New York City Democratic mayoral hopeful and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, center, waves at supporters during a campaign stop in the Bronx borough of New York, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013.
Mary Altaffer/AP

How the white guy won on identity politics in New York


She is the underdog; electing a woman and a lesbian as New York City mayor would be historic, and over the weekend, Christine Quinn made sure that was unmistakable. “Nobody — nobody — ever handed women anything in this town or anywhere else,” said the New York City mayoral candidate and City Council Speaker, standing before a banner that read “Make History with Quinn.” And yet it is a lanky white guy, public advocate Bill de Blasio, who has captured the excitement Quinn was trying to generate.

The same weekend, Harry Belafonte introduced De Blasio by saying, “He’s blacker than a lot of people I know,” according to the Daily News. And Susan Sarandon said last month that she was picking de Blasio over Quinn because “As a woman, you can’t just vote your vagina.”

The average voter seems to agree. The most recent polling shows Quinn has failed to persuade female voters, with whom she’s coming in third, trailing de Blasio by 21 points in the most recent Quinnipiac poll. De Blasio is also beating the only black candidate, Bill Thompson (who has been tepid in his critique of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practice), with black voters by 10 points. And he’s done it not just by prominently featuring his multi-racial family–although that pitch has clearly resonated–but by telling the right story on economic and criminal justice policy at the right time. And as the mayoral campaign brings into focus, those issues are also matters of identity politics.

Any pitch Quinn would have made this past weekend would have been overshadowed by outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg telling New York magazine that De Blasio, in “making an appeal using his family to gain support” had run a “class warfare and racist” campaign. De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, is black, and their son Dante has been prominent on the campaign, including in discussions of stop-and-frisk and public education.

So it was that not long after Quinn said her election would mean “girls will know the sky is the limit for them,” McCray was evoking her days as a member of an important black lesbian feminist collective by tweeting at outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg, “Enough of the patriarchal thinking. I am not property or a tool to be used or controlled. Stop the sexism!” It was an ingenious way to make the Bloomberg attack not just about race and class, which have already proven winning issues for de Blasio, but also gender. The Quinn-de Blasio faceoff has often been compared to the 2008 Democratic primary, and at that moment, McCray was Michelle Obama, an asset just by being herself and being married to the candidate, reducing the impact of any of the emotional tools Hillary Clinton or Quinn might have at her disposal.

It was all too appropriate that Bloomberg would steal the show while Quinn was trying to make her closing argument; it is Quinn’s association with his outsized administration, her enabling of his third term, and her attempts to split the difference with him on policy that have undermined her. Nor would it be the first time. When Quinn was on the cover of New York magazine last January, no one talked much about her approach to governance–or, for that matter, her remark that “I try to not think too much about how stuff gets seen as it’s being done by a woman”–because everyone was talking about Bloomberg being quoted saying to a reporter, “Look at the ass on her.” Even as Quinn has tried to thread the needle on racial profiling, surveillance, or paid sick days, she has been unable to free herself of the more divisive aspects of Bloomberg’s legacy, which have had crucial implications for both women (who overwhelmingly perform the caregiving activities associated with paid sick days) and people of color. She has accrued all of his negatives without so much as the benefit of a full-throated endorsement from him.

Quinn also undermined feminist support by dragging her feet on paid sick leave, fiercely opposed by Bloomberg, leading Gloria Steinem to withhold her endorsement for a time. “It’s always been clear that making life more fair for women as a group is more important than electing a particular woman,” Steinem told me at the time. (She eventually endorsed Quinn when the bill was finally brought to the floor and passed this summer.)

Quinn has, in fact, made some major policy contributions to women’s rights, notably by pushing through the city council a bill that tries to prevent phony clinics from deceiving women seeking abortions. But its implementation has been tied up in court, and though she has NARAL-NY’s endorsement, no one has even tried to make the case that the Democratic primary in a predominately pro-choice city will make much of a difference in access to abortion or contraception. That leaves her with mostly symbolic, rather than brass-tacks, appeals to women, most of whom don’t make up the business leaders who formed the paid sick leave opposition.

Instead, what is clearly at stake in the race, at least rhetorically, is how much Bloomberg’s top-down, business-first, hyper-policed New York will survive him. And unfortunately for Quinn, too many women and people of color have decided that’s no longer the city where they want to live.