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Know Your Rights
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Workplace Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Speaker Moves to Center

For years, Christine Quinn regularly stood on the steps of City Hall, protesting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s policies on gay rights and opposing his plan to build a football stadium on Manhattan’s West Side.

On Thursday, Ms. Quinn, 44 years old, the first female City Council speaker and the city’s second most powerful elected official, sided with Mr. Bloomberg in opposing a controversial bill** that would have required employers in the city to provide paid sick leave.

Her decision, which all but kills the measure, cements what has become an extraordinarily tight alliance with the billionaire mayor and reflects a turnaround for the openly gay activist who began her career entrenched in the rabble-rousing, liberal politics of New York City.

"She became Bloomberg’s tool on the City Council," said Lucy Koteen, president of the Central Brooklyn Independent Democrats, whose group once gave Ms. Quinn a "tarnished fork" award for betraying progressive values. "I don’t trust her for a minute. She’s just done what the mayor’s wanted her to do."

Ms. Quinn’s evolving relationship with the mayor has been more than a decade in the making. When Mr. Bloomberg came to office in 2002, Ms. Quinn was a scrappy leader who once said Mr. Bloomberg deserved "a place in the history books as a coward." Today, in her fifth year as speaker, Ms. Quinn backs a wide array of his administration’s top initiatives from trash to traffic—and, controversially, the overturning of term limits.

Ms. Quinn has an eye on Gracie Mansion herself, along with at least a half-dozen other Democrats considering running for mayor in 2013; most of them, from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio to Comptroller John Liu, have said they support mandating sick pay. But Ms. Quinn has differentiated herself from the pack—and potentially hurt herself in a Democratic primary— by siding with the city’s business community on this issue.

But her decision, observers say, serves as a milestone in her transition from hard-charging outsider to strategizing insider.

"There’s seemingly a dramatic change," said a former government official who worked closely with Ms. Quinn for the better part of the past decade. "She was liberal and radical when it was chic, and now she’s become kind of the button-down Brooks Brother player because that’s in fashion and helpful to her now."

In her defense, the speaker said Thursday she didn’t believe she was ignoring average New Yorkers. "The people run small businesses" she said.

Last year, Ms. Quinn easily won reelection in her district, which includes a swath of the West Side, including Chelsea, Greenwich Village and Hell’s Kitchen. But nearly half of the district’s Democrats voted to replace her in the primary, a clear sign that her base of support has weakened as she’s adopted a citywide approach to issues.

Early into her tenure as speaker, Ms. Quinn backed a controversial plan to build a recycling plant on Gansevoort Street in her district, giving Mr. Bloomberg’s administration a boost as it rallied support for a new citywide trash plan. The speaker’s stance left her at odds with many constituents.

In 2006, that same year, many anticipated Ms. Quinn and Mr. Bloomberg would tangle as they hammered out their first city budget. But the negotiations ended with four kisses and a handshake. No blow-ups.

Unlike her predecessor, Gifford Miller, who sparred with the mayor and often boasted about the number of times the council overrode vetoes, Ms. Quinn has sought to work with Mr. Bloomberg and his administration. Behind the scenes, many say, she’s a fierce negotiator.

"Gifford Miller took the contentious route and how much did it get him?" said Gene Russianoff, a longtime official with the New York Public Interest Group, a civic organization. "I don’t think he got as much as Quinn."

To be sure, she’s still challenging Mr. Bloomberg on issues. In this year’s budget negotiations, for example, Ms. Quinn succeeded in preventing the administration from closing 20 fire companies and she worked aggressively to blunt cuts to libraries and some social services.

But her decision to torpedo the sick-pay legislation has raised questions about whether she has abandoned the constituencies that brought her to public service.

"Is she moving from her progressive past and record in order to placate or actually build favor with key constituencies she would see as important for a future mayoral candidacy?" asked Sean Barry, director of the nonprofit NYC AIDS Housing Network. He said his group has mostly been pleased with Ms. Quinn’s positions affecting AIDS, housing and health.

Perhaps the most controversial time Ms. Quinn sided with the mayor was when she agreed to his request to overturn term limits. At the time, Ms. Quinn was reeling from a scandal involving revelations that the council appropriated millions of dollars to organizations that did not exist. Critics say her change of heart bought her time to distance herself from the scandal before launching a bid for mayor.

Still, the speaker remains widely popular in Democratic circles. How future voters assess her move to the center remains to be seen, but, for some, her evolution is understandable. "Being in political life changes you—you have to make compromises," Mr. Russianoff said. But at the end of the day, he said, "she’s a reformer in my book."

**Spearheaded by Make the Road New York (MRNY).