Making History with Christine Quinn
In 1912, a young woman from Ireland embarked on a trip aboard an unsinkable ship to meet family in New York and start a new life as a domestic servant. As fortune would have it, an iceberg and history had other plans for her.
Years later, when asked about her ordeal on the Titanic, Ellen Shine Callaghan would tell one author, "When the other girls dropped to their knees to pray, I took a run for it." During said "run," Shine Callaghan pushed her way past deck officials on the ill-fated ship, who were instructed to keep third-class steerage passengers like Callaghan in her place, to a spot in one of the last lifeboats. Thanks to that push, Callaghan would survive and make history as the longest-lived Irish survivor of the great ship.
A little over a hundred years later, another woman who just so happens to be Callaghan’s granddaughter is making some history of her own - as the first openly gay speaker of the New York City Council and a serious mayoral hopeful. And with endorsements from all three major New York City newspapers, it appears as though her bid for mayor of the Big Apple could be a distinct reality.
Christine Quinn took 10 minutes off the campaign trail to sit down with EDGE and tell us about her career in public service, goals as the first lesbian mayor of America’s largest city, and the childhood that gave her that trademark Long Island accent.
EDGE: As a child of the ’80s, you grew up in suburban Long Island, which long had been considered a "Republican haven." How did your upbringing during Reagan-era Long Island form your political views?
QUINN: When I was a little girl, I asked my father, Lawrence Quinn, who just turned 87, why we were Democrats. His very Lawrence Quinn reply was, "because it’s the only way to get to heaven." He’s a wise man.
But in all seriousness, while Long Island back then was certainly majority Republican, we didn’t grow up in an affluent section of our town. My grandfather was a bus driver; my father was a union man. So middle-class progressivism ran in our blood. But coming of age in a Republican area, under Reagan - who was, of course, very popular, but not in the Quinn household - certainly molded my views in that it solidified a sense of what worked for families like ours, and what didn’t. And I knew from an early age that Reagan’s policies, which benefited the rich and drained the middle and working class, were wrong.
EDGE: What were Christine Quinn’s earliest professional aspirations? Did you always want to go into public service?
QUINN: My sister says my earliest professional aspiration was to be mayor of the street we lived on. I knew from an early age that I wanted to do public service in some way.
In college I became active in the anti-apartheid movement, environmental causes and consumer rights. We rallied and lobbied in Washington and at the state capitol. It was really a defining time for a lot of us. After college I became a tenant organizer; that is how I met Tom Duane, whose campaign I ran in 1991. He became the first out LGBT city council member and the first openly HIV-positive elected official in the country. After that, I became his chief of staff. This was at the height of the AIDS crisis; it was heartbreaking that many of the volunteers we worked with in 1991 were not there to volunteer in 1994. After Tom ran for State Senate, I headed up the Gay & Lesbian Anti-Violence Project, where I worked with the Giuliani administration and the NYPD to change how they dealt with the LGBT community, demanding equality and respect - especially for hate crimes. After AVP, I ran for council myself, and later became the first woman and openly gay speaker.
EDGE: You serve as a role model not only for young women, gay and straight, but also for gay people of both genders. Who were your role models growing up? Who were your gay role models? Who continues to inspire you and why?
QUINN: Growing up, my mother, who died when I was 16, told my sister Ellen and I that we could do anything. She was my hero for that reason and many others.
Today, Edie Windsor and Robbie Kaplan top my list. Edie was just an everyday New Yorker. When she received that massive tax bill after Thea died, she could have just paid it and given up. But she didn’t - not by a long shot: She took the country to court. And with Robbie Kaplan arguing her case, she won. These types of women not only inspire me, but they will inspire young women and young LGBT people for generations to come - and also let it be shown on the record, from this day forward, that it took two New York lesbians to overturn DOMA.
EDGE: What were the most valuable lessons you learned from working with Tom Duane?
QUINN: Embrace who you are, and be the best advocate for your community that you can be.
EDGE: In light of the rash of attacks against LGBT people this past spring, how are things different now compared to when you ran New York’s Anti-Violence Project?
QUINN: We have come so far in the past 20 years, and even in the past years, both as New Yorkers and as Americans. But the spike in violence - which continues, as we saw last week, on 24th Street, on mine and Kim’s old block - we can’t ever, ever take our eye off the ball.
As speaker, I have worked with NYPD to enhance security in highly trafficked areas for the community, like Chelsea and the Village. We’ve introduced programming into the schools, public education campaigns and sponsored self-defense classes for the LGBT community citywide. As mayor, I will make it a goal to eradicate hate crimes altogether. It is an audacious goal, but we will only achieve it if we set our sights on it and dedicate the resources we need to make it happen.
EDGE: Fiorello LaGuardia called being mayor of New York the "second-hardest job in the world?" Do you agree with that, and what is it about the job that compels you to take on the responsibility?
QUINN: The best jobs are the hardest. And New York is a joy - a complicated, rewarding joy. It wouldn’t be New York if it was simple. And if it were a simple job, I wouldn’t want it. This is, bar none, the greatest city in the world. Being mayor is the greatest honor and pleasure I can imagine.
EDGE: What do you consider to be Bloomberg’s greatest legacy as mayor?
QUINN: The mayor has been a national leader on gun control, and he has taken on public health like none other. There are areas, though, where we have deep disagreement, particularly on homeless policy and on the need to reform stop-and-frisk.
EDGE: What part of the Bloomberg legacy would you like to carry over into a Quinn administration?
QUINN: I think his health policies have been largely successful when you look at measures such as life expectancy. Using the tools available to us to keep New Yorkers healthier - that’s something I would most certainly continue.
EDGE: What do you consider to be your greatest legacy as speaker?
QUINN: When Mayor Bloomberg wanted to lay off 4,100 teachers during the budget negotiations, I brought the two opposing factions together and kept them at the table until those jobs were saved. I passed eight on-time budgets, made kindergarten mandatory, fought for marriage equality and brought manufacturing jobs back to NYC in the depths of a recession. So I think the legacy is taking a council that was previously known as largely ineffective and without direction, and making it get things done for the people.
EDGE: What is a lesson the rest of the country could learn from New York?
QUINN: Where do I start?
EDGE: As a proud and loud Irish American, you’ve boycotted the New York City St. Patrick’s Day Parade because of its organizers’ policy against accepting LGBT groups. Marching in that particular parade is seen as almost a duty for the mayor of the city. If elected, will you march?
QUINN: There is only one way to get Mayor Quinn into the [New York City] St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and it’s simple: Open the parade and make it inclusive to all Irish-American New Yorkers - including LGBT - and then I will march. Until that happens, I will not be marching. And that’s unfortunate.
EDGE: Your wife is notoriously private and camera shy. How does she feel about being thrust into the limelight as the very possible first lady of NYC?
QUINN: New Yorkers are actually getting to know Kim this summer, since she has taken the plunge and hit the trail and met folks at senior centers and street corners, both on her own and with me, for the first time in this campaign. Kim is shy and strong and very much her own person, but she is loving and supportive of her wife - and I know she is loving talking to New Yorkers. We’ll cross the whole "first lady" bridge when we come to it, but she’s spoken out about the issues she cares most about and would take on as first lady, including literacy and reforming our city’s animal shelters.
EDGE: You’re a long-term resident and three-term representative from Manhattan’s gayest neighborhoods: Greenwich Village, Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen. Should your job take you there, will you be making the move to live in Gracie Mansion in the very straight Upper East Side? Will it be culture shock?
QUINN: I am not a drape measurer. It’s bad luck.
The New York City primary election is Tuesday, Sept. 10, with a possible run-off date set for Oct. 1. The general election will be held Nov. 5.