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'Who I Am': N.Y.C. Council Speaker On Politics, Faith


This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Americans are growing more and more frustrated with the gridlock in Washington, D.C. In a Gallup poll out this month, only 17 percent of Americans said they approve of the job Congress is doing. Well, Christine Quinn says it does not have to be that way. She is the speaker of the New York City Council, and she's taken heat for seeming too close to the executive branch - that would be New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But Quinn says Washington might get a lot more done if people would just learn to get along. Christine Quinn is widely expected to run to replace Mayor Bloomberg, when he steps aside next year. While visiting Manhattan this past week, I asked some New Yorkers for their opinion.

Could I ask you a quick question? I was just wondering who you think the next mayor of New York is going to be.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I don't even know who's running against Bloomberg. Do y'all?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Probably that councilwoman. What's her name?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: The council - what is her name? Um...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Christine Quinn.



GREENE: Why do you think that?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Because she helps a lot of people. She's with the union. She want to do a lot of thing for the poor, too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I've never heard of her. Is she the new - lady running against...



GREENE: You say Quinn?


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: I don't think she's going to have it, no.

GREENE: Why not?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: The main reason I didn't vote for Bloomberg was because of how he went about the changing of the term limits. And she was an instrumental part of having - allowing him to do that. She basically sold out.

GREENE: That last woman feels Quinn sold out back in 2009, when she supported Mayor Bloomberg's bid to rewrite the city charter and allow a mayor to run for a third term.

Christine Quinn has a notable biography. She's from an Irish family; she's Catholic, and gay. One of the biggest events in New York tabloids this year was her wedding to her longtime partner. We thought we'd spend a little time getting to know possibly the most powerful woman in America's largest city.

I wanted to start with just a really simple question - that is, are you determined to be the next mayor of New York City?

CHRISTINE QUINN: Oh, just simple - easy, breezy, right? You know, I'm determined to be the best city council speaker I can possibly be, in the time that I have left. And we'll see what happens after that.

GREENE: We were outside, in the blistering heat - right outside your office a few minutes ago, just talking to people about your future in politics and...

QUINN: I hope they were kind. (Laughter)

GREENE: They were kind. Some actually didn't know you, which was really interesting. The last person we talked to said, "I am not going to support her because I hold her accountable for giving Mayor Bloomberg a third term." Do you regret that at all?

QUINN: No, I don't regret that decision at all. I mean, I've never been a supporter of term limits. The charter gives us the power to make changes through legislation - or the voters, through a voter change. And I really felt, given the horrible, horrible fiscal situation we were in, voters deserved the chance to keep the elected officials they had, or not.

So I don't regret that at all. But I do respect the fact that for some people, that is a deal-breaker. And for some people - they feel very, very strongly about it. And I respect that.

GREENE: Some of your critics have said that you are chummy - too close to Mayor Bloomberg. Tell me how you respond when you hear things like that.

QUINN: You know, my job as speaker of the city council is to get things done. It's to get bills passed, to get programs put in place, to get programs funded that make New Yorkers' lives better. You can't get anything done in politics - or in the world - alone. Now look, when the mayor and I disagree, we disagree; and we do it agreeably. I don't really understand why people have come to assume that the chief executive in government, and the chief legislator, should fight. In no other world, or no other profession, do we assume mud wrestling as the common denominator.

Let's raise the bar. Let's hold our elected officials to a standard where they find a way to work together. Look at Washington, for god's sakes. Nothing happens! I hope New Yorkers are proud of the fact that in City Hall, things happen. That's what we're paid to do. And I'm simply not going to go back to a time in New York City politics when it was about cheap headlines and sucker punches. That doesn't help people.

GREENE: I want to hear a bit about your family. Your grandmother somehow survived the Titanic. And can you...

QUINN: Yes, my maternal grandmother.

GREENE: Can you give me the short version of...

QUINN: Sure.

GREENE: ...of that extraordinary...

QUINN: Sure. Her name then was Nelly Shine. She was a teenage girl. It's not 100 percent clear 'cause she lied about her age most of her life. But let's say she was 18 - but we don't really know. And her - she came from a big family in Cork, Ireland. And her parents were dead; and her sister had too many people to take care of, and not enough money, and said that - said basically, Nelly, you have to go to America to be with your brother and cousin. So my grandmother very quickly got a ticket in steerage - third class - on the Titanic. Story goes she was the last one to get on the last lifeboat...


QUINN: ...and made it off alive. She was quoted as having said, "When the other girls dropped to their knees to pray, I made a run for it."

GREENE: (Laughter) And you told a priest about that, at some point.

QUINN: I did. I told a priest that story and kind of cheekily said well, I guess my grandmother knew there was a time for praying, and a time for running. And he very wisely responded in saying no, your grandmother knew you could pray while running.

GREENE: (Laughter) That's good.

QUINN: And I think that's a much better outlook on her, and on the moral of that story.

GREENE: Your father is...

QUINN: Eighty-five.

GREENE: ...an adviser - at age 85.

QUINN: Well, he likes to describe himself as an unpaid and un-listened-to adviser - to which there is some truth. There's certainly truth in the former, and there is truth in the latter as well.

GREENE: Why does he hang out with you in City Hall so much?

QUINN: Well, why not? (Laughter) You know, it's fun. It's City Hall. It's exciting. There's stuff going on. I mean, there's just - we're not a big family; it was just me and my sister. So he's always with one of us.

GREENE: What was it like coming out to your father, to your family? And is that still - are those memories still there with you?

QUINN: You know, when I told my father, it wasn't perfect. He said, "Never say that again."


QUINN: I said, you know, that's - I said, I've told you. That's my job. That's my responsibility here. What you do with the information is up to you.

And there were some rocky months. But he got through it, is over it. He comes to City Hall every day, and volunteers. And he'll march in the Pride Parade with me. And he stuffs envelopes and delivers things, and has been part of every political campaign in every effort I've ever had - just like he was at every science fair, and every softball game, and every soccer game.

GREENE: I - your Catholic faith and your family - I wonder, on a personal level, how you sort of deal with that in your life; and also, you know, deal with being gay; not only gay, but one of the most powerful gay women in politics, in this country.

QUINN: Well, it's just who I am. I mean, I'm Catholic, and I'm gay. There's not much to deal with. I mean, it's who I am. It's how I wake up every morning.

GREENE: But your church, obviously, doesn't - you know - officially accept that.

QUINN: Right. That's kind of their problem, not mine. I mean, I just don't dwell on it. I'm not really sure what the upside of me dwelling on it would be. I mean, I was raised Catholic. I take a lot of comfort and inspiration and motivation and support, from my faith. I get what they kind of see, in some political issues. They get that I'm - we're not in agreement on that. But that doesn't make me not who I am. It's still who I am.

GREENE: Do you ever wake up and think, I need to leave this church; I need to leave...


GREENE: ...this faith; I...

QUINN: Wait - how can you leave a faith? A faith is who you are. It's what's inside of you. It's how you see the world. It's what inspires you. It's what comforts you. It's what uplifts you in the dark days. So you can't leave a faith; the faith is who you are. It's what you have. Why should I leave the church? It's my church. They're the ones who have the wrong perspective. I'm not going to leave. If I leave, it's as if they won. I'm going to go into any church I want to, whenever I want to. It's my church. And I - and no one's ever asked me to, and no one ever will.

GREENE: Speaker Quinn, thank you so much ...

QUINN: You're welcome.

GREENE: ...for speaking with us.

QUINN: All right.

GREENE: We really appreciate it.

QUINN: Take care, guys. See you later. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.