The five Democrats seeking their party’s nomination for mayor spent 90 minutes with hundreds of members of our community last week, and the results were encouraging for those hoping to move critical LGBT needs to the top of the city’s agenda in the next four years.
The candidates uniformly showed a detailed understanding of issues such as homeless youth, AIDS housing inequities, the city’s faltering commitment to HIV prevention, the state ban on gestational surrogacy contracts, and the spike in potentially deadly meningitis cases among gay and bisexual men. They also acknowledged that abuse in NYPD stop and frisk practices is a queer issue –– whether it involves the targeting of transgender women and LGBT youth of color or the false arrests of gay men in video stores.
In a forum of this sort, the greatest attention inevitably focuses on the frontrunner –– in this case, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. The fact that a vocal minority within the LGBT community has, in recent years, targeted the woman who could become the city’s first out lesbian or gay mayor for harsh criticism gave this event particular political resonance. The media was out in full force to see whether she would stumble on her home court.
Despite warnings that popped up on social media in the days prior to the forum that it might be marred by noisy protests and disruptions, the event proved remarkably amicable. To be sure, some of the criticisms Quinn’s opponents leveled at her –– particularly regarding her refusal to endorse paid sick leave legislation now pending in the Council –– struck a chord with many audience members. Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former City Comptroller Bill Thompson proved particularly adept at eliciting crowd encouragement for their volleys against the speaker.
That said, it is also true that Quinn earned the warmest and most enthusiastic applause from the audience at the conclusion of her opening and closing statements.
Standing on stage with the candidates as the evening’s moderator, I had trouble discerning where in the crowd applause and the occasional boos came from, but I could not shake the impression that at least some audience members both applauded the speaker and jumped in to second certain criticisms thrown her way.
And that just may be the key challenge Quinn faces as she looks to lock down her current lead in the polls. With the potential for being both the first woman and the first openly LGBT mayor, she is clearly an historic figure. At the same time, many progressives who have known her over the past two decades are befuddled by a posture on sick leave they view as fundamentally at odds with her political roots. In the current political season, that issue is something of a proxy for other nagging doubts that have emerged over the seven years of her speakership –– misgivings that coalesced most dramatically when she offered Mayor Michael Bloomberg indispensible Council support for his efforts to run for a third term in 2009.
Quinn clearly recognizes that paid sick leave is a problem for her, and I would wager she worries more about that issue right now than about Bloomberg’s recent intemperate outbursts against her for advocating a police department inspector general. At last week’s forum, she was at pains to emphasize that paid sick leave is not a question of if, it’s a question of when. The economy, in her view, is simply too soft right now to impose a new government mandate whose effect will be felt primarily by small businesses. The speaker mentioned a few measures that could be used to judge when the time is right –– the unemployment rate, the trend line in business closures –– but she is clearly not yet ready to commit to a specific economic trigger.
She may find, as the campaign progresses, that she needs to firm up her thinking and her resolve on this question.
What is most striking about her tentativeness on paid sick leave is how much it contrasts with her impressive fluency on other issues. When asked how the city needs to change its decision-making on development questions –– a point one might expect the other candidates to fault a sitting Council speaker on –– only Quinn got specific about reforms that should be considered.
Among the four other candidates, de Blasio and Thompson emerged at last week’s forum as the most plausible alternatives, and former Councilman Sal Albanese, who will not be the nominee, had the freedom of being a truth-teller, bursting the many bubbles created by pretty words.
For now, though, Quinn seems a comfortable frontrunner. And she will rightly enjoy all the weighty burdens of that position as the campaign heats up.