Christine Quinn's loss in New York: Gender politics?

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.

Mary Altaffer/AP
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.

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.

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?

Identity politics don’t always rule the day. So running exclusively with a “girl power” agenda doesn’t necessarily serve to attract voters. But running away from who you are or, perhaps more specifically, not finding a way to articulate the policies that might woo people like you can be a mistake, Walsh says.

“Whether you talk about it or you don’t talk about it people notice that you’re a woman so you might as well embrace it,” Walsh says.

Clinton didn’t aim to be the woman candidate in 2008 until too late in the game to make a difference. She, like Quinn in New York, wanted to be judged on the merits of her service and ideas. Noble, maybe, but slightly misguided.

Voters like to like their candidates, to see in them a part of themselves. And it was only when Clinton appeared to get misty in New Hampshire – to show human, female even, emotion – that the tides of her campaign started to turn and female voters began to sympathize with her effort and her fight.

Walsh says Quinn’s inability to discuss with a passion those economic issues that most occupy the concerns of women and families – like paid sick leave or child care – hurt her. Bill de Blasio, the apparent nominee, did better.

“I think Bill de Blasio ran on those issues,” Walsh says of the city’s public advocate, who, though ballots are still being cast, appears to have won enough of the vote to avoid a run-off for the Democratic mayoral nod.

Gloria Steinem, who endorsed Quinn, told the New York Times that Mr. de Blasio effectively “took over the language of gender.”

And then there’s the issue of image. Voice, hair, clothes. Certainly all manner of females hold elected office in this country. A cookie cutter look or way isn’t a requirement of office.

But fair or not, voters – and the media – notice and take note of these facets of their women candidates. Men wear a suit uniform; women have and likely always will have a variety of ways to express their taste and style through their appearance.

After all, how much of cyberspace has been devoted to First Lady Michelle Obama’s arms, or New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s post-baby weight loss regimen, or Texas state Sen. Wendy Davis’s pink sneakers?

And Quinn, the New York Times reported, resisted the entreaties of allies, including Bloomberg’s partner, Diana Taylor, to smooth her rough edges, to temper her toughness, to make her more likable. No voice coach for her.

“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,” Quinn said.

But remember that scene in The Iron Lady – the cinematic telling of Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power in England – in which Meryl Streep as Thatcher worked to drop her voice to a more appealing lower register?

And Clinton, for her part, has grown her hair long since 2008 and is working hard to recast herself as funny, not strident. Approachable even. That Internet meme, Texts From Hillary, is one much-reported example. She seems to have registered a message from 2008, when the hyper image-conscious campaign of then-Sen. Barack Obama overtook her effort.

“You have to take time to think about the image issues,” Walsh says.

For now, though, the postscripts analyzing Quinn’s failings will sprout. The calls for more female candidates will continue. And the power of the women’s vote, it’s been noted anew Tuesday, doesn’t always translate to female office holders.

To win, it’s just not enough to be a woman.

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