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Christine Quinn's loss in New York: Gender politics? (+video)

Christine Quinn’s loss in the Democratic primary for New York mayor is stirring debate about whether her femaleness, or her homosexuality, played any role in her struggle to win voters.

By Correspondent / September 12, 2013

New York City Democratic mayoral hopeful and City Council Speaker Christine Quinn greets a voter during a campaign stop in the Bronx borough of New York, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2013. Ms. Quinn lost this week's primary election.

Mary Altaffer/AP

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Christine Quinn’s slide from presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York to distant third place finisher has prompted a fresh round of questions about the role of gender in politics.

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Ms. Quinn, the city council speaker who was viewed by many as heir apparent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, struggled to find her footing. Her national television appearances were lackluster, and much was made in the local press about seemingly superficial issues: her red hair, unfussy clothes, and sometimes grating Long Island accent.

But the thumping Quinn took at the polls Tuesday, after she was heralded for so many months as representing the possibility of a first female mayor of New York who is also openly gay, would have been hard to predict. She had visibility, and she had paid her dues in the trenches of city politics. For many, her loss is harkening to another recent rejection of a female candidate who appeared to have victory in her grasp: Hillary Rodham Clinton’s failed run for the presidency.

Quinn’s allies and opponents told the New York Times that “watching her candidacy was like seeing scenes from a depressingly familiar movie – a bad local remake of Clinton 2008.”

The paper reports that, in its polling in conjunction with Siena College, Democratic voters who viewed Quinn unfavorably described her with a series of adjectives perhaps more fitting for a disliked high school student council candidate in a Tina Fey movie: “bossy … self-interested … defensive … mean … ambitious … petty.”

“At some point people will have recognize that women displaying strength and confidence aren’t bossy and mean,” says Sonia Ossorio, president of National Organization for Women New York City, which endorsed Quinn for mayor.

Even with women in power across government and in statehouses, these characterizations seem to dog female candidates but not usually their male counterparts. In fact, New Yorkers have backed many a man who could be described similarly, says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, a unit of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. In recent years alone, think Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani or Michael Bloomberg.

“I grew up in New York and lived in New York a fairly large chunk of my life, and New York elects mayors like that,” Ms. Walsh says. “New Yorkers are comfortable with candidates who have many of those traits.”

She notes: “When attributed to male candidates and male office holders, they’re not impossible hurdles, they’re not a deterrent necessarily.”

So what are the lessons of Quinn’s failure? With just 1 in 10 of the country’s largest cities helmed by a female mayor, what meaning can women candidates around the country extrapolate from her experience? And Clinton’s before her?

And, for that matter, as Clinton weighs another run at the presidency, how might she frame her candidacy differently in 2016?

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