Big Think Interview With Christine Quinn
Christine Quinn is the current Speaker of the New York City Council, one of the most powerful positions in city government after the Mayor. Quinn is the first female and first openly gay person to serve as speaker, which is a position that was created in 1990 as result of a revision in the city charter. Quinn was elected to the city council in 1999. After serving on the city council for almost seven years, she was elected city council speaker in January 2006. Quinn entered politics to manage the city council campaign of Thomas Duane in 1991, after which she served as Duane's Chief of Staff for five years. Quinn later became the Executive Director of the New York City Anti-Violence Project and was appointed a member of the NYC Police/Community Relations Task Force by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
Question: How does New York City balance its need for Wall Street tax dollars with its left-leaning, working class citizens?
Christine Quinn: Well, you know, the truth is, we are very reliant on Wall Street. About 25% of our tax revenues come from Wall Street, which is far too high a percentage for any one industry—nonetheless an industry that’s as volatile as Wall Street. So we’ve tried to focus in the Council on the issue of diversifying the city’s economy because we don’t want to be overly reliant on any one part of the economic world at all.
So we’ve tried to focus on ways where we could create jobs in other sectors of New York City. How do we look at the assets and resources that New York has and turn those into job engines. So for example, what’s one thing that New York City is totally known for? Food. Every other person you meet has a dream of creating a restaurant, a catering company, the next great cupcake. So we are right now taking an old warehouse in East Harlem and converting it to an industrial kitchen, a place that will help and allow probably 40 or 50 start up food companies a year to be born, put people to work and get out there and support themselves. That will help diversify our economic basis. So from a political or any context, we’re not going to be so reliant on Wall Street and no one particular sector.
We’ve also tried to diversify by helping the biotech sector grow in New York City and actually passed a biotech tax credit a couple of years ago to try to draw those companies here.
Question: What can New York do to grow a more economically inclusive society?
Christine Quinn: Well, I wouldn’t say New York is an unreasonable place to live; I would not want to characterize New York City as unreasonable. It has certainly become more expensive, and from an affordability perspective it is challenging for a lot of people. And I think the place you... two places you see that a lot that we’ve worked on in the Council are around housing and just rents being very, very high and purchase prices of buildings really high. That’s one of the... the rent issue is one of the reasons I have been such a longtime and outspoken tenant advocate in New York City. It’s why on a regular basis my colleagues and I fight the rent increases at the Rent Guidelines Board to try to prevent constant increases when tenants' incomes aren’t going up, but landlords profits are going up.
We’ve also tried to work with the city to improve the quality of the housing stock in New York City, because what you don’t want is there to be apartments that are affordable, but they’re sub-standard in their livability. That’s why we passed the Safe Housing Law—a law which really gives our Department of Housing many more tools in their toolbox to bring unlivable buildings up to livability. It’s also why we are working right now with the development community on taking apartment buildings that were going to be sold as luxury or market rate coops or condos and instead putting those up for auction at a lower price for middle income New Yorkers.
Now another area where it’s hard for New Yorkers sometimes to deal with costs, and increasing costs for different things in the city is around food. Many low-income neighborhoods don’t have supermarkets, which put in low- and moderate-income neighborhood residents in a place where they have to buy all of their food at bodegas, which usually means there’s less of a selection, not as much healthy food, and it’s more expensive. So a couple of years ago we passed a major land use rezoning, which we believe will help facilitate the development of supermarkets in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods, and that’s a way to help New Yorker’s save a little bit of money around food. It’s also why we’ve pushed to expand green markets and farmer's markets in the city and put money in the budget to make sure those green markets and farmer’s markets take food stamps, which is a great way to help people who are a little short on money get healthy food, and a great way to get more money to farmers as well.
Question: Why is it important for New York to "protect the diversity of its community?"
Christine Quinn: Well, New York City is perhaps the greatest example of an immigrant city ever in the history of the world. And it’s a city through its diversity that shows the tremendous contribution that immigrants make and can make to cities and countries all across the world. We don’t want to just talk about that, we want to continue that legacy. We want to keep that thriving, melting pot nature of New York City alive. And if you want to keep that, you have to tend to it. You have to nurture it. And I think we want to make sure our city always remains that diverse. And that anyone, anywhere in the world who wants a better life or searching out a dream feels like they can come to this city and be accepted and have opportunity.
You know, internationally there are lots of folks who want to come here, but the reality of the lack of immigration reform on the federal level actually makes it harder for companies to bring people to New York and other parts of the United States as well. So it’s an issue you can’t just sit back on or very quickly you’ll lose your diversity and lose that long line of international folks who want to come and live and work here.
Question: What are Mayor Bloomberg’s most valuable attributes as a leader?
Christine Quinn: Well the Mayor is a very smart man, a very hard-working man. He brings a diversity of experience to City Hall as an obviously super-successful business man, as a long-time philanthropist, as a leading force for public health changes in this country and across the world. And those are all attributes he brings to the table. He’s also a dad; he has two daughters, that’s another perspective he brings to the table as well.
Question: How do you personally feel about the way that Bloomberg has run New York?
Christine Quinn: Yeah, I think the Mayor’s been a very, very good Mayor. I’ve been proud to get to work with him, to pass some of the most comprehensive anti-smoking laws ever. I did that before I was speaker, when I was the Health Committee chair. I’ve been very proud of the work he and the Council and I have done over the past four and a half years, not just balancing the budget, but anticipating the economic downturn in a way where we prepaid future bills to make sure that the city was buttressed against, well actually worse than was anticipated, but would have been buttressed against the worst. And we’re working very closely with a lot of folks in his staff right now around some of the challenging housing issues in the city and that’s been some great work and I’m proud to have done it.
Question: Will you run for mayor when Bloomberg’s term is over?
Christine Quinn: Right now I’m the Speaker of the City Council and I’m very focused on that and that’s my job and I’m focused on doing it.
Question: What can be to done to better fight homophobia in New York?
Christine Quinn: Well, you know, we are in a place we’d rather not be at right now in 2010 where we’re seeing anti-LGBT hate crimes occurring at a much higher number than they did last year. And often they seem exceedingly violent and with multiple perpetrators attacking fewer victims and something singular victims. That’s something I thought, we had all thought was behind us. That level of violence.
Now why this is happening? I wish I knew the answer because if I had the answer, I could solve the problem. What I know is, is that if this level of violence is happening against the LGBT community—or any community in New York—it means we are not doing enough and it means that we need to do more and that’s what we're taking upon ourselves to do.
We had already put in place last year a "Respect for All" curriculum and week in our New York City Public Schools we’re expanding that through more teacher training and more curriculum development. A week or so ago we convened a meeting with the presidents of all of the colleges in New York City to talk to them about how we can expand our efforts toward acceptance and tolerance and reduction of bullying on college campuses and also what more college presidents can do to prevent suicide on their campuses. And in New York City, since a lot of our colleges are a part of our City University of New York, there are more commuter colleges than residence colleges, and that’s a totally different model that needs to be put in place.
We also as a response... in response to this recent rash of hate crimes have put out a—and kind of turned it around almost immediately—a city-wide public service campaign against anti-LGBT hate crimes and towards acceptance and tolerance. So we just need to keep working at it because it’s the kind of thing that is obviously just unacceptable and if we’re going to honor in any way the memory of those young men who took their lives, we have to do it by making sure our city becomes an even more accepting place.
Question: What is your coming out story?
Christine Quinn: Well, my coming out story probably like most people’s is a process, an evolution. It’s not like you wake up one morning and you’re brushing your teeth and all of a sudden there’s this, "aha" moment and you figure everything out. And when you kind have done it, come out to speak and you look back and you see different moments in your childhood and your life differently.
You know, some people talk about knowing when they were six or seven or eight that they were LGBT. It wasn’t exactly like that though. Like I said, when I look back now, I can see things in a different perspective and can see how and why different things happened or felt a certain way. You know, it was an issue that kind of rattled around in the back of my mind, so to speak, a lot in high school and I think I did a pretty good job of just pushing it out. And I remember in college a day sitting in my dorm room, and, for a host of different reasons that I won’t go into all the details on, I kind of fully admitted to myself for the first time feeling I had had for this other female student. And I remember saying out loud: "This is not going to happen to you. You have enough challenges, enough problems like everybody else. This is not happening."
And I, for the next five years, four or five years, made it not happen. And was very conscious and focused and deliberate on it not happening. And then, you know, in this school of thought that there are no coincidences, started doing political work in my 20s in New York City, housing organizing, and I met Tom Duane who had run a couple of years before as an openly gay man, for the council. And we were doing tenant organizing together and he asked me to run his campaign. And he was running to be the first openly gay and openly HIV positive member of the City Council and it was, you know, in the course of running his campaign that it became impossible to keep up that denial, and that deliberate pushing down of who I was. And in the course of his campaign, you know, came out to him... it was a funny story, we were on the subway going to go back to something I had said before, to a meeting of the Rent Guidelines Board and I said, "I need to meet with you later, I need to talk to you, Tom." And he said, "Oh god! You're not quitting!" And I said, "No." And he said, "Oh, what? Are you a lesbian? Okay, yeah, fine, let’s keep going to the meeting." And was very kind of like, you know, nonchalant about it.
And then it continued after you know that over the course of probably the next year or so telling different people who were important in my life.
Question: How can traditionally marginalized groups better position themselves as credible leaders?
Christine Quinn: You know, I think if you are somebody who is in the community who hasn’t held large leadership positions before, whether they are elected or corporate or anything, you have to do a good job. You know what I mean? You have to do a good job, just like anybody else. And you have to make sure, just like anybody else, your work, your style, your focus, your agenda, is diverse and inclusive of lots of different people. That’s true for everyone. And I think what can trip up people sometimes is when we think too much about the fact we’re from a community that hasn’t had X, Y, or Z position before. And you focus on that as the problem as opposed to using it as an asset, or using it as something that propels you to work harder or be more focused, you know?
A member of my staff once summed it up as, you know, “This issue really isn’t how big the hurdle is, it’s just one angle you have to get at to jump over the hurdle.” And I think that’s what you have to do.
Question: Which will come first, the completion of the Second Avenue Subway or the next Mets World Series victory?
Christine Quinn: Well I can’t actually answer that question honestly because my father is 84, and he remembers the day his mother sent him and his brother out of the apartment to go watch the men who were going to build them a new subway. And he has claimed he is not going to die until he gets to ride the Second Avenue Subway. So, I might, you know, I have a slightly skewed allegiance as it relates to the finishing of the Second Avenue Subway.
Question: What idea has most inspired you?
Christine Quinn: You know, when I was a kid, I read every biography in my school library about a political leader or a famous woman. And the idea in all of those books were that you could change things was that, you know, everyone uses this phrase nowadays, “it is what it is.” I hate that phrase. Nothing "is what it is." Things can always change to what we want them to be and to be better. And as a kid that’s the idea I got out of those books. That people can change things and people can make situations that aren’t good, better. And to me that is the only real idea that matters.
Question: Who is the greatest or most inspiring New Yorker of all time?
Christine Quinn: Probably the greatest or most inspiring New Yorker of all time would be Franklin Delano Roosevelt. His wife a close second.
Recorded on October 28, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont
Directed & Produced by Jonathan Fowler
A conversation with the Speaker of the New York City Council.
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