Commentary Magazine


Minding the (Gender) Gap in New York City

Of the several New York Democratic mayoral candidates who lost this week’s primary to Bill de Blasio, only one constituted something of a surprise: City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. It’s not that Quinn was ever considered a shoo-in–far from it. But she had media buzz building for quite some time, a consistent early lead in the polls, and the tentative support of Michael Bloomberg (which probably cost her votes in the end, but gave her candidacy an early boost).

Unlike Anthony Weiner, Quinn didn’t seem to have any skeletons refusing to stay in the closet. Unlike Bill Thompson, Quinn was able to poll a lead when matched up against the entire field of candidates, while Thompson needed a second-round run-off to build a lead. And it must be said that her current speakership and the media attention she received for being openly gay (she married her partner last year) gave her at least a head start on both the late entries and the no-names. Yet she placed third. What happened?

A lot of things. But one thing that does not seem to have played a significant role is her gender. That’s one takeaway from today’s New York Times story, “In Quinn’s Loss, Questions About Role of Gender and Sexuality.” But the article seems to answer those questions pretty effectively:

Exit polls showed no gender gap in the results and indicated that Ms. Quinn lost for a number of reasons — her close association with the plutocratic incumbent mayor, her rivals’ ability to outmaneuver her on the issue of stop-and-frisk policing, and her inability to be a change candidate in an election in which voters sought new direction.

Still, her supporters wonder: Why has New York, home of tough, talented women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Anna Wintour, proven resistant to female candidates? And was it simply too much to expect the electorate to embrace a candidate who would be not just New York’s first female mayor, but its first openly gay one, too?

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.

Exit polls showed no gender gap, and neither her supporters (including those who worked for her) nor her opponents thought it made much difference, if at all. But you get the feeling that this article gets written one way or the other. Had there been a “gender gap” in the exit polls, we’d be reading an article about how the fact that Quinn is a woman worked against her in the race. Now that there wasn’t a gender gap, the Times is concerned: why not? That is, why didn’t New York’s women show some solidarity?

The Times has no trouble finding sources who will blame that on Quinn, but the criticism of her in the article is so gobsmackingly unfair as to leave the reader wondering why anyone would put their names to the comments. One explanation is one that is backed up by the exit polls: Quinn–admirably, I might add–insisted on running a campaign on the issues instead of gender identity. “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,” she apparently told a room full of accomplished women who wanted to tell Quinn how to run a campaign as a woman.

Identity politics did work against her, though, in two ways. First, New York City identity politics are ethnic and racial. As the Times story notes, there was neither a gay vote nor a women’s vote. Without such a voter base, it was to Quinn’s disadvantage that she represented swanky neighborhoods in Manhattan and was thus somewhat detached from the lives of so many of the New Yorkers whose votes she wanted.

Second, some of those Manhattanites turned on her. And here is where her gender made a difference. From the story:

Critiques of Ms. Quinn’s physical attributes came from many corners, even the wealthy Upper East Side women who helped raise money for her mayoral bid. “Why can’t she dress better?’” they would ask Rachel Lavine, a Democratic state committeewoman who was on Ms. Quinn’s finance committee.

“I might think that St. John is not the end all and be all of fashion,” Ms. Lavine said, referring to the upscale clothing line favored by wealthy, older women. “But that’s what they’re saying. ‘Why isn’t she wearing a size two St. John’s dress?’ There’s that kind of constant commentary.”

Referring to Ms. Quinn’s rival Bill de Blasio, she said, “You don’t hear that about de Blasio — ‘Why can’t he buy better-looking suits?’ ”

Her female supporters badmouthed her because they didn’t like the brand of clothing she wore. It’s to Quinn’s credit that she showed no interest in playing these games, either by trying to disqualify criticism of her as simple prejudice or by changing her appearance. She lost, but she lost honorably–against the advice of many of her supporters.

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