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The battle for paid sick days highlights Christine Quinn's flaws

Christine Quinn shouldn't be lambasted for unruly behaviour - she should be lambasted for petty politics.

Last Modified: 29 Mar 2013 19:31
Sarah Jaffe

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to Truthout, AlterNet, the Nation, Jacobin and others.
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New York City Council speaker and mayoral hopeful Christine Quinn has allegedly cut funding to districts represented by councilmembers who cross her [AP]

This week, after three years of steadfastly blocking it, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn agreed to a deal that would bring a bill to provide paid sick days for workers to the floor for a vote. Quinn, a mayoral candidate known for ruling the Council with an iron fist, had used her power as Speaker to keep the bill from a floor vote, and fear of retribution to keep her colleagues from using procedural tactics to bring it up in spite of her.

Quinn's politics have shifted markedly since her days as a housing activist. Her opposition to the bill, like billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg's, stemmed from the complaints of business leaders that the bill would be bad for them and threaten the economy. But a combination of pressure from her colleagues on the Council, unions and feminist activists whose opposition to Quinn centred on her position on the bill, finally moved her to compromise.

Passing the bill

The first hint of movement came when Gloria Steinem reiterated that her support for Quinn was contingent on a vote on paid sick days. "Unless Speaker Quinn lets democracy work by allowing the city council to vote on this issue, I say with continuing regret that I won't be able to support her," Steinem said in a statement on February 21. "Making life fairer for all women seems more important than breaking a barrier for one woman."

Shortly afterward, a hearing on the bill was scheduled; that hearing took place March 22. Quinn showed up nearly an hour late, apologised (giving as her excuse that she'd been "at the Chamber of Commerce", which vocally opposes the bill) and then left again about 50 minutes later without having asked a single question.

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But Thursday evening, March 28, the news went out: we have a deal. The compromise bill will cover fewer workers than the original, and will take a year to go into effect, but according to City Councilmember Gale Brewer, the primary sponsor, it will cover 964,000 city workers who did not previously have paid sick days.

One of the factors reportedly steering Quinn toward compromise was that council members - enough of whom cosponsored the bill to ensure a veto-proof majority - have been planning to go around her and bring the bill to the floor. They had previously been unwilling to cross the Speaker so blatantly, but a new urgency (born, in part, of the mayor's race, where Public Advocate Bill deBlasio and City Comptroller John Liu, among other candidates, made paid sick days a central issue with which to attack the perceived front-running Quinn) seemed to have struck.

At the press conference Friday announcing the details of the deal, business leaders and union leaders alike praised Quinn's leadership skills and she discussed her willingness to compromise. But earlier in the week, the New York Times ran a front-page feature on Quinn's "Fury".

What the Times writers termed "brashness" included screaming at other elected officials, slamming her hands on desks, and directing tirades at staffers so loud that they soundproofed her office. The article has drawn comments that it's sexist; that such descriptions of temper are rarely seen in male officials as reasons they shouldn't be elected to office. It's a criticism that, though far from universal, hits home for me - I've watched plenty of men get away with behaviour that mirrors Quinn's and suffer no adverse effects, while women who are perceived as too pushy face consequences.

Petty politics

Perhaps the biggest problem with the article is that in its rush to discuss Quinn's personal roughness, her refusal to behave like a lady, it glosses over something much more important. That Quinn is apparently willing to slash funding and block bills over someone's crossing her is not a claim new to this piece, but it should be of much more concern to people considering electing her mayor than whether she shouts at people (though abusing one's staffers is certainly not acceptable either).

In response to the article, Elizabeth Crowley, councilmember from Queens, told the Times that Quinn cut funding for youth programmes and senior centres in her district after she issued a press conference that failed to give Quinn proper credit for firehouses in her district. "It was so brazenly vindictive, I don't know what else to call it," Crowley told the Times. "She's not hurting me. She's hurting the people I represent, the people of the city of New York."

Another councilmember, Peter F Vallone, also a Democrat from Queens, told the Times that Quinn had cut funding to his district as well. Quinn denied the accusation, but the Times noted that she has wide discretion in distributing an annual pot of some $400 million in funds among the councilmembers.

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If Quinn is really willing to cut funding for Queens kids because a legislator pissed her off, it should concern us much more than her failure to be nice. Not that there's justification for the kind of violent outbursts the article details - but that is, sadly, the kind of behaviour we expect from the Rahm Emanuels of the world, and it certainly didn't stop him from winning his mayor's race.

This kind of behaviour is taken - in men and even occasionally in women - as a sign of "toughness", while behaving in a more stereotypically feminine manner is read as weakness. So Quinn finds herself in a double bind that I've plenty of sympathy for, as a rather "brash" woman myself. But it worries me that we seem to have internalised the lesson that we need to be as aggressive, as cutthroat, as the worst men in order to be successful. Emanuel, after all, is in the process of trying to close 54 Chicago schools after the teachers' union's successful strike - his bullying isn't limited to throwing around the F word.

It's not that Quinn should be able to get away with this kind of behaviour. It's that far too many men do. The solution is not giving Quinn a pass, it's pushing for everyone to be held accountable for abusive, bullying behaviour.

Quinn has come to represent, alongside Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, a new crop of take-no-prisoners women who are open about their desire for and wielding of power, though Sandberg touts a much "nicer" brand of pushing, warning women not to push too hard, to be assertive "with great care". They've been embraced by some feminists as a sign of progress for women, as role models for how to get to the top in a man's world. Yet particularly where Quinn is concerned, there are real questions about how much power for one woman does to help all women gain power, and those questions have less to do with her personal behaviour than they do with the policies she enacts (and those she blocks).

Whether one wants to blast the doors open, or ask nicely before stepping through, the real issue is, as Ellen Bravo, executive director of the Family Values at Work Consortium said, "As much as we care about having more women in power, we care most about having more power in the hands of women and everyone else that's been treated unjustly."

To that end, I'm much more impressed with the news that Quinn made a deal than that she was able to hold out for so long. Allowing workers at the bottom of the economic ladder a little more security will do a lot to build power for all working women, whether they play nice or not.

Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist, a rabblerouser and contributor to TruthoutAlterNetThe NationJacobin and others.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahljaffe

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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