WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, long believed to be hitching her wagon to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, tried to distance herself from his policies in a mayoral forum Thursday night in Washington Heights.
Quinn addressed the packed crowd that filled the Malcolm and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial and Education Center on West 168th Street, in a nearly four-hour panel that alternated between amicable exchanges and full-throated shouting.
The forum was so full of audience members that a group of FDNY fire marshals had to check whether it violated code, before allowing it to continue.
Quinn told those present that her good working relationship with the mayor should not be misinterpreted as a continuation of his administration.
"A lot has been made of the fact that the City Council under my leadership has worked well with the mayor when we could," she said.
But she stressed that she differed with Bloomberg on a number of policy issues, including the closing of firehouses, living wage and prevailing wage bills, and his homeless policy, which she called "punitive" and "cruel."
"Every year the mayor has tried to close fire houses," Quinn said. "It hasn't happened under my leadership and it wouldn't happen if I was the mayor of New York."
Quinn spearheaded the vote to extend term limits before the last mayoral election for city elected officials, including clearing the way for Bloomberg to run for a controversial third term.
The speaker was one of five Democratic candidates making their case to voters in the early stages of the election year at the forum sponsored by the Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Center Memorial and Educational Center and uptown political clubs the Northern Manhattan Democrats for Change and Barack Obama Democratic Club.
Quinn took a shot at the other candidates — Comptroller John Liu, former Comptroller Bill Thompson, Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and former City Councilman Sal Albanese — saying she was the candidate best prepared to be the city's next mayor.
"No disrespect to any of the other candidates," Quinn said, "but I just don't think any of their records can stand up to mine."
Plus, she added, she's "cuter" than Bloomberg.
Although the evening was largely convivial, tensions between uptown elected officials grew after elected officials repeatedly neglected to greet City Councilman Robert Jackson — who represents upper Manhattan including Harlem, Washington Heights, and Inwood west of Broadway.
Jackson sat in the front row of the audience, on the opposite side of the room from the Latino elected officials who represent the same district, including State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, Assemblywoman Gabriella Rosa and City Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez. The exchange between Jackson and Bill Thompson, who is black, underlined tensions between the African American and Latino communities uptown, which has long been a source of political friction.
When Thompson also failed to acknowledge Jackson in his stated remarks, the councilman began yelling from the front row.
"Am I black enough for you, brother?" he shouted.
Thompson brushed off the attack and stressed that he has always identified Jackson "as an American hero for standing up and fighting for our children."
The interaction was captured on video by Capital New York reporter Azi Paybarah.
When Jackson took the stage later in the evening, he addressed the audience including giving Espaillat, Rosa and Rodriguez a greeting in Arabic.
"Assalamu alaikum," Jackson, who is Muslim, told the group — Arabic for "And upon you be peace."
Thompson, who lost to Bloomberg in the 2009 election, was given the opportunity to respond to comments by Republican candidate Joe Lhota. DNAinfo.com New York reported earlier in the week that Lhota warned said electing a Democrat would lead the city back to the bad old days before Giuliani was elected.
Thompson dismissed the comments as fear mongering.
"Those are scare tactics," Thompson said. "We are past that. Its a scare tactic and it's not accurate."
When questioned about the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy, Albanese, de Blasio and Thompson all favored amending or curbing the practice. Liu was the only candidate who called for an end to the program.
"We have to put it to an end, not mend," Liu said. "It needs to be abolished."
Albanese, who served in the City Council in the 1980s, called for an increase of 3,800 additional police officers.
All of the candidates expressed a desire to see more affordable housing, and de Blasio said that the city needed to address the growing income disparity.
"We are living a tale of two cities," de Blasio said.