New York City primaries are becoming the place where frontrunners go to die. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who had been preparing for to run for mayor for years, imploded on Tuesday night, getting a little more than 15% of the vote, a stunning end to a long-crafted political career.
If running for mayor was a board game, Quinn would have won. The City Council speaker raised the most money, collected the backing of plenty of unions and elected officials, and won newspaper endorsements, including the support of the coveted New York Times.
But this election is quickly teaching us that the old rules may no longer govern the game. Bill de Blasio didn't spend a dollar on campaign mailings and I can't think of any major publication that backed him – besides the Nation. With its generous public matching funds system, the city's Campaign Finance Board helped level the playing field, softening Quinn's early fundraising advantages.
Quinn also didn't do the math in this year's political equation. Because there was an African-American candidate, she was never going to win the majority of the black vote. And in the wake of her orchestration of overriding term-limits in the City Council, she had alienated a large percentage of white liberals, who were first considering voting for Anthony Weiner before settling on the far-more-palatable Bill de Blasio.
Stoking the fires, an anti-Quinn group spent at least $768,000 trashing her record and unfairly blaming her for the closing of St. Vincent's Hospital in her district. But for much of the summer, Quinn adopted a Rose Garden strategy, largely ignoring those attacks – while her rivals also slammed her on an almost-daily basis. By the time she put forward an argument that the other candidates weren't qualified to be mayor, it was too late. A whopping 57% of primary voters had an unfavorable view of Quinn when they headed to their polling place.
The lessons of Quinn's fall are many. She is now the third City Council Speaker to run for mayor and all three candidacies have been train wrecks. Never running for citywide office before is clearly a disadvantage for the speaker – as well as having to take the blame for anything negative the Council does. (In this case, term limits.) It's far easier running for mayor from the bully pulpit of being the Public Advocate or a Borough Presidency.
In addition, the instructions for the city's political game need to be rewritten. Identity politics, while still there, is fading. Women and gays – two groups you'd think would be behind Quinn – preferred de Blasio. In the end, Quinn had no base and her ambitious political life may suddenly be over because of some dreadful miscalculations.
Correction: In my conversation with Pat Kiernan this morning, I said that the runoff debate in the mayor’s race – if there is one – would be on Sept. 17th. After the runoff primary date was moved to Oct. 1, the Campaign Finance Board moved the date of its debate to Monday, Sept. 23rd.