, question that collaboration, particularly where real estate is concerned.

St. Vincents hospital is being replaced by a bunch of condos owned the Rudin family. That’s in her district. Politically it’s a no brainer. She has a relationship with the Rudin family, but if she wanted to use the power of City Council in a different way that would have been perfect issue for her to split with the mayor on, but in actuality she’s been entirely absent on the issue,” said Newell.

Now that she does seem to be moving away from Bloomberg, does that signal Quinn would take a more liberal position if elected mayor than she has as speaker?

“My gut would say that it would not be the fourth Bloomberg term, but it certainly would not look that much different,” said Muzzio.

City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez (D-District 10) was happy to hear the speaker discuss her background as a housing activist in her State of the City speech, but he wasn’t convinced Quinn would be the best mayor for his heavily low-income district. “We will be watching what each candidate is putting on the table. We want to elect someone who doesn’t represent just the 1 percent,” he said.

Quinn has until the end of the fiscal year to decide whether to allow Council to vote on the paid sick bill. Perhaps more significantly, she has a year to follow through on the promises she made in her State of the City address, like providing $10 million in new Council funding for 100,000 new jobs dedicated to repairing public housing.

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