Because I voted for Bill de Blasio in the New York City mayoral primary and not Christine Quinn, I asked myself periodically throughout the campaign whether this meant I had some kind of hidden bias against a fellow woman running for office.
I thought of this again today when I saw an article by Jodi Kantor and Kate Taylor of the New York Times about whether Christine Quinn lost the mayoral primary because she is a woman and a lesbian:
In interviews with allies and opponents, as well as members of the Quinn campaign team, not one person blamed her loss wholly, or even mostly, on gender.
But many of them also said that watching her candidacy was like seeing scenes from a depressingly familiar movie — a bad local remake of Clinton 2008.
Democratic voters who expressed unfavorable views of Ms. Quinn in New York Times/Siena College polls described her in follow-up interviews as “ambitious,” “petty,” “mean,” “bossy,” “self-interested,” “defensive,” “combative” and “argumentative.
She was the target of an unusual level of visceral hatred, including a band of protesters who screamed at her on the street and interrupted her events.
Men, and some women, regularly called her voice grating.
“Nice lady, but if I have to listen to that voice for four years, I’ll die,” John A. Catsimatidis, a Republican candidate, said.
As the article alluded to, it reminded me of the 2008 Democratic primary, in which I supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton, who would have been the first woman president—a milestone I hope to see in my lifetime.
Quinn and Clinton were both the presumed frontrunners. They both had the most name recognition at the beginning of the race. They are pragmatic politicians. And yet both of them lost to candidates whose campaigns were more in tune with the electorate, who espoused grand themes about class (de Blasio) and national unity (Obama).
Neither Quinn nor Clinton offered a similarly compelling narrative or rocked the boat in any kind of way. Both stayed away from talking about themselves as women, preferring to emphasize their backgrounds as capable leaders.
“I don’t get up in the morning thinking about how I’ll approach this as a woman or a lesbian; I think about the issues,” Quinn had once said, according to the New York Times article by Kantor and Taylor.
Their careers reflect a similar pragmatism. When she became U.S. Senator in 2001, Clinton tried to play down her supposed divisiveness, by keeping a low profile and making allies with colleagues from the Republican party.
Quinn hitched her wagon to the often alienating Michael Bloomberg on a number of issues, including perhaps the most controversial: helping him pass a bill that overturned term limits to allow him to become mayor for a third term (and her to become speaker again).
This support seemed calculated and would come back to haunt her in the primary.
And yet, in spite of their pragmatism and efforts not to be seen as the woman candidate, both endured criticisms that men likely wouldn’t have endured—and both ignored the criticism.
As Quinn’s fired ghostwriter put it about her experience talking with Quinn about her memoirs: “She was cautious and unwilling to risk failure, and New Yorkers knew the touted ‘Irish temper’ was no substitute for real conviction.”
Unlike Clinton and Quinn, Obama and de Blasio were most successful at selling themselves as the anti-establishment candidate, even though they were both part of the establishment—de Blasio as a former city council member and public advocate and Obama as a U.S. Senator.
All of this makes me wonder to what degree Clinton and Quinn’s play-it-safe campaigns are related to being a woman.
As Ann Friedman said in a New York Magazine column: “It’s a lot easier to advance to the top of male-dominated sectors when, even though you may look very different than the other power brokers at the table, you don’t actively challenge the status quo.”
Up to the point that they ran for executive office, Clinton and Quinn had successfully built careers working within the system in ways that sometimes alienated liberals. But it often has seemed like these two strong and outspoken women have had to bottle themselves up to be palatable.
Meanwhile it seems that men have an easier time succeeding if they are iconoclastic and bull-headed. Think Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, even Michael Bloomberg to some degree.
And yet, I could not vote for Quinn in the 2013 primary. New York City’s increasingly absurd cost-of-living was just too important of an issue to me and one that Quinn barely gave lip service too.
I feel bad because I really want to see more women in leadership roles in politics, and I blame the culture much more than I blame Clinton or Quinn.
But I also want to see women who can identify with the electorate the way Obama and de Blasio have, and even women who will take a risk and actually talk about the many political and cultural realities that make it difficult to be a woman today. I know it is not easy in this climate, but women are just as entitled as men to take political risks, show emotion, and articulate a grand vision.