Christine Quinn: ‘The best job I’ve ever had was being on the City Council’

The former Speaker spoke to New York’s newest leaders at City & State’s annual City Council Retreat.

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn speaks at City & State’s annual City Council Retreat at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan Friday

Former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn speaks at City & State’s annual City Council Retreat at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in Lower Manhattan Friday Ralph R. Ortega

Christine Quinn spoke to new and old New York City Council members attending a retreat in Lower Manhattan Friday about her experience serving as Speaker, saying what she knew for certain about the job. 

“It really is an honor to be with you all today, because the best job I've ever had was being on the city council. It is the form of government closest to the citizenry of New York. So the potential to make a difference is enormous. But the potential to get overwhelmed and not know where to start is also tremendous,” she told attendees at City & State’s New York City Council Members Retreat, hosted at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. 

And as Speaker, to lead effectively, Quinn, now CEO of the shelter and supportive housing nonprofit Win,  stressed the importance of managing tasks into small achievable goals. 

“You are a co-equal branch of government. Even when you don't believe it, pretend you believe because it gives you a power to override vetoes, to put out your own budgets to do things that don't always seem obvious.,” she told attendees. “Now, how do you start making a difference? The best advice I can give you, and it's what I learned at the City Council and it's what has been reinforced at Win, is to start small.” 

Quinn’s remarks were part of her keynote speech at the annual event, which gathers elected officials and public policy experts to discuss a broad array of topics to help new Council members, in particular, learn what to expect from the job. 

Quinn continued on how Council members should first approach the job. 

“Start small in two ways,” she said. “On a big issue, like homelessness, start small, you can’t tear down decades and centuries of the impact of racism and discrimination, redlining and all in one step. But you can do things that will add up like pieces in a puzzle that will make a difference.”

Quinn next noted the importance of collaborating with other Council members to pass bills.

“Two, work with your colleagues. You really can't pass a bill, if it's just you. That's true in the city council. It's true in any legislative body,” she told attendees. “Work with your colleagues, work with all your colleagues.”

She made a shout out to Jimmy Oddo, now commissioner of the Buildings Department under the Adams administration. “My closest ally was Jimmy Oddo, the minority leader. You tell people that and they giggle like it's not true. But it was absolutely true,” she said.  “Work with everybody … There is no better compliment than being asked for help.”

Quinn underscored the importance of having “fun,” something she also was advised to do, but didn’t follow through on. 

“It's the greatest job. You have a direct line to make things happen for the people in your district, to make things happen for the communities you care about,” she said. “You can cause real change, you can override the veto of the mayor […] you have a lot of power. You have great colleagues, outstanding staff, have fun.”

Quinn also did speak of her post Council life at Win. She dispelled assumptions on the homeless demographic by stressing that the vast majority of people in shelter tend to be families with children. Through Win’s efforts, 91% of those placed in housing in 2022 had not returned to shelters, despite high recidivism rates.  Quinn also briefly touched on rampant substance abuse and mental health challenges faced by shelter residents and families. She said Win is aiming to ensure that 70% of the homeless population will soon have access to mental health services.  

Quinn was introduced by Beth Finkel, state director of AARP, who brought attention to New York’s aging population and the importance that policymakers recognize their needs. 

“For New York City, the 65 plus population increased by 36% [from 2011-2021]. When you add to that, the number of older adults who are now living below the poverty line increased again, 37%. And the number of older adults who are immigrants in New York also grew to 49%. Bronx, 35%, Queens, 39%, Brooklyn, 36%, and Manhattan, 33% and Staten Island by 13%,” she told attendees. “I don't need to also remind you that older New Yorkers vote, so there's a direct line between how we look at what older New Yorkers leave, and honestly what they deserve, because they built our city.”