Christine Quinn has exactly an hour for an interview, hard finish at 2:30 p.m. “Let’s talk through the picture,” she suggests as photographer Masato Onoda snaps away in her comfortably no-frills office. Before the bell tolls, Quinn will have discussed Donald Trump; Hillary Clinton; Brexit; the impending French election (we met May 5); Jaqui Lividini; a Titanic survivor (her grandmother); a charming jewelry fascination shared with her sister and late mother, and why she loves politics but not the clothes she wore as a politician.
Mostly, Quinn is revved up to discuss Women in Need, which holds its annual gala tonight. She became the organization’s chief executive officer in November 2015. Quinn speaks with passionate pragmatism, a condition perhaps innate but no doubt honed during her former (and maybe future) life as a hard-scrabble New York politician.(Her career before she lost the 2013 mayoral primary to Bill de Blasio.) She maintains that people have a distorted view of homelessness, believing that most homeless are single men, their plights exacerbated, if not driven, by severe mental illness. She counters that incorrect perception with a statistic: 70 percent of those residing in New York shelters are families; a full quarter, children under the age of five.
“The last thing I want to do is create competition between single homeless people and family homeless,” Quinn says. “But the truth matters. Facts matter.” In this case, not just philosophically but practically. “If you don’t know the facts, and you believe that the vast majority of the homeless are single individuals, then policy and budget and political action will follow the misconception.” Fifty percent of WIN’s clients are employed when they arrive — women with jobs who have been priced out of the city’s housing market.
Hence tonight’s big message, “Forgotten no more,” which will be displayed on major signage at the event. “We got it for practically nothing. Thank you, Peak XV [the designing company].” A stalwart advocate and savvy recipient, Quinn slips strategic acknowledgments into conversation more deftly than a red-carpet actress flashing a borrowed bracelet. She mentions that, with employment initiatives essential to WIN’s work, Fresh Direct and Whole Foods have partnered on job training. Tonight’s cocktail hour will also focus on the work angle, with an installation that tells the stories of several WIN clients. “We’re very grateful to PepsiCo Bottling for sponsoring this,” Quinn offers. Conversely, in making a quick, casual sweep of her office tabletop during the photo session, she tosses aside a bag from a major retailer. “Let’s get this out [of camera range]. They didn’t give us anything,” she says, joking — but not.
In her hyper focus on getting things done (she “can’t imagine not focusing on goals”) and her take-no-prisoners pragmatism, Quinn presents as an archetypal New York pol for the 21st century. Asked what she thought of Hillary Clinton’s assertion last week that, had the election been held on Oct. 27, she would have won, Quinn shrugs it off as a point not worth making. (Clinton referred to the Oct. 28 timing of the James Comey bombshell.) “I love Hillary, but it’s not that significant of a question to me because elections are won and lost on the day they are set to be won and lost. I understand the point she is raising to America, to be aware that what you [think you] see happening isn’t always what you see happening, and that is an important lesson for us to learn, to understand in the context of elections. But there is an election day just like there is a final exam day.”
Which is not to say that Quinn is at all at peace with how the final exam went. She calls Donald Trump “a train wreck. The President of the United States is a train wreck, which would be bad enough. But that train wreck is driven by hatred, a nastiness toward children, a lack of understanding of the significance of the world stage and its complexities. So it is a very, very dangerous situation we are in. And the President is never going to change.”
Yet she sees rays of light. She is heartened by “an amazing resistance that has developed organically. [It’s] about the power and the depth of who America really is. It reminds me that this presidency and all of the hatred it encompasses is the exception, not the rule, of our great democracy.”
About France, Quinn correctly anticipated the win by now President-elect Emmanuel Macron without discounting the power of the conservative nationalism that has infiltrated the Western mind-set across Europe and the U.S. “People need to remember these kind of waves happen in the world. The important thing is not to get sucked down by the wave but to recognize that the way to make it stop crashing on the shore is to do what you’re not supposed to do with waves — to fight it.”
She considers Brexit “a substantively very bad thing for the world and for Europe,” but finds hope in the countermovement across Ireland, “using this as an opportunity not to allow the North of Ireland to be set back further into a colonial state, but instead using it to push forward the idea of a united Ireland, using the documents that came out of the Good Friday Agreement.
“So every bad thing that’s happening, every wave that we feel is going to suck us under, in fact people are resisting and succeeding.”
Irishness comes up often in Quinn’s conversation. When Onoda asks her for a more serious visage for a frame or two, she offers what her wife calls “my default ‘Angela Ashes’ face.” Of the big lavender-and-green banner hanging from a board behind her desk: “That’s when they finally let the gay group in the Irish parade.” Then there’s the story of young Nellie Shine, Quinn’s future maternal grandmother, who survived the most famous at-sea disaster of all time. Orphaned and living with a sister, Nellie was 16 or 17 when poverty dictated that she set sail to join a brother and cousin, already in America. The RMS Titanic “was just the next ship leaving,” with a stop at Cork.
One of the few steerage passengers who survived, Nellie recalled that “when the other girls dropped to their knees to pray, I took a run for it.” Quinn once “snottily” recounted that episode with a priest, telling him, “I guess my grandmother knew that there was a time for praying and a time for running. Quite wisely, he said, ‘No, Christine, your grandmother knew you could pray while running.’”
Quinn learned of Nellie’s run for it not at the dinner table but in a book for which her grandmother was interviewed. Privately, she almost never spoke of the Titanic. “Very Irish,” Quinn says. She only heard her grandmother reference the disaster once, until the ravages of Alzheimer’s struck, “and it was all she talked about, tragically.” Quinn equates the agony of that recall not only to the elder dementia but to undiagnosed, untreated PTSD.
Which brings her back to WIN’s clients. “Not to seem too contrived or forced, but it’s true,” Quinn says. “I’ve thought a lot about those memories of my grandmother and how sad it was for her and all she lost. That could be our children at WIN if we don’t help them. They’ve not been on a sinking ship, but they have been in homes, they’ve been evicted from their homes, they have fled domestic violence, some of them themselves are survivors of rape and sexual assault, they have seen their mothers persevere. I feel fueled by not wanting people to suffer their past.”
The key, she says, requires “providing care and attention and the right professional help.” The WIN approach is decidedly not “three hots and a cot.”
The path to effectiveness differs somewhat from her tenure as Speaker when, she recalls, she could pick up the phone and scream, “F–k you, get this done and get it done now!” and it worked. Now, she explains, “I have to focus my anger more. I think anger is an underrated emotion as an effective one as an advocate and service-provider. And [in the private, nonprofit world] it takes more steps to get things acted upon than it did before.”
Told that runs counter to the typical perception of government as a slow-moving train, Quinn clarifies, “Government is painfully slow, but when you’re Speaker of the City Council, you can scream and yell about the thing in front of you and get it sped up. It’s much harder in this position. But it’s doable and it’s possible.”
Yet not if you’re too easily pleased. Quinn said a problem with private-sector advocacy work is the inclination toward excessive gratitude for what the city provides. “I’m not that grateful. Because what the city gives WIN is only part of what we need to break the cycle of homelessness.”
On the other hand, Quinn expresses deep gratitude to her predecessor Bonnie Stone, who grew WIN to a size where “one can be grateful and unsatisfied all at the same time,” and to fashion’s own Jaqui Lividini, stepping down at the end of June after seven years as board chair. Lauds Quinn, “Jaqui Lividini has been to WIN what Derek Jeter was to the Yankees. She’s the captain.”
While Quinn wants more from the city for WIN, she misses her life in city politics. She muses that perhaps “a little bit of insanity” runs common among those drawn passionately to a life in politics, “and I don’t mean to insult people who are actually insane…I loved being in government. I loved every second of it.”
Well, not every second. Not the clothes. Quinn admits to having been “super boring and, quite frankly, wearing very unflattering things. We were all kind of wedded to this idea of the suit, and it’s not so attractive.”
These days, Quinn favors a polished separates approach that’s more fun if “a smidge of a uniform,” because, in addition to her position at WIN, she a frequent panelist on CNN. (Friday night, she appeared on Anderson Cooper.) She favors solids — patterns “dance on TV.” Today, her “way old” Cole Haan leather jacket tops a J. Crew shell and pants; she notes that invariably when she wears leather on camera, tweets come in asking if she’s auditioning for the role of Rizzo in “Grease.” “But it’s fun to be not so blue-suited anymore.” Completing her typical look: “a chunky necklace,” and today, a special bracelet, silver with a big center stone, in striated earthy tones. Quinn’s older sister is a geologist who long ago got the other Quinn ladies interested in stones from the Southwest. “It’s picture jasper. Every time you cut the stone, it’s a different picture within the stone,” Quinn says, touching the bracelet with the care of remembrance. “My mother [who died when Quinn was a teenager] gave it to me when I was a kid.”
The phone ticks toward 2:30 p.m.. So the essential walk-off question: a return to politics, the next race for governor perhaps? Quinn hopes she’ll find another opportunity “to serve my city and state” but confirms nothing. She reaches back merely a week for an explanatory anecdote, the National Institute for Reproductive Health Luncheon. (She’s on the organization’s board.) “I said that we all planned that we would be standing there, talking about this amazing offensive moment we had with Hillary as president. People plan and God laughs. Who knows?”