Offstage, a Proudly Brash Quinn Isn’t Afraid to Let Her Fury Fly
By MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM and DAVID W. CHEN
Christine C. Quinn was not pleased.
A session of the New York City Council had descended into chaos, and lawmakers were openly questioning her leadership. Ms. Quinn, the Council speaker, decided there was one person to blame: Betsy Gotbaum, then the city’s public advocate, who had been presiding.
The response was sudden and fierce. Ms. Quinn summoned Ms. Gotbaum to an office nearby and, with little warning, began shouting at her in increasingly angry tones about appearing weak in front of other lawmakers.
“You were like Bambi in there!” Ms. Quinn exclaimed, slamming her hand on a table for emphasis, according to Ms. Gotbaum, who was on crutches at the time.
Ms. Gotbaum was stunned. “I didn’t merit that kind of unprofessional behavior,” she said recently.
As she pursues a high-profile bid for mayor, Ms. Quinn, a Democrat, has proudly promoted her boisterous personality, hoping that voters will embrace her blend of brashness and personal charm.
But in private, friends and colleagues say, another Ms. Quinn can emerge: controlling, temperamental and surprisingly volatile, with a habit of hair-trigger eruptions of unchecked, face-to-face wrath.
She has threatened, repeatedly, to slice off the private parts of those who cross her.
She is sensitive to slights: When a Queens councilwoman neglected to credit Ms. Quinn in a news release, the speaker retaliated by cutting money for programs in her district.
Ms. Quinn’s staff, concerned that angry tirades could be overheard by outsiders, added soundproofing to her City Hall office. Wary of her temper, they are known to ask one another: “Did she throw up on you today?”
Ms. Quinn is by no means the first hotheaded politician in New York — Fiorello H. La Guardia and Rudolph W. Giuliani, both former mayors, were famed for their outbursts.
But those who have felt Ms. Quinn’s ire up close — in meetings, on telephone calls, even over lunches in restaurants — say they are often stunned by the intensity of her episodes.
“It’s just old-fashioned screaming, in a way that you just don’t hear that much,” one former city official said, describing a noisy encounter with the speaker.
In an interview last week, Ms. Quinn readily acknowledged her angry moments.
“I don’t think being pushy or bitchy or tough, or however you want to characterize it, is a bad thing,” she said. “New Yorkers want somebody who’s going to get things done.”
“Sometimes I yell, sometimes I raise my voice,” she added. “I am trying to do it less, because it’s not always attractive. It’s not always the right thing to do.”
A former housing activist, Ms. Quinn is an adept practitioner of the arts of municipal power, unrelenting in her negotiations and not afraid to intimidate. Her supporters say she has brought much-needed discipline to a Council once dismissed as ungovernable, hammering out useful legislation and calming relations with the mayor.
More than two dozen current and former city officials, lobbyists and political operatives recounted being berated by Ms. Quinn, but few would speak for the record, citing a fear of retaliation. They offered nearly identical accounts of their altercations, describing a rapid escalation of voice and vitriol, occasionally laced with vulgarity.
“Her eyes get really wide, she points her fingers,” one official said. “She gets really close to you. It’s really in your face.”
A former campaign donor who had been called to Ms. Quinn’s office to discuss a legislative proposal said: “She screamed at me for 10 minutes, uninterrupted, and used the ‘F’-word at least 20 times. I was just so startled, I didn’t know what to do.”
On telephone calls, Ms. Quinn can begin unexpected diatribes, her voice growing so loud that callers often have to hold their phones away from their ears.
“I couldn’t get a word in edgewise,” said one city official, who disagreed with the speaker over a piece of legislation, “so I just hung up.” (Ms. Quinn called back to extend her harangue.)
Ms. Quinn, who often publicly pokes fun at her own brassiness, is fully aware of her aggressive tendencies, once bragging in an interview that she could “open up the bitch tap and let the water run.” In an e-mail exchange with advocates, Ms. Quinn once offered a wry self-description: “control freak! Lol.”
“When I end up yelling, it’s not really deliberate,” Ms. Quinn said last week. “It’s usually out of some moment of passion or frustration or real desire to get unstuck.”
In the interview — which the speaker briefly interrupted to down an Advil with a swig of Starbucks coffee — Ms. Quinn offered no apology for her behavior, saying, “I am who I am.” But she also said she was working on becoming kinder and more measured. “Sometimes I try to give myself a beat or two before I say what I want to say,” she said.
Still, she signaled that modulation was not her top priority.
“At this point in my life, I’m not going to spend a lot of time focusing on dissatisfaction with who I am, and I’m not going to spend a lot of time tempering my personality,” Ms. Quinn said. “Whatever job I have next, I’m going to be somebody who wants to get things done.”
“I want to be a better Chris Quinn,” she added. “I don’t want to be a different Chris Quinn.”
Ms. Quinn is not the only mayoral candidate who has displayed a temper. One of the Republican candidates, Joseph J. Lhota, apologized last year after a board meeting at which he castigated a 77-year-old Holocaust survivor, challenging him to “be a man.”
Ms. Quinn’s aggressive style extends to private sessions with her staff, with whom she can be demanding. Her aides operate under a Quinn-imposed “15-minute rule”: e-mails or text messages from the speaker must be acknowledged within a quarter of an hour, or there will be consequences.
In strategy sessions, Ms. Quinn can speak colorfully of other lawmakers, often saying, “I’m going to cut his balls off.”
In Ms. Quinn’s parlance, the phrase can apply to women, as well: in the interview last week, she volunteered that using that phrase with a gender-neutral pronoun — “their” — is “a good way of doing it, so you don’t have to wonder about the gender.”
In caucus meetings, Ms. Quinn is perceived by lawmakers as aloof and dismissive, rarely looking up from her BlackBerry and loudly cutting off council members who try to raise concerns about pending bills.
At the end of meetings, Ms. Quinn asks, “Any other issues?” She does not wait for the answer before ducking out of the room, adding, “Bye!”
Even those subjected to a Quinn dressing-down say that, in happier times, the speaker is also unusually adept at turning on the charm. Her anger can be followed by bursts of ingratiating sweetness.
Colleagues recall telephone calls on birthdays and cheek-kisses at public functions, only days after a high-decibel shouting session. And the members of her staff are strikingly loyal, with close advisers staying by her side for years.
The yo-yo effect, colleagues and advocates say, is disconcerting, leading them to wonder if Ms. Quinn’s tantrums are a calculated tool to maintain order, or the byproduct of a stormy temperament that even her staff is helpless to soothe.
“She can boomerang from Miss Manners to Archie Bunker in 30 seconds,” said Dan Mathews, a senior vice president for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who clashed with Ms. Quinn over a proposal to ban horse carriages in Central Park.
When Mr. Mathews met Ms. Quinn for lunch at an Italian restaurant in Chelsea, the speaker hollered across the table, “We’re not friends,” drawing stares from other diners. She continued, “If we saw each other on the street, we would hiss at each other.”
“It seemed to me like she was a wrestler jumping in the ring,” Mr. Mathews recalled, “trying to establish her dominance at the get-go.”
Ms. Quinn disputed neither the events of lunch with Mr. Mathews (although she said she viewed the behavior of animal-rights activists as harassing) nor her encounter with Ms. Gotbaum (she is now a fund-raiser for William C. Thompson Jr., another Democratic candidate for mayor). She did, however, deny comparing Ms. Gotbaum to Bambi, saying she had instead described her pleading expression as featuring “Bambi-like eyes.”
Several people said that Ms. Quinn’s anger could extend beyond conversation: as speaker, she has used her control of the Council’s funding accounts to punish members who have defied her.
When Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley issued a statement to community newspapers in her Queens district that took credit for saving local firehouses from the annual budget ax, she failed to praise Ms. Quinn. Within an hour, Ms. Crowley was called into a room at City Hall, where a livid Ms. Quinn began to shout at her, demanding to know who had authorized what she considered to be a premature and poorly worded release.
An aide to Ms. Quinn, Ramon Martinez, criticized Ms. Crowley’s abilities as a lawmaker, at one point telling her, “You don’t know when to shut up,” according to people familiar with the episode. (Mr. Martinez, in an interview, said he did not recall using those words at the time, but added, “I certainly could have said that to her” in a separate conversation.)
Shaken, Ms. Crowley left, thinking the worst was over. Days later, she learned that Ms. Quinn had cut the Council contributions to senior centers and youth sports programs in her district. The two now rarely speak.
Asked about the episode last week, Ms. Quinn said that Ms. Crowley had committed “a completely inappropriate, attention-grabbing act” and violated Council protocol. “She was told it was not acceptable, and I did not mince words in telling her that,” she said.
Did Ms. Crowley have her funding cut as a punishment? “It is what happened that year,” Ms. Quinn replied.
Pressed on whether the move was an act of retaliation, Ms. Quinn just smiled: “It is what happened that year,” she said again, signaling that the matter was closed.