What Happened to Christine Quinn’s Lead?

With Christine Quinn limping toward primary day, the question for many poll watchers is why more women haven’t supported her candidacy for the Democratic nomination in the New York City mayoral race. Though she’s the only woman running, and stands to be both New York City’s first female mayor and its first openly gay one, Quinn is coming in third among women. Only 19 percent of women likely to vote in the Democratic primary Tuesday support Quinn, according to the latest Quinnipiac poll—the last before tomorrow's election. Forty percent of women are behind public advocate Bill De Blasio, and 22 percent back former comptroller Bill Thompson. The latest poll from Public Policy Polling has Quinn's chances looking even longer; she snags only 12 percent of women voters, and only 13 percent of voters overall.

AP Photo/ Donald Traill

Women seem to split into two main camps when it comes to Quinn. In the first, made up of her stalwart proponents, the fact of her being female is essential. These women think Quinn is more likely to tend to the causes they care about. This camp also sees her election as breaking an important symbolic barrier. Gloria Steinem may have painted this group’s unifying vision in her endorsement of a Quinn mayoralty: “Imagine how much it would mean to girls and young women.”

In the other camp, any allegiance to female candidates is trumped by policy differences. Or, as Susan Sarandon recently put it when she was endorsing now frontrunner Bill de Blasio: you can’t “just vote your vagina.” In a very progressive city, that’s meant the leftier-seeming de Blasio has edged out the Bloomberg protégé who, despite being an out lesbian, comes across as the establishment candidate.

Those who think that being a woman makes her more likely to tend to “women’s issues” may be right—at least in general. “We have a fair amount of research that shows that women lawmakers tend to give greater priority to issues associated with women’s lives, women’s status in society, or issues pertaining to children, health care, and education,” says Susan Carroll, a professor of political science and women's and gender studies at Rutgers and senior scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics.

Quinn’s supporters, who include NOW-New York City, Emily’s List, Lena Dunham, Billie Jean King, and longtime women’s advocate Ellen Chesler, like to point to her role in passing a law preventing the blockage of abortion clinics, helping fight for marriage equality, and presiding over the passage of a paid sick days law.

But, the opposing camp has another take on that same record: that she hasn’t been enough of a leader on the issues that matter to women, particularly the hotly contested paid sick days law, which she stood in the way of for more than three years before she helped pass it. Legislation granting paid time off for workers to deal with their own or their children’s illnesses was first introduced in 2009, but, as Council Speaker, Quinn refused to bring the issue to a vote until this past July, and then only after much pressure from advocates, including Gloria Steinem.

While Steinem has clearly gotten over the paid sick days affair, others close to the issue have not. “All is not forgiven because it shouldn’t have taken three-and-a-half years,” says Donna Dolan, executive director of the New York Paid Leave Coalition. Because of the delay, when the paid sick days finally became law in July, the victory was bittersweet.

“We were pleased the bill finally passed,” says Dolan. “But all I could think about when I was at the press conference was the number of people I met who had been fired in the past three-and-a-half years.”

Dolan is also unimpressed by Quinn’s recently released plan for paid family and medical leave, which would provide city workers with paid time off to care for a new baby or sick relative. The proposal calls for using temporary disability insurance, a state-level program, to pay part of city workers’ benefits—which Dolan says is politically “not doable.”

Others have criticized de Blasio for just the same thing—making unrealistic promises about policies that require state action. In particular, he’s proposed a tax on New Yorkers earning over $500,000 to pay for a pre-K expansion that would cover all four-year-olds.

Quinn may be taking more of a hit for her far-reaching plans than de Blasio because she’s perceived as the candidate less concerned with the middle class. (One of Quinn's early-education proposals involved making loans for expensive preschools to people making $80,000 and up.) But, some think the real reason she’s lagging in the polls is because she’s a woman.

“Of all the women I’ve seen in politics, she’s the best at doing the deal,” says Ellen Chesler, a senior fellow at the Roosevelt Institute. “But there’s a hidden bias that works against women. People want women to make deals, but then they resent them when they do it. If a man makes a deal, he’s a hero. If a woman makes a deal, she’s selling out.”

These contradictory expectations may be at play around one of the biggest deals Quinn seems to have made—her reversal on term limits, which led to Bloomberg’s third term. That deal, as Chesler sees it, may have ultimately sunk her candidacy. “Quinn is the Hillary Clinton to Bill DeBlasio’s Obama in this race, and term limits is her Iraq.”

Quinn has also endured a level of scrutiny in her public life that her fellow male candidates seem to have avoided. Interestingly, virtually no controversy has sprung from her memoir, which delved into the death of her mother and subsequent struggle with an eating disorder, or even from the fact that she’s an out lesbian. Rather, the simple fact that she’s a woman without kids has caused the most stir, with a kerfuffle ensuing after The New York Times quoted (and misquoted) de Blasio’s wife questioning whether “women who take care of children” feel like she’s speaking to their concerns.

While Quinn understandably took the comment as an attack on her childlessness, it could also be interpreted as a reflection on her insider status. Christine Quinn is a powerful woman, someone who’s already played a big part in running the city, working closely with the mayor, business community, and other powers that be. Some voters might see that as a simple positive. But, not, apparently, New York’s Democratic women.

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