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Christine Quinn’s Meteoric Fall: 2008 All Over Again? | The Nation

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Emily Douglas

Emily Douglas

From abortion rights to social justice, and lots in between.

Christine Quinn’s Meteoric Fall: 2008 All Over Again?

Christine Quinn
(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Ok, I admit it: I’m tribal and narcissistic. Well, that’s not the only reason I voted for Christine Quinn for mayor. But that’s part of it. Here’s what it seems like to me: the city understands the value of having a woman mayor, a lesbian mayor, but then skipped right over actually having one, right back to the white guy!

How did Bill de Blasio win the Democratic mayoral primary in New York City? Many reasons, not least of which are that while he’s white and straight, his family isn’t. Plus, as Richard writes, a politician doesn’t represent each of those identities—gender, race, and sexual orientation—simply by pattern-matching his or her constituents. Representing LGBT New Yorkers, or women, means pushing policies that protect them—like paid sick leave, like an enforceable anti-profiling bill to curtail stop-and-frisk. And yes, admittedly, as public advocate, de Blasio got there first, and proudly. That is something to admire, and possibly something to vote for. But, on both those issues, the political process worked like it’s supposed to: constituents pushed, movements grew, celebrities called and, ultimately, the Speaker of the City Council changed her position.

And so this mayoral primary seems like a repeat of the 2008 presidential primary. Female candidate credentials herself for much longer, takes a more traditional path. The path she and all her consultants think is safer. Runs a general election campaign for years before she actually runs in the primary. Male candidate—whose previous job has not required so many compromises—kicks off campaigning later, is able to adapt to the present mood better. It’s not much of a defense of Quinn to say she was running a campaign for so long—that’s pretty calculating—and it was clearly, in this case, a miscalculation. But isn’t this yet another case of it being easier to be the “most progressive” candidate—having the luxury of staking out the most liberal positions—when you’re white and male?

Richard, anyone else, your turn to reply! —ED

* * *

Hi, Emily! I’m glad we’re doing this. I’m also glad you took the time to express an unease with the results that clearly many feminists and LGBT activists share. I can see how it all seems so unfair: New York has long been a tribal city, and getting one of your own elected to the throne has been a sign that your clan has arrived. Italians got Fiorello La Guardia; Jews got Abe Beame; African-Americans, Dinkins. And just when it seemed like it was Christine Quinn’s turn (a two-fer at that!), the rules changed. As Jim Ledbetter of Reuters points out, the city’s reliable pattern of identity politics broke down yesterday. Quinn lost the women’s vote to de Blasio (16 percent to 39 percent) and to Bill Thompson (!), who got 26 percent. De Blasio split the black vote with Thompson. John Liu didn’t get the Asian vote. And de Blasio even captured the city’s LGBT voters (47 percent vs. Quinn’s 34 percent).

Just when identity politics seemed poised to reward a female and LGBT candidate, voters threw identity politics out the window. Hey, wait a minute!

But I have to say, I’m glad that system is coming to a close, at least here in New York. A few reasons why: historically, over-determined identity politics facilitates the formation of political machines, and with that, corruption (see Tammany Hall). It can encourage mindless loyalty at the expense of ideas, including ideas about the rights of minority groups. One of the great things about de Blasio’s win is that it looks like African-American New Yorkers gravitated to his candidacy not just because of Dante’s legendary afro, but because de Blasio, much more so than Thompson, intends to end racial profiling and stop-and-frisk.

Which brings me to the main reason why I’m not overly upset about the fact that New York missed an opportunity to elect its first female and lesbian mayor. Our ideas are winning. All the candidates have great positions on LGBT rights, reproductive choice and other women’s issues. Quinn, of course, has a deeper record (although, as I argued in my column, a more complicated and muddled one than commonly presumed). But in broad brush, there’s not much to separate the pack here. Which is a good thing, because it means that there’s a consensus.

You raise the specter of Hillary Clinton, and I want to go there. But two related question for you first: Do you think Quinn was the victim of meaningful sexism and/or homophobia in this race? And do you think Quinn took the positions she did because she felt she had to overcome her gender and sexual orientation? It’s hard to get in her head, of course, but I don’t see a lot of evidence for either claim.   —RK

* * *

Richard, you articulate better than I did my sense of disappointment: “Just when identity politics seemed poised to reward a female and LGBT candidate, voters threw identity politics out the window. Hey, wait a minute!”

But, you ask, was Quinn victim of meaningful sexism and homophobia on the way to her loss? Or did she lose fair and square, because New Yorkers rejected her positions? A recent New York magazine poll asked voters why she was sometimes described as “unlikable.” Twenty-three percent said it was because “she’s a Bloomberg hack”; only 10 percent thought homophobia was to blame; 6 percent sexism. (Eight percent said it’s because she’s “too brash,” which might be another way of saying “because of sexism,” but still.) Potentially sexist or homophobic flashpoints from the campaign trail are few. Yes, The New York Times ran a feature on Quinn’s short temper, which it might not have done for a male politician (on the other hand, it ran a piece on de Blasio’s “plodding, contemplative” management style based on a thin anecdote from a conference call thirteen years ago). De Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray, suggested that Quinn wasn’t “accessible” for conversations about “concerns of women who have to take care of children at a young age or send them to school and after school.” That wasn’t a smear on Quinn’s own family, no, but did that signal to voters that a woman candidate without children doesn’t get what you care about—even if McCray didn’t mean it that way?

When Quinn realized she was failing to connect with voters, she tried to go vulnerable and personal, opening up about past struggles with eating disorders and alcohol abuse. Was she trying to force the Hillary Clinton crying-in-a-diner moment? For a city inflamed over out-of-control living costs, tired of its mayor genuflecting to Russian billionaires and coming to terms with the moral failing that is stop and frisk, it didn’t resonate. That, to me, is a gendered moment too: that’s Quinn realizing that her pushy, mouthy self isn’t working, trying out a more “feminine” public persona. Does it count if Quinn visited the sexism on herself?

The age of identity politics is coming to an end, you write. And maybe that’s for good, what with its blunt categorizations of loyalty and affiliation, the focus on being rather than doing. But who wins primaries after identity politics is over? Are those blunt categories really so easily dissolved? When we stop thinking about how to push for fair representation among race, gender and sexual orientation, I think I know who’s winning the race.   —ED (And, readers, please respond in the comments below! We’ll join you there.)

* * *

Emily, so I think it’s fair to say that, while we might have differences over emphasis, we both agree that sexism and/or homophobia did not play a determinative role in Quinn’s defeat. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine that a straight, white, male candidate with similar ties to Bloomberg and similar positions would have fared much better in this anti-incumbent climate, and it’s possible he would have done a lot worse.

I was thinking about your provocation—who wins primaries when diversity itself is no longer a predominant rationale?—when NYC council member Brad Lander called. He’s been reading our exchange (Hi Brad!) and wanted to point out that six LGBT council candidates won their elections yesterday. That’s a record! In addition to incumbents Jimmy van Bramer and Danny Dromm from Queens and Rosie Méndez from the East Village/Lower East Side, Corey Johnson will take over Quinn’s west side seat. Brooklyn and the Bronx will both see their first LGBT council representatives in Carlos Menchaca and Ritchie Torres respectively.

What strikes me about this achievement is that with the exception of Quinn/Johnson (and arguably Méndez), these LGBT candidates didn’t run in gay enclaves, which means they had to win by appealing to non-gay (and some non-gay friendly) voters on issues besides gay rights. Torres, for example, described his district as “the Bible Belt of New York City,” and noted a “whisper campaign” against him. Nonetheless, he didn’t hide his sexuality; he wove it into a broadly progressive story he told about youth empowerment, housing, economic opportunity and sustainability. And it worked. The same can be said for the other LGBT candidates to varying degrees.

So to go back to your question: “who wins primaries after identity politics is over?” LGBT people do! Carlos Menchaca, an out Mexican-American, wins—in Sunset Park. Ritchie Torres, an out Puerto-Rican, wins—in Belmont, Bronx. In the purely tribal model of electoral politics, we’d be permanently relegated to one lonely representative from the West Village, waving that rainbow flag all by herself. It’s only because people voted across identity groups and on the issues that we’ll have a record number of LGBT folks in the next council.

You wrote that you voted for Quinn, in large part, because she was a lesbian like yourself. But there will never be enough lesbians in New York to elect a lesbian mayor if, as you seem to admit, that is the only or primary reason to vote for her. Holding our candidates to higher, broader standards isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the only path to victory.

Ok, that’s all for now. Next exchange, we’ll have to get into the subject of Hillary. Hmmmmm, maybe I’ll let you bite that apple first. ---RK

*****

Now I’m regretting that, in a fit of pique, I agreed to being narcissistic and tribal. Because really, I’m neither. I don’t want women to vote for women and LGBT people to vote for LGBT people and African Americans to vote for African-American candidates. I want everyone to vote for women and LGBT people and people of color! Which is why “identity politics” isn’t quite the right way to think about this. I don’t want a gay city council member elected by a gay enclave—I wanted a gay mayor, for all five boroughs. It’s more like “solidarity politics”—vote for someone who isn’t necessarily just like you, but who represents people who need a place at the table. And they need a place at the table, not just a white guy working on their behalf! Symbolism is irreducibly powerful, even if it isn’t everything. Among other things, having a female and gay mayor would force us to confront how we respond when women are in power, a lingering and well-known obstacle to women’s advancement in many fields. I can’t say it better than Erica Brazelton, who writes that before Obama’s election “we could only ask the question, ‘would a black president in America signal post-racialism?’ as a hypothetical. Obama’s presidency now gives us a resounding emblematic answer: Hell. No.” The news about the record number of LGBT city council members is heartening, but I’d like it best if their constituents weren’t voting for them in spite of their being gay but, at least in part, because of it.

Here’s what I will agree to: Quinn had the wrong stance on the election’s key issues, and voters rejected her for it. But here’s what I would like to see you acknowledge: Successful female candidates are less likely to be the hopey-changey underdog. Sometimes they will be: cf. Elizabeth Warren. But that’ll be rare. If getting more women into elected office sooner rather than later is a priority to you (only one of America’s big-city mayors is female, and only five of fifty governors), then sometimes the less-unimpeachable, more insider candidate might be the one we cast a ballot for.

At any rate, the obituaries for identity politics are premature. It’ll be over when a majority of white voters cast ballots for the black candidate, or majority of men vote for a woman. Since you wanted to talk HRC, let’s remember that most men voted for Obama, and did so by at least 10 percentage points in 18 states (and in the general election, most white voters, including white women, voted for McCain).

As for there never being enough lesbians in New York, well, your imagination may fail you…! —ED

*****

For the record, I don’t think you’re tribal and narcissistic either! But I do think it is revealing that both you and June Thomas at Slate copped to that before laying out what I think is the more compelling case, one you make here and now: that symbols matter. Maybe it’s because the power of that symbolism is so hard to quantify and so impossible to guarantee, especially in the case of Quinn, whose documented record is less than stellar. That said, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for you and June to have voted for Quinn based on a gut feeling about the lasting impact of her historic candidacy. I weighed that too; I just reached a different conclusion.

But let me address your claim that successful female politicians are less likely to run and win as hopey-changey underdogs, a mantle you seem to think men (straight, white ones? But what about Obama?) are more easily able to don. Here I think Hillary Clinton’s 2008 run (and possible 2016 run) over-determines your thinking. You mention Elizabeth Warren, but what about Patty Murray and Carol Mosley Braun, who both ousted male Democratic incumbents in 1992’s “Year of the Woman”? The insurgent energy, in the wake of multiple sexual harassment and assault scandals and the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearing, was certainly with female candidates then. And why couldn’t it be again?

There’s also the related assumption that female candidates are more likely to be insiders, to ride the safe track and to accumulate credentials and qualifications that can later be put, fairly or not, under a microscope. On one level, that’s an apt description of all candidates, because despite some outliers, our political system still rewards incumbents and dogged party loyalists who work the ladder. (And just on a side note, I’d put Bill de Blasio in that category; the man was on city council for three terms and then Public Advocate, which is first in line to succeed the mayor). Here again, I think Hillary’s 2008 run plays an oversized role. Was she more qualified than Obama? Sure, on some level. Was she the most qualified New York Democrat when she began her run for Senate in 2000? Not by a long shot; she wasn’t even a New York Democrat!

My point is: it cuts both ways. Historically, female politicians have had to expand notions of what counts as experience and qualification (a good thing!) or transcend them altogether. So it’s strange to see some feminists rest upon those values now, presumably because doing so would bolster Clinton’s (or Quinn’s) case. I think that’s short-sighted and also entrenches a political value system that more often than not works to exclude women and minorities. ----RK

*****

All right, we’ve had our fun (and it has been fun!), it’s summing up time!

So, I am hung up on HRC’s run, but I think fairly so: the Patty Murray and Carol Moseley Braun examples are from when I was in fifth grade! The outsider strategy for women can work, sure, but your own examples suggest that’s in limited cases. And yes, hopey-changey Candidate Obama was not white, but he was male. That’s not to say he wasn’t targeted by other race-based insinuations that he wasn’t up to the job (something the Clinton campaign wasn’t above suggesting itself, to my enduring shame and disappointment). He was. But being the less-experienced-but-still-believable candidate—all the more appealing as a blank slate!—is something that men, in my observation, have an easier time selling.

But let’s see if that holds true in 2016. What I’d like readers to take away from this is a willingness to weigh a candidate’s public positions against the realities and exigencies of the path they’ve taken in the course of seeking higher office. And once there are representative numbers of women, people of color, and LGBT people in office, we can focus on the issues alone.

Til next time! And thanks to everyone who weighed in in the comments, on Twitter, etc.! —ED

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