Thursday, January 12, 2006

Christine Quinn, NYC Council Speaker

OK, so I am still rendez-vousing with my family in my birth city of Medellin, Colombia (and loving it so much that I wish I could stay longer) but, darn it, I still have kept an eye on New York City politics and thought I`d bring your attention to the following tid-bit:

Back on November 4th, I asked "
Openly lesbian councilmember to be the next NYC council speaker?" The answer, as of last week, is YES! Christine Quinn became the first woman to hold the council speaker role and the first lesbian to do so as well.

Though I would not say we are friends, I first met Christine back in the early 1990`s when she was chief of staff for then-councilmember Tom Duane (now a state senator) and worked with her on anti-gay violence issues while she became the head of the New York City Anti-Violence Project (though I must say that, at times, the relationship became strained particularly after several staffers who happened to be people of color quit the agency in protest over Chris Quinn`s handling of the agency and issues related to violence in LGBT communities of color).

When she became a councilmember, she spearheaded a number of bills - including the Equal Benefits Bill - which I supported both personally by attending city council hearings as well as institutionally by bringing several Latino LGBT organizations on-board as supporters (The Equal Benefits Bill would have required contractors that do business with the City of New York to extend halth benefits to domestic partners if they also provided them to married couples; it was approved by the city council in 2004 over Mayor Bloomberg`s veto but was ultimately invalidated in 2005 when Bloomberg challenged it in court).

Over the years I have become a Christine Quinn fan. It`s not just her glorious (formely brunette) red-hair, mind you, but her tenacity, smarts, humor and personality. Her rise to the Speaker`s chair, which some call the second most powerful seat in city politics, has been almost methodical and clinical in its strategy and I truly believe that it will become a transformative moment in city politics. For those of us involved - even marginally - with city politics, the moment doesn`t fail to send shivers of happiness up the spine and feelings of awe at what Christine has accomplished. There is little doubt that when it comes to progressive issues and LGBT rights in the city, among those who were in the running for the speakership position, Christine was the best candidate.

And yet...

As some columnists are taking note, Christine could not have become the new city council speaker without earning the support of some of the least progressive segments of city politics. This could simply be a sign of pragmatism but it might also be yet another sign of how impossible it might be for a politician to get ahead today without potentially compromising some principles (which is why I might be among the few of my peers who still give term-limited former councilmember Margarita Lopez the benefit of the doubt despite widespread anger among LGBT political circles for her endorsement of Michael Bloomberg).

In yesterday`s Village Voice, Tom Robbins explores this political reality and says "Quinn`s evolution has been hard to miss." Well, for some of us who live in Queens, this evolution unfortunately has taken the shape of her long-standing pandering for the support of Queens Democratic Party leader Thomas Manton which seems to have paid off handsomely since most political observers say that it is what ultimately got her the position. And I say this as a Christine Quinn fan!

Queens is the most diverse borough in the United States and is home to some of the largest Latino and Asian communities in New York and yet Hiram Monserrate and John Liu remain the only two Latino and Asian representatives from Queens to have ever been elected to the City Council. Manton actively fought both their initial efforts to reach the council, even if he eventually supported Liu in a second successful attempt (as Chisun Lee reported in the Village Voice back in 2001, in Liu`s failed 1997 bid, Manton supported his opponent, Julia Harrison, despite the fact that she referred to Asians in the borough as "colonizers"). A last minute endorsement secured county support for Hiram in his bid for city council, but the relationship between Manton and Monserrate has been notoriously strained particularly after Monserrate mulled - and decided against - challenging current Queens Congressmember Joseph Crowley, a favorite of Manton`s (a move that might hurt Hiram`s political future despite the fact that he has been a great councilmember).

As an LGBT activist interested in the borough`s politics, it has been hard to watch Christine align herself with the worst agents in Queens Democratic politics. Part of me recognizes the amazing work that she has done over the years, some of which I have proudly supported, but over the years it has been harder for me to stand with her at particular events related to the Queens Democratic county leadership. Worse yet, the apparent role that Manton had in securing Christine`s speakership does not bode well that she will necessarily act more independently from their influence in the future.

A public event is being organized for members of the LGBT community in New York to gather and celebrate Christine`s achievement and I will definitely be there to extend my personal congratulations and well-wishes. But I also hope that Christine can prove me wrong and find a way, as Speaker, to engage the interests of the community, regardless of the political influence of a few.

An aside: Speaking of Democratic county leaderships, Christine`s victory also speaks to the utter failure of the Bronx Democratic machine to coalesce around a leader for the second Speakership election in a row, not a good thing considering the drubbing it got as well during the Mayoral elections. That`s another county political machine in dire need of revamping.

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