Christine Quinn Ramps Up Her Uptown Presence Ahead of 2013 Mayoral Race

By Jill Colvin and Jeff Mays  on September 12, 2012 6:41am

HARLEM — Feasting on the Brazilian delicacy Brigadeiro at East Harlem's La Marqueta this July, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn gushed about the neighborhood's potential.

It was one of a flurry of uptown visits by the mayoral candidate as she ramps up her campaign.

On Aug. 2 she was back, showing up to a meeting of local Harlem activists called by Councilwoman Inez Dickens to address a recent spate of shootings.

On Aug. 17, she joined Dickens and Rev. Al Sharpton on the corner of West 129th Street and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard for an “Occupy the Corner” event to protest violence.

And that weekend, she returned to celebrate the Harlem Week Street Fair on West 135th Street.

In recent months, Quinn has been a near-constant fixture in upper Manhattan. There was a spike in visits to Harlem this summer, with 10 appearances scheduled from June through August — twice as many as the five appearances she made uptown during the first part of 2012, a schedule of appearances provided by her office shows.

That's also a huge spike from last summer, when Quinn made just two appearances in the neighborhood, the schedules show.

The move appears to be part of an attempt by Quinn to increase her visibility in African American and Hispanic communities as she works to bolster support with the crucial voting blocs ahead of the quickly-approaching 2013 mayoral race.

“It’s not surprising,” said Baruch College Professor Doug Muzzio of Quinn's focus uptown. “All of the candidates understand the importance of the black and Hispanic vote.”

However, Quinn and her supporters insist she has been a presence in the neighborhood since her first years on the job, supporting local projects from urban farms and anti-graffiti efforts to new HIV testing centers and the La Marqueta business incubator.

"Chris is Speaker for every neighborhood in all five boroughs and every community," said her spokesman Jamie McShane, who insisted there was no concerted effort to visit Harlem more lately.

He pointed to Quinn's 15 scheduled appearances in Harlem between Jan. and Aug. 2012, compared to her 17 uptown appearances in 2011. He would not discuss the increased timing of the Harlem appearances in recent months.

But observers said it makes sense for Quinn to be pounding the pavement and laying the groundwork for her presumptive 2013 run, which will likely be decided in a cutthroat Democratic primary against former City Comptroller Bill Thompson, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio, Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer and embattled City Comptroller John Liu.

Nearly a year out from the election, Quinn is the clear front-runner, handily beating her competitors in dollars raised and in the polls. The latest Quinnipiac poll shows Quinn far ahead among registered Democratic voters, with 29 percent of the Democratic vote.

However, when it comes to black voters, Quinn leads Thompson, who is African American, by a narrow margin of just 24 versus 21 percent — well within the poll’s margin of error.

Those numbers could pose a challenge for Quinn — an openly gay, Irish-American Democrat who began her career as a progressive housing advocate, but has garnered criticism for her close relationship to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“The black and the Hispanic communities are communities that are necessary blocs to win the mayoralty,” said top consultant George Arzt, who previously represented Liu’s campaign but now has no horse in the race.

One Brooklyn political operative said Harlem might be Quinn's best chance of building the black base of support she needs.

"We don't see her in Black Brooklyn," said the operative, who asked not to be named to avoid straining a relationship with the Quinn camp.

Finding that base in Brooklyn might be difficult, the operative said, partially because more conservative African-American and Caribbean voters might be reluctant to vote for someone who is openly gay.

"That could be a big problem for her," the operative said. "She's got to go to Harlem."

But the visits have rubbed some the wrong way.

One member of a community group said they were surprised when Quinn walked into the room at the early August anti-violence meeting, where she spoke about how the City Council had funds to do things like improve lighting and remove gang graffiti to help neighborhoods feel safer.

"It just seemed very obvious there is some calculated agenda here," said the member, who also asked not to be named so as not to damage their relationship with the Speaker.

The person expressed concern that Harlem, as well as gun violence, would be used as political pawns in the race.

"It all seemed well orchestrated to win the attention of the people in the community," the member said. Until Quinn and other politicians take a more active role in combating gun violence, “the community sees this sudden interest for what it is," the member said.

Quinn's involvement in anti-violence issues hasn't been limited to that meeting. She has also shown up to the scene of the shooting death of 4-year-old Lloyd Morgan in the Bronx, attended his funeral in Harlem, and has rallied to reform the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy.

During the first "Occupy the Corners" event organized by Rev. Sharpton, where people take over corners in the night to protest violence, Quinn was one of the first politicians on scene, those present said.

In years past, she has attended clergy community breakfasts and participated in anti-graffiti efforts.

Quinn has also been pushing legislation likely to play well with minority voters.

Larry English, a member of Community Board 9 and its former chair, said he found the recent bill that Quinn sponsored with Dickens to increase business opportunities with the city for minority and women entrepreneurs, a move directly aimed at the city's minority neighborhoods.

"She will be congratulated for that in places like Harlem," if it is comprehensive enough to make a difference, he said.

But much will also depend on how Quinn's opponents fare.

Thompson, for one, is expected to do extremely well among minority voters, as he did in his 2009 race against Bloomberg when he carried a whopping 76 percent of the black vote.

But political consultant Basil Smikle said the African-American community in Harlem is still in "wait-and-see mode" regarding Thompson.

"If Bill Thompson is not a candidate or doesn't mount a strong campaign, [Quinn] has an opening," he said.

In Brooklyn, Quinn will likely have to contend with de Blasio, a former Brooklyn city councilman who has not been shy about advertising his wife's Caribbean descent. In Southeast Queens, State Sen. Malcolm Smith has made noises about running for mayor on the Republican ticket.

Liu has also earned the support of some of the city's most prominent African American leaders, with some supporters even dubbing him the real “black candidate” at fundraising events.

Quinn must therefore work harder to build support on the ground.

“Whether it's Harlem, Brooklyn or the Bronx's black community, [Quinn] needs to be there more than anyone else,” Smikle said.

One leg-up Quinn likely has is her deep network of relationships with fellow council members, including Dickens, East Harlem’s Melissa Mark-Viverito and Annabel Palma in the Bronx.

Both Mark-Viverito and Dickens have been mentioned as possible candidates to succeed Quinn as Council Speaker.

“With people at her side like Inez and like Melissa, she can make strong inroads into these communities,” Arzt said. “I think all communities are accessible to her because of her ties to the council.”

Mark-Viverito, who has appeared alongside Quinn at many Harlem events, said Quinn has visited the district throughout her tenure as speaker and doesn't think her showing up more in Harlem is because of her efforts to become the city's next mayor.

"When she gets invited to events she comes,” Mark-Viverito said. "She's always been very active and very present."

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